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


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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  • Jerry

    Oh come on. This is a very difficult to believe story, no?

    The story is VERY believable to me. There is frustration in every profession and I can very easily see the author saying that he wanted to use that title given how long and frustrating the search for that particle has been. And I could see the author wanting to reflect the frustration in the title.

    Wikipedia puts the case well including stating why that phrase is wrong:

    Lederman initially wanted to call it the “goddamn particle,” because “nobody could find the thing.”[55]; but his editor would not let him.[56] While use of this term may have contributed to increased media interest in particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider,[54] many scientists dislike it, since it overstates the particle’s importance, not least since its discovery would still leave unanswered questions about the unification of QCD, the electroweak interaction and gravity, and the ultimate origin of the universe.


  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Professor Higgs himself is not in love with the nickname.

  • Julia

    The search for the “God particle” gets hits, readers,viewers – simple stories about the theorized boson do not. Like somebody said in a prior thread: these stories attract non-believers who want to gloat at the failure to find it and the believers who think finding it is going to prove something.

    Just like the current stories about the “real” Ark of the Covenant.
    - being guarded in an Ethiopian sacred building
    - the building needing repair so reporters are going to try to get its picture while being moved to temporary shelter
    - yet another special on the History Channel about the Ark having been hidden for centuries on an island fortress in an Ethiopian lake before being moved to its current location.
    - about the ark really being in an African storehouse some distance south of Ethiopia & that it was actually a ceremonial drum brought by ancient Jewish priests fleeing danger in Israel
    - being found by new technology or satellite cameras on the slopes of Mt Ararat

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Right — Higgs was quoted in the article, too. The thing is that the article isn’t just about people not liking the nickname but making all sorts of theological claims (e.g. “God has nothing whatsoever to do with this.”). If that’s where the interviews led, by all means follow the story there, I say. How do they know this? What are their theological credentials? What is their religion? Do theologians agree with them? Do theologians speculate on what the particle has to do or not do with God? etc. etc.

    I’m totally on board with not using the phrase “God particle.” Also, that lede in the story about the reporter not caring what the scientist says is choice. But then the story went into a pretty interesting direction of speculating on theology. It was there that some more insight might have been helpful.

  • R9

    In a scientific sense, god does have nothing to do with this. A supernatural designer-megabeing isn’t a part of the Standard Model of particle physics.

    So thelogical credentials don’t matter and whatever theologians think is besides the point.

    So while religious perspectives on cutting-edge physics can I guess be interesting, there’s no specific need for theology in these reports. tbh life would probably be simpler without the god-particle nickname in the first place.

  • Dave

    If there is a God Particle it’s the electron: First elementary particle identified and still doing yeoman duty in human technology, including this mode of communication.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Re: Mollie #4

    Ah, I see I misunderstood your point initially. Consider me to have Emily Litella-ed.

  • Julia

    What R9 said.

    If the theoretic boson is found, scientists will describe it in a scientific manner and how it fits in with other subatomic particles.

    The scientists are just saying that the project has nothing to do with looking for God and if the boson is found it isn’t going to be the ultimate answer to why and how the universe exists. The scientists are not making theological statements.

    From a believer’s religious viewpoint, God has something to with everything. Are you saying the boson itself might turn out to be actually God Himself? Otherwise, why focus on this research project and not one about other scientific studies?

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/blog Joe Perez


    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.

    Oh come on. You’re constantly complaining that journalists eschew theological reporting and when you get a pretty decent piece you complain that it’s not enough. Well some of us still look to Reuters for news reporting that can generate a desire to learn more, not the Encyclopedia of Theology. I’d say more about this critique of your post, Mollie, but it would require much more time and effort than I got in this comment. ;-)

  • AD

    The HIggs boson has no more to do with God than any other particle (theoretical or otherwise). There’s literally no reason for it to be called the God particle. I’m with the scientists on this one; you don’t have to be a theologian to understand that that moniker has nothing to do with anything. (In comparison, why not call the graviton the God particle? Or even the photon, since it’s being is currently unknowable, kind of like an apophatic view of God.) In conclusion, I don’t really see a ghost here, just media silliness.

  • Bill

    I understand that such a discovery is important, but not it’s called the “God particle.” I think Julia is right in that the sobriquet will attract more attention and sell more toothpaste and beer than “Higg’s Boson.”

    This quote from the WaPo piece caught my attention:

    “… University of Maryland physics department chairman Drew Baden. It is “merely a look-see as to where the experiments are in looking for new particles, not seen since the first trillionth of a second after the big bang, he said.”

    After the big bang. Is not the religious question more about the trillionth of a second before the big bang?

    Julia’s reference to those awful Discovery & History Channel shows that seem to pop up prior to Christmas and Easter brings up another aspect. Many reporters seem eager to show their sophistication by carrying the torch of the religion-debunker du jour. How many journalists and editors persist in using “God Particle” when they understand neither God nor bosons? If one accepts only a God-in-the Gaps, any particle that can be shoehorned into any gap would be heralded.

    We’ve also cheapened the name of God. We have sports gods and rock ‘n roll gods and a whole pantheon of imposters and golden calves. It’s undignified and unwise.

  • Jerry

    I was hoping the story would focus more on the problems with media coverage of science.

    It’s true that the media does not get science either. Too often we’ve seen a single study that is indicative but not conclusive over-hyped to the ‘nth’ degree.

    How many journalists and editors persist in using “God Particle” when they understand neither God nor bosons?

    That’s it in a nutshell.

  • Matt

    This article has Peter Higgs himself repeating the “goddamn particle” story, and that was in 2008. My very cursory research indicates the story did not appear in the Wikipedia article until a few months ago, so it’s not an example of citogenesis.

  • Matt

    Actually, the “goddamn particle” story comes directly from Leon Lederman’s book “The God Particle”, and it seems pretty clearly to be tongue-in-cheek, rather than a straightforward narrative. Here is a quote:

    This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet to elusive, that I have given it a nickname: The God Particle. 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…

    And Lederman then proceeds to discuss the story of the Tower of Babel, as told in the book of Genesis.

    It sure seems to me that Lederman really did mean to call it the God Particle, and that the “goddamn particle” line was a throwaway joke. It may be that Higgs and others repeated the line with the intention of passing on the joke, and that a reporter mistakenly thought it was in earnest. It’s a little strange, though, that people aren’t discussing Lederman’s real reason for the appellation (I haven’t read his book myself, but rather found the above quote on Amazon Search). Shouldn’t his reasoning be discussed, and perhaps discounted, rather than ignored?

  • Matt

    Man, it gets worse. It appears to me that the reporting of the “goddamn particle” story as fact traces to this NPR blog item by Marcelo Gleiser:

    First, I’d like to tell the real story behind this extremely unfortunate name “God Particle.” As some of you may know, The God Particle is the title of a popular science book by Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman, who was Fermilab’s director for many years and thus my boss when I was a postdoctoral fellow there. According to Leon, he wanted to call the book The Goddamn Particle because nobody could find the thing. However, his editor discouraged him from the title, suggesting that The God Particle would sell many more copies. This is the story that Leon tells us.

    Now, it is possible that Gleiser is reporting a conversation he had with Lederman in which this story was related as a fact. But it seems more likely to me that Gleiser is simply referring to the excerpt from the book that I quoted in my last comment, and which seems to be pretty clearly tongue-in-cheek at best. But now Gleiser’s post is quoted in this NPR item from two days ago, which in turn is quoted in this CNN story, which in turn is has just been added as a source for the appellation’s origin on Wikipedia.

    This will be hard to fix, insofar as people actually get information from Wikipedia, which in turn relies on sources that in this case appear to have the story wrong.

  • http://www.anadish.com/ Anadish Kumar Pal

    Let me tell you why it is not possible for Higgs boson to be there, because there cannot be any fields in a realistic understanding of the natural world. Fields were devised in the times of Maxwell to comprehend pre quantum phenomena. Every event has to have a particle/wave explanation, no field would fill in the details where a postulation is weak; quantum mechanics got stuck to it to explain experimental data conveniently. However, It’s a non quantum sub ev world out there. Gravitation and mass are due to a very different form of particle or particles, no resemblance with Higgs. Look for DCE research in Sweden, if you want to see the shape of the things to come. Eventually STR will be marginalized and space and mass will be seen as interchangeable.

    Then you cannot even remove liquid helium from the LHC tunnel and talk of removing water from the pond, then your pond is full of magnetic fields and the distortions that the Earth’s gravitation brings to the surrounding space. The physical world is much more complex than a number of particles put together like bricks to define it’s existence. A copper atom sized Higgs boson is as laughable as the Earth centred universe of the Ptolemic construct. The Church and its professional scientists spent centuries to not only defend it but to take it to greater mathematical heights before finally crashing.

    Finally, faster than light Neutrinoes and Higgs both cannot coexist — either one has to be wrong. It’s DCE research and superluminal speed which has the potential of breaking current scientific barriers, rather than finding a nebulous statistical dual peak for a Higgs, which well could be due to many other anomalies, one that LHC could not decipher is that of the UFOs.

  • http://essential-intelligence-network.blogspot.com essential-intelligence

    Read our article to understand why the hype surrounding the so called “god particle” is pure nonsense: