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The Misunderstood Particle?

This post is cross-posted and translated from skepchick.no.

Ok, so we’ve been talking about the Higgs particle for a year or so now, but there is still this annoying thing that pops up again and again. Namely the nick name the “God Particle”. It is one thing that religious people talk about the particle as if it was actually divine or something, but when scientists perpetuate myths about the Higgs it gets annoying. Can’t we just call it the “Unicorn Particle” instead? Much less fuzz …

God Particle - Pulp Fiction StyleProfessor Michio Kaku is a relatively well know populariser of science that many may know from TV. He recently stated that:

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.

Really? As far as I am aware the Higgs was called the “God Particle” due to some back and forth about a book title. It is not nick named that because it is responsible for the origin of the universe or something like that. I’m no expert on cosmology and the Big Bang, but physicist Sean Carroll states that there is no connection between the Higgs and the Big Bang in the way that Kaku seems to claim.

That last part of this quote makes no sense either. I have no idea what he means by “joins everything”, because it certainly does not. The forces of nature joins everything. The electromagnetic force (Coulomb force), the nuclear forces and gravity does. And what about the claim that Higgs gives mass to everything around us? That too is false, at least in the way we usually mean it when we talk about the mass of solid matter. Higgs gives mass to the elementary particles, the electrons and quarks that make up the majority of everything around us, on a fundamental level; but the mass of stuff we see mainly comes from protons and neutrons, which are again made up of quarks (1-2%), and the strong nuclear force and the kinetic energy of the quarks rattling around in their cage (98-99%). The mass of a proton is 938 MeV, while the mass of the quarks are around 1–5 MeV, and there’s only three (non-virtual) quarks in each proton or neutron.

It’s annoying when physicists say things like this. If you want to popularise science, you still need to make sure it is correct, otherwise there isn’t much point. You may as well end up with something like:

Image provided by @leftygirl on Twitter
Image provided by @leftygirl on Twitter

Ok, these are a little funny …

… but, I don’t thing we can call the Higgs the “God Particle” any more anyway, as we have pretty much proven it actually exists!

More Higgs stuff for the interested:

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Veronica

Veronica is a PhD candidate in high energy physics at the University of Oslo, Norway. She loves science, and is a total science-fiction nerd. She's a queer feminist, a secular humanist, and of course a skeptic. She spends most of her free time working for one of the major LGBTQ+ organisations in Norway. She is the editor of the Norwegian Skepchick blog, but also writes for some of the other blogs in the network. She can be found on Twitter as @VeronicaInPink.

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12 Comments

      1. I know it’s off topic, but I’ve heard the LHC might be the last Hadron collider we build in favor of muon colliders instead (assuming we can find a way to generate and smash them before they decay). What are your thoughts on that?

        1. I’m out of the loop with CERN these days. I started my master’s with the ATLAS project, but switched after a year to nuclear physics. Statistical analysis wasn’t quite my thing. Most of my theoretical background is in Quantum Field Theory though.

          Buuut … the muon is my favourite fundamental particle, especially the anti-muon ;P

        2. Depends on who you ask. There’s definitely people in the HEP community pushing for a “Super LHC”, but also groups that argue for other things. Trouble is we can’t afford very many of these types of instruments.

  1. I had a run in with a friend’s mom about this. She was visiting from Mexico and when she found out I was a physicist gushed, “Isn’t it wonderful how scientist have been able to unify science and religion!”
    My friend looked really worried that I was going to say something snarky and impolite, but I carefully explained how ‘God Particle’ was just a name, and that it had nothing to do with religion. The visitor listened carefully and when I was done said, “Still it is wonderful how scientist have unified science and religion.” I guess people only hear what they want to hear.

      1. Parents are great for that :) It’s funny that Dr Kaku would get something so far off the mark in his own field. I’ve heard him butcher explanations of evolution, but I expected more of him as a physicist talking about physics. The only way I can make sense of his statement is that he is referring to the class of inflation models that rely on the Higgs, but that is really really stretching his statement, “…it’s said to be what caused the “Big Bang” that created our universe many years ago”

  2. I’ve had different experience with this. What I’ve run into (online and offline) are people who believe that it’s been proven that “God does not exist”, i.e., that the thing that created the universe etc is this particle and hence Genesis never happened or some such. Probably a result of living in a mostly secular country and / or having mostly non-religious friends.

    My takeaway is (once again) that branding matters and that we need to be careful. Calling it “the God(damn) particle” was fun, but once the name escaped the HEP community, the idea that it’s a joke was quickly lost, and so it ended up as an impediment to communication.

  3. Elementary “particles” aren’t really particles in a macroscopic sense. They are quantized fields. I had a physics professor who would call a photon a “blob of light” — that’s about as close as one can come in macroscopic analogies.

    I don’t like “god particle” either. It seems rather silly and without any hint as to why that particle might deserve that name.

    In fact, the name “Higgs particle” honors only one of its proposers. With a fuller list, it would be the Brout-Englert-Higgs particle or the Brout-Englert-Higgs-Hagen-Guralnik-Kibble particle, the BEH or the BEHHGK (“beck”) particle.

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