Six years after the announcement of its discovery at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the Higgs boson is once again in the news. As Jason Daley notes at Smithsonian.com, “after sifting through years of data, researchers working on the LHC’s ATLAS experiment announced that they can confirm something new: the decay of the Higgs boson produces bottom quarks, lending support to a theoretical framework of physics known as the Standard Model of particle physics.”
While this news is likely to add to a “growing sense of disappointment” about the “null results of searches for physics beyond the Standard Model” (Gershon, 2018), it will hopefully put an end to silly media narratives about how this famous particle got its popular nickname — the “God Particle.” For example, a 2013 piece by Shoshana Davis claimed it was named thusly “because it’s said to be what caused the ‘Big Bang’ that created our universe many years ago” (CBS, 2013). But as Forbes and Business Insider have explained, it was all just a backfired joke!
“[Leon Lederman] wanted to make the title of his book ‘That Goddamned Particle’ because it was so hard to discover it, and his editor didn’t like it. So he said alright ‘The God Particle’ and his editor accepted it. But a lot of people I think don’t find that funny. And I think when it’s taken too seriously by people who don’t really understand the context of the joke, it does cease to be funny. You know, I’ve seen comments from theologians about it that really shouldn’t happen. — Peter Higgs
While Peter Higgs and several others proposed the Higgs mechanism in the 1960s, it would not receive its popular nickname until the 1994 publication of The God Particle. As the author explains in his preface:
“Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one…” — Leon Lederman, The God Particle (Page 22)
Lederman goes on to cite Genesis 11:1–9 — a reference to the Tower of Babel — and Einstein’s quote that we will “know the mind of God” (i.e. “bring all of physics into a much simpler, more comprehensible form”). And since the Higgs boson, according to Lederman, appears to have been “put there to test and confuse us” (Page 24) like different human languages in the Tower of Babel story from the Bible, “The God Particle” is born.
“There is a sort of mythology that grows up about what happened, which is different from what really did happen.” — Peter Higgs, on the early days (1960s)
Meanwhile, others created more meaningful narratives “of sorts” about how this elementary particle got its nickname. It “caused the Big Bang,” gave other particles their mass, or will lead to “more comprehensible physics.” These post hoc explanations undoubtedly inspired popular interest in the topic, but “God Particle” has much less to do with particles and human conceptions of God — which is, after all, philosophy or psychology, not physics — than with an unfortunate book title resulting from an author’s compromise with his publisher. It‘s a great book, from which I first learned about the Higgs boson, mechanism, and field. But its past time to put “God Particle” to rest with respect to the science, and reserve it for references to the popular nickname itself — or to Lederman’s very fine book on the topic.
Takeaways: “God Particle” was a backfired joke, hence the title of a book about the Higgs boson. Neither “god” nor “particle” are required when talking about the Higgs boson, and their omission will make it sound more like you know what you’re talking about. And way to go Standard Model!