How about Higgs particle instead of Higgs boson?

Like so many of us physicists, Micheal has a problem with the name ‘God particle’. Scientists have a healthy dislike of hubris (not to mention the needless antagonizing of religious-minded folk) and I am inclined to agree with a ‘do-er’, e.g. a researcher from CMS. Happy Higgs day Micheal, you and yours have done us proud!

Yet as someone who spends a lot of time attempting to engage the public’ s interest in science, I think there are several points worth examining here:

1. The name ‘Higgs boson’ isn’t great either, at least when dealing with the public. It is a classic case of over-specialization, as one immediately has to explain what a ‘boson’ is. Surely ‘Higgs particle’ would be better, as the audience immediately gets a pointer to the area of science under discussion, namely the world of the elementary particles (and whoever heard of the electron fermion?)

2. There is also the problem of priority; as every physicist knows, Professor Higgs was not the only theorist involved in the development of what is now known as the Higgs field (and he predicted the field, not the particle, as he often points out). Many theorists played a part in developing the theory, something that will create something of a Nobel headache – the name won’t help!

3, I still think the moniker ‘God particle’ has some good features; at least it contains the word ‘particle’,  and it is reasonably apt given that (i) the particle is an outstanding piece of the Standard Model (ii) it has an associated field that plays a crucial role in the acquisition of mass and (iii) it has proved remarkably hard to pin down. To put it another way, I suspect the moniker has been helpful in getting across the importance of the particle; without the nickname, I suspect it would have been harder to sustain the media’s attention in the search (how many members of the public were aware of the long search for the top quark?)

4. Could it that the hubris, which we physicists find so annoying, is exactly what it takes to get the public interested? Perhaps science journalists know more than we give them credit for.

Finally, there is the problem of religion/theology. Granted, there are some amongst the devout who take grave offence. Actually, I have never heard a serious theologian criticize or applaud the moniker – they understand the concept of a nickname. Those who can’t see past this may not be worth appeasing.

One obvious comparison here is the nickname ‘big bang’. However, cosmologists hate this moniker for a different reason;it is technically misleading because the theory says nothing about a bang (the name was originally coined by Hoyle as reductio ad absurdum). Yet the expression has been enormously useful at getting across a crude version of the theory. I would much prefer the expression ‘ evolving universe’, but I wonder would the theory have captured the imagination of the public to the same extent. Truth is, I suppose we’ll never know…in the meantime, I think I’ll compromise with ‘Higgs particle’ if I’m interviewed tomorrow!

Update

In the comments section, Sean raises an important point I should have mentioned. A second disadvantage of the term ‘God particle’ is that it encourages those who are inclined to see their particular God in everything. At a time when science is under attack from ultra-conservative religious all over the world (note in particular the attacks on evolution, big bang cosmology and climate science in the US), it is a huge mistake to encourage this sort of sloppy writing. I agree absolutely so, again, I think ‘Higgs particle’ is a reasonable compromise

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5 Comments

Filed under CERN, Particle physics

5 responses to “How about Higgs particle instead of Higgs boson?

  1. Sean

    Hi

    “Higgs particle”, why not. I agree that boson is somewhat too technical. But in no way is “God particle” ok because it contains the word particle.
    At a very dangerous time when creationism gains power in the United States, in Korea, and religion fanatics think they have a strong word to say in science, in culture, in our way of life, “God particle” is kind of a victory for them.
    Can’t you see, God is even in particle physics, we must be right and Darwin definitely wrong.
    We can gain the public interest in many ways. I can mostly talk about France where I live. Some people like Hubert Reeves has done much with communicating about astronomy to the public without talking about God. There is a show on TV for children that even grown people find very interesting called “C’est pas sorcier”. This show is good because they manage to explain really simply some difficult things. But on the other hand you have the Bogdanov brothers that are everywhere in the media. They say they are cosmologists and their books are called “The face of God”, “God’s thought”. This is definitely not the way to go.
    Do you really think the public will understand that these are just metaphores ?

    I think we are playing with fire here and science will loose this battle someday if we are not careful.

    As for the big bang nickname, I agree it is not correct. But I haven’t heard about soundologists that have ban in school the explanation that sound is a wave propagating.

  2. cormac

    Good point, I should have emphasized this more

  3. Brad

    “God Particle” is actually a re-representation of one of the involved physicists’ representation of it as the “Goddamn Particle” named out of frustration for its elusiveness during this search. So, “God Particle” is not quite appropriate. However, look to the source before you discount the inclusion of “boson”. See that guy at your header? Einstein? Bose was an Indian physicist who collaborated with Einstein and first proposed the existence of the particle. Where Higgs proposed the context of the particle, Bose first proposed the particle itself, so he clearly deserves credit.

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