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!