Will People Please Stop Saying God Particle?

LHC OverheadWhile looking for something else I’ll blog about in a short while, I stumbled upon one of the most annoying of the articles on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN (or any other particle physics experiment) that I’ve read in a long time. This is because of this utterly ridiculous business of calling the Higgs particle the “God particle”. Who started this? It really is so misleading and annoying. The title of the Guardian article is “In the beginning: scientists get ready to hunt for God particle”, and it is by Ian Sample. Some random bits:

It should certainly discover what some call the “God particle”, finally answering the embarrassingly simple but elusive question of why things have mass.

and…

Finding the Higgs boson will confirm scientists’ most complete theory of the universe and the matter from which it is created. “It’s probably the closest to God that we’ll get,” said Jos Engelen, Cern’s chief scientist.

Aaaaargh!!!

Some?! Who are these people who call it the “God particle”?! If you know anybody in the field who calls it the “God particle” (or even out of the field, for that matter) please write in and say. It could simply be that I don’t know these people since I am an irrelevant theorist.

And if that wasn’t enough, before I finished reading, I got to savour paragraphs like the one below, where I can’t even begin to imagine how the reporter could have got things so garbled. Note that typically no actual scientist involved in the piece is allowed to check stuff like this because of the internal editorial policies of these sorts of publications – and of course the general “who cares anyway?” attitude to science coverage:

Other experiments will veer sharply into what has previously been the realm of science fiction. Some scientists believe the universe has more dimensions than the ones we know about. In one extra dimension gravity is believed to be exceptionally strong. If the collider momentarily wedges extra dimensions open, it could release a powerful tug of gravity that compresses matter so much it creates a miniature black hole.

Aaaargh!!!*

-cvj

(*Imagine me running around in tight circles with my hands on the side of my head… screaming. For a full minute.)

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65 Responses to Will People Please Stop Saying God Particle?

  1. Cameron says:

    Wasn’t it Leon Lederman who coined that expression?

  2. Scott H. says:

    Teresi and Lederman wrote a book with the title “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?” (Tried to link to the Amazon page, but according to the preview it came out all wonky.) And yes, the “God Particle” of the title does in fact refer to the Higgs.

  3. Moshe says:

    Yeah, it was Leon Lederman who coined this unfortunate term in his popular book. I really could not imagine which particle he meant when hearing about the book at first.

    This could be the start of a new audience participation post, the most annoying physics term. On the other hand we already have the probable winner.

  4. Pyracantha says:

    It’s sort of like me and “Xena Warrior Princess.” During my academic years I was a classical scholar and when I saw Xena (or her writers) mangling Classical Greek and Roman culture I also went “Aaaargh!.” But in this case, we non-physicist readers don’t know why you are going “aaargh.” I’ve heard all of those concepts responsibly spoken of in respectable science-writing venues. Where is the “aaaarrgh” part?

  5. Clifford says:

    Pyracantha… you don’t have to be a scientist to see that calling something the “God Particle”, and saying all that nonsense about closeness to God, etc, is just trash. Misleading unhelpful trash. God is simply irrelevant here. Why confuse people?

    And the last paragraph…. It is just terrible. “Wedges extra dimensions open”…. “release a powerful tug of gravity”…. So many phrases in that paragraph have problems. I don’t know where to begin.

    -cvj

  6. Clifford says:

    Dear All,

    I agree that the most prominent use is probably Lederman’s book, but I was wondering (a) If anyone knows if it predates Lederman, and (b) If anyone actually usese the term, as claimed by the article.

    -cvj

  7. candace says:

    Aw, Clifford, you sound like you need a nice cup of tea and a sit down. I hate the phrase ‘God Particle’, too. One of my work colleagues innocently photocopied that story from the Guardian and put it on my desk, to which I replied, ‘bollocks.’ Dispelling the mini-black holes nonsense one person at a time!

    I heard a talk recently from one of the chaps here working on LHC and he despaired both at the term ‘God particle’ and the persistent media coverage of those infernal mini-black holes.

    Anyway, I just don’t understand what’s wrong with just calling it the Higgs?!

  8. Clifford says:

    Hi Candace…. I don’t mind articles mentioning the possibility of mini-black holes….(although, you are right, there is an obsession with them… but understandably so) I’d just like the explanations about why the might appear to be done properly. Phrases like “Wedges extra dimensions open”…. “release a powerful tug of gravity”…. drive me to despair.

    Best,

    -cvj

  9. LeisureGuy says:

    Maybe the “H” in “Jesus H Christ” is for “Higgs”: Jesus Higgs Christ. Thus: the God particle, since it was named after Jesus’ middle name? 🙂

  10. Clifford says:

    Ha HA! That’s good… really good.

    -cvj

  11. Scott H. says:

    but I was wondering (a) If anyone knows if it predates Lederman, and (b) If anyone actually usese the term, as claimed by the article.

    The only time I have heard anyone use the phrase it has been in connection with Lederman; e.g., I’ve heard (in colloquia, in popular talks) things like “the Higgs particle, which Lederman has nicknamed ‘The God Particle’, …”. I’ve never heard the phrase used on its own.

  12. John Hunter says:

    Great post. The Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT is an interesting blog covering science journalism. They often point to good stores but are don’t shy away when necessary, such as recently: “The Tracker saw on Saturday a story in his local SF Chronicle too idiotically reported to bother with. But then AP picked it up, too.”

  13. Elliot says:

    Clifford rails about Ian’s intentions
    when speaking of extra dimensions
    guardian article
    describes the God particle
    brings feelings too awful to mention

  14. Clifford says:

    Elliot, how on earth do you do those so well?

    John Hunter… thanks for the link!

    -cvj

  15. Blake Stacey says:

    Carl Sagan had a wonderful line on this topic in The Demon-Haunted World. I lent my copy to a friend, but quoting from memory, I can say it went much like this. “If physicists fail to find the Higgs boson, will the God hypothesis be disproved?”

  16. Plato says:

    I discovered why that happens Clifford.. err… the “God” Implication attached to the unexpected?

    It’s a monstrous plan taken from the, “EM pharmacological dictionary

    So rest easy then, it’s not voluntary. 🙂

  17. Moshe says:

    More nitpicking:

    1. Most of the mass around us is in the form of hadrons, and is largely insensitive to the coupling to the Higgs. The Higgs is then not the “origin of mass” in any meaningful way. Not sure if that fact makes it more or less godlike.

    2. In any event, it is the Higgs field, not the Higgs particle, that gives the mass to the heavy quarks and the W,Z.

    3. As I once mentioned on Mark’s old blog, this is all missing great opportunity to explain the fascinating concept of symmetry breaking, which is the truly the interesting physics of the Higgs field (or whatever else it is that breaks electroweak symmetry). Incidentally, how does one explain the Higgs mechanism in a way that does not conflate it with breaking of global symmetry, which is an entirely different beast?

  18. Doug Joners says:

    OMG – I HATE GOD 2! we should hate god together! lets kill god! make sure that every referrence to god everywhere should be taken off cuz god sucks and isn’t real. ur so rite and awesome!

  19. Clifford says:

    Moshe:- I very much agree with you on (3)… People really get excited when one explains the symmetry breaking aspect, talking about phase transitions and analogies to things around us. Much more satisfying (and fundamental) aspect of the physics… I’m not sure what is best with regards local vs global though….. I think I punt the distinction and focus on the symmetry concept.

    -cvj

  20. Clifford says:

    Doug Joners…. steady on…. you seemed to have missed the point a bit. This is nothing to do with hating God or whatever.. it is to do with using spectacularly misleading and confusing terms when telling the general public about what is going on in science….

    Best,

    -cvj

  21. Moshe says:

    I am conflicted about the distinction between global and local, I think they are different beasts altogether. In other words where the breaking of global symmetry (and the global symmetry itself) is a clean concept that is nice to explain to non-experts, I am not so sure what is the clean concept behind the local symmetry and its breaking, or even if there is one. Both sometimes seem more like technicalities to do specifically with perturbation theory, in particular the word “symmetry” in that context I think is misleading.

  22. Clifford says:

    I’m not sure it is entirely misleading, but I take your point…. I try to emphasoze the phase transition aspect a lot, and so perhaps I’m a bit less vunerable in that regard…..

    -cvj

  23. Aaron F. says:

    Maybe the “H” in “Jesus H Christ” is for “Higgs”: Jesus Higgs Christ. Thus: the God particle, since it was named after Jesus’ middle name? 🙂

    I always thought the “H.” stood for “haploid.” 😉

    Where is the “aaaarrgh” part?

    For me, it’s the implication that the Higgs is somehow special — a g-d among particles, if you will. The origin of mass is fascinating, but it is hardly THE most fundamental question in physics.

  24. Jeff Harvey says:

    Cliff, Moshe it is difficult to explain the Higgs mechanism in a non-technical yet accurate
    way to the layman, at least for me.

    But certainly you know that in gauge theory only gauge invariant
    operators have vacuum expectation values. The Higgs field is not gauge invariant. It
    doesn’t have an expectation value. The symmetry is not broken. If there were a broken
    symmetry there would be Nambu-Goldstone bosons, which of course there aren’t. Gauge
    symmetry is not a symmetry of the configuration space, it is a redundancy in the
    description. Yadda yadda yadda. Of relevance in this regard is an old result of Fradkin
    and Shenker (and perhaps others) showing that in gauge theories with Higgs fields
    in the fundamental representation there is no distinction between the Higgs phase
    and the confining phase.

  25. Clifford says:

    Of course, you’re right to be careful Jeff… the root of the problem is indeed that gauge symmetry isn’t a symmetry at all in the usual sense….. and so the language leaves us piling more inadequate analogies on top of each other…. so in this much more careful analysis of what is (and is not) going on, my use of phase transitions and the like to come up with layperson explanations do indeed need a helping of salt.

    I see no reason, in general, not to sacrifice some accuracy if need be in these descriptions to the layperson. As long as one is careful to explain that one is using an analogy or several analogies to get at the concept. And – to any layperson reading – it is not because the layperson is limited in their capacity to understand….. it is often because we are *all* limited, in a manner of speaking, in our ability to describe or comprehend aspects of nature in everyday terms. Take for example all that confusion about quantum mechanics -is light it a particle or a wave- …yadda yadda yadda.. This comes from us trying to put the phenomenon into a familiar setting from everyday life. In fact, it is neither of those… it is just light, and we describe it with this remarkable formalism called quantum mechanics that has aspects of particles and waves in it, but is much more than that. We just can’t put it into words, even for ourselves, much less for people unfamiliar with the equations.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  26. Cynthia says:

    Wait a moment! The last time I saw “The God Particle” being used was in Leon Lederman’s (1994) “The God Particle”. I hate to think that “The God Particle” is making yet another quantum loop in 2006-pop-physics.;)

  27. Moshe says:

    Hey again, my point was that this is not just a matter of the pompous language, there is actually a physics point involved. The relation of the Higgs particle to the symmetry breaking is description-dependent. Since there is no order parameter associated with the electroweak symmetry breakling there may well be other descriptions, in them the Higgs particle is just another bound state with no particular relation to the mechanism (in that case confinement) giving mass to the massive gauge bosons, the heavy quarks, and the Higgs itself.

  28. Moshe says:

    Seems like I made up yet another English word, wonder what “breakling” may mean…

  29. Clifford says:

    “breakling”:- It is a very short, surreptitious tea break that has not been sanctioned by your employer, but one day might grow up to be a proper and official break.

    -cvj

  30. Moshe says:

    Oh, and the reference I had in mind is

    A Confining Model Of The Weak Interactions.
    L.F. Abbott, E. Farhi (CERN) . CERN-TH-3057, Mar 1981. 12pp. Published in Nucl.Phys.B189:547-556,1981.

    Now I will crawl back into my cave…

  31. Clifford says:

    Well, in a way, it is the reorganisation that is the key point, in a way. The theory completely reorganises its degrees of freedom between the two “phases”. This is certainly physical, and we can still use the word phase legitimately if we broaden the language a bit. The existence of other descriptions does not, of course, make a particular description wrong…. although sometimes it is more useful to use one description over another depending upon where you’re going with it. But I’m certainly not saying anything that either of you have not thought of yourselves, I sure.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  32. Elliot says:

    Clifford,

    Thanks. Uh I don’t know. Maybe it’s a gift from God 😉

    Elliot

  33. Clifford says:

    You’re saying your talent did not evolve? 😉

    -cvj

  34. Plato says:

    Clifford:And – to any layperson reading – it is not because the layperson is limited in their capacity to understand….. it is often because we are *all* limited, in a manner of speaking, in our ability to describe or comprehend aspects of nature in everyday terms.

    This is good to know Clifford. We can’t always agree with the professor, even if we lack the credentials.

    For the lay people then.

    Higg’s Mechanism-To understand the Higgs mechanism, imagine that a room full of physicists chattering quietly is like space filled with the Higgs field …

  35. Elliot says:

    I guess it has evolved. I tell you one thing that might not be all that obvious. Limericks are really easy. Haiku is really hard.

    Elliot

  36. Clifford says:

    “Limericks are really easy. Haiku is really hard.”

    I would have put that down as an obvious guess. I certainly am not surprised abotu that. This is why I am impressed that you do them too. I recall one or two from another thread., I think.

    -cvj

  37. Holmes says:

    Equally annoying are “smoking gun” and “holy grail”. I liked it when a spoof paper on the arxiv spoke of “the smoking grail for string theory”….

  38. Jake Danger says:

    God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle God particle! (:

  39. Holmes says:

    By the way, what is the superpartner of the god particle? Godino?

  40. A. says:

    His name must be

    God’No

  41. Charles says:

    What a shame there’s no anti-Higgs. All those jokes about the Devil particle that we are missing as a result 😉

  42. Elliot says:

    are we sure the anti-Higgs is not responsible for “dark” energy 😉

    Elliot

  43. Richard says:

    I was once told that the phrase came from the SSC hearings, during which one of the congressmen asked a physicist (according to my googling efforts, it was Steven Weinberg) if the collider would allow us to find God.

    This story is probably made up though – I searched on google and could only find a few references.

  44. Belizean says:

    How to pocket easy money. Just shop proposals for books with either of the following titles

    The God String: How stunning new physics is unraveling the face of the Almighty
    The God Brane: How stunning new physics is unwrapping the face of the Almighty

    And no, I don’t know what it means to unravel a face. But that won’t keep the proposal from being sold.

  45. Plato says:

    Charles:What a shame there’s no anti-Higgs. All those jokes about the Devil particle that we are missing as a result

    http://lhc.web.cern.ch/lhc/images/LHC.gif

    This image had horns drawn on it, with a tail attached. Something about “angels and demons?” I don’t think we should take the “anti” too literal in face of an outcome, or should we?

    Interview with Rolf Landua

    Antimatter challenges our intuition about matter. Imagine a solid object, like a coin. Bring it together with an “anti-coin”, and both disappear into a flash of energy. It seems impossible that apparently solid things just evaporate into radiation, but this is exactly what happens!

  46. Plato says:

    And just to drive the point home about the image above, the image below should help with regards to the inclinations of scientists to do what you do not like Clifford?

    http://public.web.cern.ch/Public/Objects/Chapters/Education/OnlineResources/GameRules/LHC.jpg

    While it has been ignored, “the cosmic particle article link” for your readers, it was not just there that such thoughts were created? People are excited.

    The LHC is a synchrotron. A synchrotron accelerates particles by having them travel around and around in a vacuum tube. The LHC will have two such tubes placed side by side so that the same kind of particles – protons – can be accelerated in opposite directions and then smashed into each other.

    Hopefully, the understanding of the image in above post with horns and a tail, is now understood?

    Tried to keep is short and to the point.

  47. Jon says:

    Simply an abbreviation:
    God-damned-where-it-is particle.

  48. The H in Jesus H. Christ stands for Harold. You know, Our father who art in Heaven, Harold be thy name.

    Any way, “The God Particle” was coined partly to encourge George Senior into funding the Superconducting Super Collider because of his religious tendencies. The SSC should have had enough power to discover the higgs. Its a shame that Clinton cancled the huge atom smasher. Not only did he have it cancled, he had them destroy all the work that was already completed. Now all the high energy physicists are going to go to europe next year when their collider is complete. So now we are not only loosing low wage jobs to NAFTA but we are also loosing our scientific jobs. Thanks Bill.

    I have my own idea of what a “God Particle” should be. I came up with this before I heard of all this Higgs = God Particle nonsense. Some people think it’s far fetched but is an external link on Wikipedias god article, was in a
    google awnsers article, and featured on one senitors web page (the furgeson (sp) report). So, go to http://WWW.Freewebs.com\thegodparticle. Hope you find something interesting.

  49. sorry, the link on my name was incorrect.

  50. andy says:

    I had always wondered about the H in Jesus H Christ.

  51. Kevin says:

    Have any of you actually read “The God Particle” by Leon Lederman? I’m reading it for school right now. In it he says “One, the publishers wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection of sorts, to another book, a much older one …” (Lederman 22), after which point he connects it to the story of the tower of Babel in order to show how its discovery would make the universe more simple, in essence undoing the tower of Babel. He was not saying that it was the God of all particles or that it was related to god in any way, it was a metaphor and a joke. He just thought it was funny. Calling the Higgs Boson the “God Particle” is stupid because he was just joking when he named it that and he only repeated it over and over again to be funny.

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  54. herman greenstein says:

    some people compare ‘atom-smashing’ to taking something like a Vacheron watch and hurling it into a brick wall with all your TEVs and then saying, “Well that’s how it works!”

  55. herman greenstein says:

    Nature, it seems, is the popular name
    for milliards and milliards and milliards
    of particles playing their infinite game
    of billiards and billiards and billiards.

    “ATOMYRIADES” by Piet Hein (Danish mathematician and poet)

  56. SJ Lewis says:

    Aw, c’mon, people. There’s something that enables everything, we know it’s there, but we can’t id it. I must know something that you don’t know…

  57. herman greenstein says:

    maybe THATS why we cant stop saying “GOD PARTICLE!”. GOD IS A HIGGS BOSON! (Eh? It’s clear as mud.) (SJ Lewis or CS?)

  58. herman greenstein says:

    “I’d like to know
    What this whole show
    Is all about
    Before it’s out.”

    thats more Piet Hein (i call him ‘Poet’)

  59. herman greenstein says:

    Piet Hein wrote over 7,000 poems like that one. He called them ‘grooks’. Grok it?

  60. herman greenstein says:

    …if we cant find the Higgs Boson then lets find a hoggs bison(ha!)

  61. yanni says:

    the only time i heard of the god particle instead of the higgs boson is in Angels and Demons!!!!!!!!!!!

  62. Dave says:

    According to the Amazon page, Lederman hoped the book would garner support for the Superconducting Super Collider at the University of Texas. Possibly the term was meant to appeal to pious politicians. It would be a non-coincidental compromise which happened to be futile.

  63. herman greenstein says:

    Peter Higgs proposed the existence of something that gives “stuff” its mass. That something is called the ‘Higgs boson’. It seems to satisfy some way of thinking about the way nature ‘is’. Now, if this ‘boson’ doesn’t really exist, then we can say, “Heter Piggs discovered the Hoggs Bison(!)”