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How the 'God particle' got its name
13-12-2011, 04:18 PM
Post: #1
How the 'God particle' got its name

We're expecting interesting news in the world of physics in the next few minutes. Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider are to make an announcement at 1pm GMT. We know it's not a "discovery" of the Higgs boson, per se – the conventional threshold for discovery is five standard deviations, a so-called "five-sigma result". That means that there is only about a one in a million chance that your findings are the result of a statistical fluke. But rumours have been flying on the blogs around of a three-sigma result, or a one-in-a-thousand chance of error, that a Higgs result somewhere around the 125GeV mark has been spotted. (For a bit more info on what a 125GeV Higgs means, check out my post from a few weeks ago.)
We know it's probably going to be something fairly worthwhile, because, as The Guardian's Ian Sample wrote last week, the heads of the two research groups will be making the announcement, not some junior PhD student or postdoc.
But the real question is: why is it called the God particle? It's not a God particle. It's nothing to do with God, with religion, with anything to do with creation. Or at least any more than any other particle is.
The name was created by Leon Lederman, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, for the title of a book ("The God Particle: If The Universe Is The Answer, What Is The Question?"). But it wasn't what he wanted to call it. Originally he wanted to call it the "Goddamn Particle", because "nobody could find the thing" (according to Lederman's one-time postdoc researcher Marcelo Gleiser). But his editor convinced him "The God Particle" would sell more copies. We don't know whether that's true, but what certainly is true is the name stuck.
Physicists, in general, wish it hadn't. Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh physicist who first proposed the boson's existence, dislikes the name: "I find it embarrassing because, though I'm not a believer myself, I think it is the kind of misuse of terminology which I think might offend some people," he told The Guardian three years ago.
More than that, it's misleading. When the LHC was preparing to fire up two years ago, a lot of paranoid people started to create terrifying doomsday theories about how it would create a black hole and destroy the Earth. A large part of the terror seemed to come from the association with God, and therefore Armageddon.
On the plus side, it's been a PR triumph. If particles had press offices, they would use this as a case study in how to raise public awareness: how many more people have heard of the Higgs than, say, a gluon, or a W-boson? Presumably the charm quark is kicking itself for not calling itself The Satan Blob or something back in the 1960s.
Still, we might as well all get used to it. For better or for worse, the name seems to be with us for good.
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