If you’re talking to a physicist about the Higgs boson, whatever you do, do
not call it by its media-hyped nickname the “God Particle.”
You’re almost guaranteed to illicit a wince, a grimace, or in the very least a flash of mild annoyance.
The phrase “God Particle” was plastered across the front pages of news outlets everywhere when the discovery of the particle was announced in 2012. “God Particle discovered” is a much sexier headline than “Higgs boson discovered,” but most physicists hate the term.
It was not the intended nickname for the famous particle, according to a panel of physicists who discussed the Higgs boson on April 29 as part of the Scientific Controversies lecture series.
The story goes that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman referred to the Higgs as the “Goddamn Particle.” The nickname was meant to poke fun at how difficult it was to detect the particle. It took nearly half a century and a multi-billion dollar particle accelerator to do it.
“The Goddamn Particle” was suppose to be the title of Lederman’s book that came out in the 1990s and was wildly popular for a book about physics. However, his publishers weren’t exactly on board with that phrasing, so the title was changed to “The God Particle.”
Unfortunately the publisher’s version of the nickname stuck, and physicists are not happy about it.
“I am not particularly religious, but I find the term an ‘in your face’ affront to those who [are],” Vivek Sharma, a physicist at the University of California, San Diego, told Live Science back when the Higgs was discovered.
In addition to the irrelevant tie to religion, the nickname doesn’t do anything to help explain what the Higgs boson actually does. The particle is associated with the Higgs field that physicists think permeates all of space-time and helps give other particles their mass. You don’t really get that from “God Particle.” You do, however, get a hilarious joke about Catholic Mass and mass from the Higgs boson that Neil deGrasse Tyson told us — which is about as close to religion as the particle gets.
Yes, the Higgs boson is a big deal and it’s an integral part of the standard model of particle physics. Comparing it to a god is going a bit overboard though. For starters, it’s not really the Higgs boson itself that’s granting mass to particles. The Higgs boson is an excitation of the Higgs field the helps other particles pass through it. And other types of energy interactions help create the mass that makes up you and me.
Some physicists think there could be several different types of Higgs bosons and this is just the first one we’ve detected.
So maybe we should lowercase the “God” in “God Particle?” Or better yet just call it the “The Totally Secular Particle.” Or just the “Masson,” since it’s a boson that helps give other particles get their mass. Other bosons have names that follow this kind of naming model. For example, light particles are also bosons and they’re called “photons” — a combination of the words “boson” and “photo” (meaning light).
Really most physicsts would tell you that the particle’s actual name is perfect. It tells you that the particle is a boson and it honours Peter Higgs, the physicist who predicted its existence back in the 1960s.
Still, we agree that the “Goddamn Particle” would have been way better than “God Particle.”