What “The God Particle” Hath Wrought

You’ve doubtless heard the joke: We can’t call the Higgs boson the “God Particle” any more, because now we have tangible evidence that it exists.

But the label “God Particle,” attached to the poor unsuspecting Higgs boson by Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi, continues to wreak havoc on physicists’ attempts to clearly explain what is going on. Last week’s announcements from CERN that the new particle discovered last July is looking more and more like the Higgs predicted by the Standard Model generated stories like this one, from CBS news:

The Higgs boson is often called “the God particle” because it’s said to be what caused the “Big Bang” that created our universe many years ago. The nickname caught on so quickly (even though scientists and clergy alike do not care for it) partly because it’s a great explanation of what it’s supposed to do — the Higgs boson is what joins everything and gives it matter.

That might be the worst paragraph I’ve ever read about the Higgs boson, and I’ve read quite a few. (H/t Faye Flam.) Originally I thought the journalist was just making things up, but it turns out that it’s Michio Kaku’s fault. (H/t Matt Strassler on Facebook.) There is a video linked to the article, in which Kaku says that the Higgs helped cause the Big Bang, and that’s why it’s called the God Particle. Another example where it would have been tempting to rag on sloppy popular journalism, where actually it’s a supposed scientist who is largely to blame. (Although the above paragraph is also wrong about things it should be easy to get right.)

For the record, the Higgs had nothing whatsoever to do with causing the Big Bang. (Kaku tries to link it to inflation, but they’re not related.) It also doesn’t “join everything,” whatever that means. It does give mass to elementary particles like electrons and quarks, which isn’t the same as giving “matter” (since that kind of doesn’t make any sense), and besides which it doesn’t give mass to protons and neutrons and therefore most of the mass in ordinary objects.

The “God Particle” label, despite being very catchy and therefore leading to more publicity than most elementary particles manage to muster, has done more harm than good for the public understanding of science. Non-experts, hearing that physicists have named something after God, might actually think they were being serious. Imagine that.

[Update: Matt Strassler adds his take.]

It’s not going away any time soon. Leon Lederman and Chris Hill have a sequel to the original book coming out, Beyond the God Particle, due later this year. I’m sure the book will be great at explaining the physics, and I’m equally sure the title will generate a lot more confusion. Get your disclaimers ready!

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95 Responses to What “The God Particle” Hath Wrought

  1. Ron says:

    For a popular article on where proton mass arises from QCD, let me recommend Wilzcek’s Origin of Mass (pdf)

  2. jschoe16 says:

    BTW , Just this comment section of the[ article] is like a particle physics book!,( alot of information to follow up on to learn)
    just saved $12 , lol kiddin’
    very interesting! thanks yall

  3. James Gallagher says:

    Hi vmarko,

    you won’t get an ab inito prediction from the Standard Model because the Standard Model isn’t the ab inito description of the universe.

    Now praise those computer models more please – it’s kind of heroic given our current ignorance.

    And Sean is making a good point, some of of you seem to be saying the bog standard (valence) quarks contribute to the proton mass rather than all the virtual interactions going on – well you really need to explain that a bit more clearly.

  4. James Gallagher says:

    I don’t even have the 15 mins to edit my post anymore – edit “ab initio”

  5. frank close says:

    Without Higgs the proton would be heavier than neutron (electrostatic energy). However, the scale of their masses O(1 GeV) would be pretty mush the same. Simplest example for the long confusing discussion above: A massless fermion confined in infinite high potential radius R has energy \sim pi/R hence hundreds MeV for R \sim 1fm (that is essence of MIT bag model). Details of how this confinement arises just muddy the waters (at least for the present discussion).

    That pedogagic example of how even massless quarks gain total energy, which is manifested as the mc^2 of the whole is the nub. All other discussion about role of gluons, virtual qq* muddy the waters – important for understanding how confinement arises but not essential for this specific issue of why p/n have mass even without Higgs.

    Beware of splitting into q and virtual qqbar etc as you run into problems of infinity if not careful (which is all in my book The Infinity Puzzle which also answers some of the confusions that seem widespread and gives a pedagogic explanation of why “infinite” masses, when virtual fields are included, are actually finite – there’s plenty of virtual pairs buried in the H atom for example).

    On Monday I am due to be interviewed by M Kaku who started all this debate. Hopefully the level of hype will approach teh spin of the Higgs :)

  6. James Gallagher says:

    Hi frank

    I purchased the original edition of your ‘The Cosmic Onion’ back in the 1980s, really stimulating intro to particle physics for this then teenager.

    However, are you claiming that a calculation for proton mass without “muddying the waters” with virtual interactions is possible?

  7. Frank says:

    Could someone tell me why Michio Kaku is wrong? Is it because his statement is purely conjecture? Does it have some sort of theoretical basis way out in left field? or is it proven to be untrue and completely unrelated to the big bang?

    I’m guessing it’s purely conjecture. Which leaves me asking when did the Higgs field start to do its thing?

  8. Frank says:

    I’m not making some snarky comment against Kaku, I really just don’t know much about the Higgs. Was it a slip of the tongue or something more?

  9. Was it a slip of the tongue or something more?

    Last night I tried to think of a non-physics claim comparable to Kaku’s statement that “it was a Higgs-like particle that sparked the cosmic explosion. In other words, everything we see around us, including galaxies, stars, planets and us, owes its existence to the Higgs boson.” I came up with: “ketchup comes from cocaine.”

    You can start waving your hands about ketchup and cocaine both being derived from plants that evolved in similar regions of the world, but the natural response to this statement is: WTF? This is the response of physicists to Kaku’s claim.

  10. Romulo Binuya says:

    I’m a layman but nonetheless interested in both the Lambda-CDM model and the Higgs mechanism, perhaps Kaku is up to something, there must be reasons and he might explain it later.. best if he could explain along the way about baryonic asymmetry and how gravity gather the outward spray of quark soup :-)

    Beyond the expanding universe there is nothing, not even empty space where time could exist… because as far as mathematics can confidently simulate, the universe space and time and everything in it expanded from 10^-33 meter singularity at 10^-43 second… I think, anything is mathematically possible at that point.

    Perhaps Kaku don’t have the data yet that’s why he couldn’t shut up and calculate. He maybe is audacious but with such remarks he raised the interest of the public about science, some did the same raising of interest thing by elaborately displaying the schrodinger equation in a motorway billboard in London. Besides, capitalism dictated that scientists must be strictly on specialization, it’s a good thing Kaku is linking two fields of studies contrary to what capitalism demands. I agree and disagree at the same time with Kaku, this post collapse my wavefunction into agreeing with him, but that doesn’t mean I won’t hit Kaku at other sites 😀

  11. frank close says:

    James Gallagher: Frightening how long ago The Cosmic Onion was! My pedagogy was merely to show how a massless fermion, if trapped between infinitely high walls, gains an energy – which is the **model** example of the MIT bag model – and hence the fermion+ the container wall/bubble have a total energy, hence rest mass, without any invocation of Higgs. This is the essence of the MIT bag model. However it is a model; reality is vastly complicated and beyond anyone’s ability to compute (even lattice QCD makes approximations)

  12. Daz says:

    Careful! Pretty soon we’ll be seeing the CBS headline: “Physicist’s quote: ‘Ketchup comes from cocaine'”

  13. vmarko says:


    The main issue of the discussion above was whether the main contribution to the proton mass comes from the kinetic energy of quarks inside the proton, or from the potential binding energy. In the language of the bag model, the total mass is computed by adding up the contribution of the kinetic energy of the massless fermion and the potential energy of the walls which confine it. If the walls are infinitely high, the total mass of the system is infinite. If they are finite but high, then they provide confinement only if the kinetic energy of the fermion is smaller than the height of the potential well. Therefore, in the bag model, the contribution of the binding energy to the total mass is always larger than the contribution of the kinetic energy. (N.B. I am glossing over the whole set of issues of the bag model, like the width of the walls, possible tunnel-effect, etc.)

    In contrast, Matt and John claimed that the kinetic energy of the valence quarks is the dominant contribution to proton mass, as opposed to the potential binding energy. So either the bag model is a very lousy model of the proton, or else Matt and John are in error.

    I guess that is why Sean asked for an explanation of the issue. :-)

    If it is really the potential binding energy the one that gives the dominant contribution, than all the ugly fluff about gluon self-interactions, virtual quark pairs and renormalization *must* be taken into account for the mass calculation, rather than just saying that the quarks in the proton are rotating around each other very fast. There must be a reason why this fast rotation doesn’t break the proton apart, and the reason is that the binding energy should be bigger than the kinetic energy. That was the crux of the discussion (as I understood it). :-)

    And of course, all this has nothing to do with the Higgs, which only gives a (very small) contribution to the total mass by providing the three valence quarks with some nonzero rest mass.

    HTH, :-)

  14. David Gold says:

    Don’t know if this will throw a spanner into the works regarding the Higgs Boson. I was playing around with calculations in respect to experimentally measured particle radii and presto discovered a direct simple relationship to their mass!

    See my ‘Fundamental Principle of Mass’: http://www.scienceau.com/docs/Fundamental Principle of Mass.pdf

  15. frank close says:

    The bottom line is: An infinite wall with three (massless) fermions trapped inside has more energy (about 1 GeV, due to their KE) than one without any.

    The question of an infinitely high wall contributing infinity to the energy scale is analogous to Dirac’s infinitely deep sea contributing infinite energy. Its all relative.

  16. db says:

    I’m not seeing any spanner being thrown. Red flag #1: You’re predicting a massive photon. Red flag #2: You lump together “photon, neutrino, and gluon” and invent a “calculated radius” and “volume” for them without any justification.

  17. Romulo Binuya says:

    It’s easy for me to comprehend that 99% of the proton’s mass came from kinetic energy of the particles within the proton.. angular momenta I assume, which confused me. What happens to the opposite angular momenta of the valence quarks and other particles, do it simply cancel? or converted to thermal right away and supposed to incinerate the proton but didn’t.

  18. Robert says:

    actually, according to a 2008 Guardian interview, Higgs argues that LL had intended to call the particle the “Goddamm Particle”, which obviously the ed didnt go for, maybe they should have.

  19. Romulo Binuya says:

    Lederman did not gave the higgs boson its now popular soubriquet, he just didn’t argue much with his editor. He prefers to call the higgs boson as the goddamn particle because in spite of the huge expenditures nobody could find the goddamn particle at that time… huge expenditures is also known as the multi-billion euro Large Hadron Collider.

  20. Romulo Binuya says:

    What’s in a name anyway? a higgs boson by any other name is just as complicated… tiny ball of wave in a quantum field.

  21. Robert says:

    whats in a name ? quite a bit indeed…because of the God qualifier thousands have one to hell….

  22. Romulo Binuya says:

    I didn’t noticed hell in the higgs field, only its non-zero average value.

  23. Steve says:

    Even tho it is important for humans to search and learn all they can, we will never, and I mean never find out everything that God has put together for us and the vast universe. There are things that are certainly not for us to know. And I wonder about people that think that there is no God. If they can believe that everything came from nothing, then why not a God?

  24. Robert says:

    ooops wish there was a inbuilt spell check…it should read “have Gone to hell…gone…not ONE”

  25. Romulo Binuya says:

    You can say that Steve, but everyone got to eat somewhere to satisfy his physical and psychological hunger… and faith is not for everyone. Some didn’t evolved enough serotonin receptors hence lack some parameters in their brain.. that’s just a theory. Maybe all were born with equal serotonin receptors but to some it atrophied for lack of usage, maybe they grew up without given any toys by their parents and relatives.. well, that’s another theory 😀

  26. Sue Palmer says:

    As a journalist who occasionally interviews scientists, I wonder whether the scientists commenting here, if asked to vet a description of the Higgs field and particle before the copy went to press, could have agreed on a description of a few hundred words and, let’s say, a few hundred words that would excite people who know nothing about physics to want to know more.

    That’s the goal, of course. Hard to do well and hard to do well on deadline.

  27. Sue (and whoever else is interested),

    Matt Strassler wrote the sort of summary you describe (and did so quite well, in my opinion) in response to the shenanigans we’re discussing here:

    While there are lots of possible ways to phrase non-technical description of the Higgs field and particle, I think we scientists commenting here would agree that many of them are reasonable and not too inaccurate. I think we would also agree that Kaku’s comments are astoundingly inappropriate and misleading.

  28. Romulo Binuya says:

    Thanks for the input Sue, deadline was one of my guesses when I had read another misleading article on which the author left out the pioneers and made it appear that Feynman invented the double-slit experiment. I commented she loves Feynman and didn’t bother to research.

    Kaku’s comment could be irresponsible and detrimental to science, but it do motivate kids to use their key board and mouse. How bad it is anyway? I thought science is about never accepting anything at face value and always consider alternative explanations of given phenomena… and “proven scientific fact” is never appropriate as it only reflects the ignorance of those who say it. I think Kaku is a hero for sacrificing his reputation and initiating natural selection on who deserve to be in science. Just a thought, probably I’m wrong by your standard.

  29. Romulo Binuya says:

    I am fascinated in your different alternatives in calculating the mass of a proton, and somehow you are telling me that the 1 gram of mass in a mole of carbon-12 in its ground state is not equal to the rest mass of particles within it? and your calculations explain the why? fascinating.

  30. Prof.Layman says:

    From reading into about the middle of Sean’s new book, I couldn’t help but think that the Higgs-like boson isn’t really the God Particle but the God damn particle.
    It mentions the interpretation of quantum field theory that photons are created by vibrations in the electromagnetic field. But it then says that two photons are created from the Higgs-like boson that is a vibration in the Higgs Field, that is associated with the gravitational field. Could it mean that this interpretation of quantum field theory is wrong? And fermions are some kind of limit of stacks of bosons? How else could photons come from a vibration in the Higgs Field?

  31. Romulo Binuya says:

    That is interesting, in my universe electron doesn’t vibrate to release photon.. it simply jump down and we call that jump as “quantum leap”. And it is distinguished from other wave that is not real in sense that it is just caused by interactions of ‘legitimate’ waves… ah well, virtual wave is real.. as real as the flirtation of a man with other women before he got married to his wife by mutual attraction 😀

  32. Prof.Layman says:

    @ Romulo Binuya

    I think maybe we come from the same universe, and that is not this one. I never really went for that idea either, that is why I always look for a way around it. I wonder if these virutal particles do not have the same mass is because being stacked on each other could make them interact differently with the Higgs Field. IDK it is just an idea, I don’t see how a pair of photons could come from the decay of a Higgs Boson, when photons are produced by vibrations in electromagnetic waves. It would seem to indicate that they are really vibrations in the Higgs Field after all, and the Higgs-like boson does not agree with current theory in this respect.

  33. Romulo Binuya says:

    Thanks for the insight Prof.Layman, it’s good to agree that we are in the preposterousuniverse where anything could go, like a proton who owes its existence to simultaneous possibilities going own within it. I don’t understand yet the higgs field, I have nothing in return. :-)

  34. Romulo Binuya says:

    I misspelled ‘going on’, and I consider that my return to your misspelled virtual. Isn’t it nice that a blog considered by some as graffiti with punctuation marks, could lift our lips into smile and sometimes broke it into guffaw? And raise not only our eyebrows but also our IQ. Btw, the commentator with a repulsive alias wants to kill the relativistic mass concept, I think that is not advisable. Relativistic mass is the gamma component of John Conway’s energy equation which is arbitrary according to frame of reference. Whereas in E=mc^2 m is the rest mass and is constant at all frame of reference, because c is not the velocity of m but a constant, namely the speed of light (in vacuum).

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  36. Tony Mach says:

    Not the first time Michio Kaku said some kaka:

  37. Prof.Layman says:

    @ Tony Mach

    There is something called The Drake Equation, that figures the odds of intelligent life and I think he is a firm believer in it. He has admitted that there wasn’t enough information in the past to determine exactly what those odds are, but I think he may actually be using it on the new data that was found. He just may not have mentioned it in the news report. Before, we had no way of knowing how common planets around stars even where to even put figures into this equation.

  38. Romulo Binuya says:

    It’s not only Kaku, Hawking and Sagan too to name a few… how about you what do you think about the Fermi Paradox?

  39. Meh says:

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist as well as the author of many ‘popular’ physics books and a regular on damn near every science channel show. In a time when science budgets are being cut left and right, he serves the very important though unpopular task of keeping people interested in physics. Look at politicians who are in charge of our science budget and tell me that they don’t need to be told things like “YES! EXACTLY! the Superconducting Super Collider will find God” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Mgbjb8229f8

    You might not like the method, but the people who don’t know what he’s saying isn’t accurate are also the people in charge of the budget that seem to only perceive scientific breakthroughs as going from the steam engine to a fully functioning inertial fusion power plant in 3 years for $500,000. In the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “why are all of our politicians, Lawyers? Basically the most talented liars? Why don’t we have a single scientist or engineer in congress? wouldn’t that better represent the public?” Over exaggerating things on CNN (CNN…http://www.gifbin.com/981410) is what’s necessary when your civilization is controlled by some of its biggest idiots.

  40. Meh says:

    jump to 3:30 in the video if you’re impatient…

  41. Romulo Binuya says:

    Thanks Meh, albeit it’s not good enough for me. Kaku is a hero is fine, but the conclusion that some in the congress are idiots is not acceptable, at least to me. Apparently Kaku don’t know how national economy works.

    Anyways, this brouhaha about Kaku is telling me something related to quantum fields and how particles behave in it. It seems to me that Kaku’s remarks about higgs boson and the big bang is spin1/2, and it intrigues, inspires, and provoke the thoughts of his intended audiences which are in spin1/2 field. I believe Kaku is capable too (he should be) of spin zero behavior especially in physics symposium among his colleagues I.e. his magnitude must be precise, accurate, and unambiguous anyway you look at it… left to right and vice versa, upside down, or flipped. Spin zero, Hawking said is like a point, I said yep but to me it’s more like the word NOON.

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  43. Adhiraj Mathur says:

    There is indeed some confusion about this. This article has made some of my ideas about the higgs boson a little clear.