Taking God out of the 'God Particle'

Yesterday there was big news related to the Higgs boson. That's the theoretical particle that some scientists believe plays a role in the fabric of the universe. But the story really caught my attention because almost every article referred to it as the "God particle." So, for instance, here's the Washington Post:

Search for ‘God particle’ Higgs Boson narrowing, scientists say

CNN:

Scentists find sign of 'God particle' - Brian Greene explains breakthrough

The Independent:

Has science found the 'God particle'?

Vancouver Sun:

Light shines on 'God particle'

You get the idea.

I was prepared to critique the use of this term but found a Reuters article that got straight to the point with the problem of such terminology:

"We don't call it the 'God particle', it's just the media that do that," a senior U.S. scientist politely told an interviewer on a major European radio station on Tuesday.

"Well, I am the from the media and I'm going to continue calling it that," said the journalist - and continued to do so.

The exchange, as physicists at the CERN research centre near Geneva were preparing to announce the latest news from their long and frustrating search for the Higgs boson, illustrated sharply how science and the popular media are not always a good mix.

Oh come on, Reuters! Spill the beans about which reporter said this! (Total side tangent: isn't it funny how reporters cover for fellow reporters in a way they'd never cover for a bank executive or clergy member or congressman or whatever?)

I was hoping the story would focus more on the problems with media coverage of science. But it didn't. Instead it actually got kind of weird and surveyed scientists about their theological views. Which, if you're going to do that, requires much more time and effort than we got in this story. We hear from Pauline Gagnon, for instance, a Canadian Higgs hunter who tells us she hates the term "God particle":

"The Higgs is not endowed with any religious meaning. It is ridiculous to call it that," she told Reuters at a news conference after her colleagues revealed growing evidence, albeit not yet proof, of the particle's existence.

It's not? OK ... how does she know that? It's such a papal bull-like assertion for a scientist to make, unless maybe she's also a theologian. I don't know. Other scientist-theologians also weigh in. One asserts that the Higgs has "nothing to do with God." Others say the invocation of God makes them "angry." Yet another theologianscientist says "Of course it has nothing to do with God whatsoever." Of course!

We learn a bit about the invisible field and how it was posited and how it got the nickname of "God particle."

According to people who have investigated the subject, the term originated with a 1993 history of particle physics by U.S. Nobel prize winner Leon M Lederman.

The book was titled: "The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?"

Physicists say Lederman, who over the years has been the target of much opprobrium from his scientific colleagues, tells friends he wanted to call the book "The Goddamned Particle" to reflect frustration at the failure to find it.

But, according to that account, his publisher rejected the epithet - possibly because of its potential to upset a strongly religious U.S. public - and convinced Lederman to accept the alternative he proposed.

Oh come on. This is a very difficult to believe story, no? I'm fine with the argument that "God particle" is not used by scientists and shouldn't be used by reporters. But color me completely skeptical that the author of God Particle actually wanted that other title. The title of the book makes complete sense as it is. His supposedly proposed title is stupid. It sounds like a reporter heard an after-the-fact joke and got confused about whether it was a real story or not. And then all of this "tells friends" and "possibly" because of the evil US religious folks qualifiers, come on. Not really journalism, so much as Us Weekly.

Anyway, since the article ends up being nothing but a set of theological assertions that a given theoretical has nothing, no way, whatsoever, anything at all to do with God, it would have been nice to see some discussion of how they know this or whether other physicists think otherwise. Or maybe talk to some theologians to see what informed insight they have on physics.

And if you're looking for a Higgs boson story that doesn't mention God at all, here's the New York Times. And as a non-physicist, I found this "Higgs boson for dummies" article helpful.

Eye of God abstract via Shutterstock.

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