The “God” Particle

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Let’s talk about the God Particle.

It strikes me that people refer to the Higgs boson as the “God particle” in the same way some call the iPhone the “Jesus phone”: with an almost pointed disregard for what such a prefix actually means. Considering the intensity of the culture wars, the popularity of the moniker is baffling. Is this about contextualizing the abstraction (and grandeur) of particle physics in a way “regular” people can understand? Does this represent a humanist concession to the religious? If so, can religious culture really be swayed by such a transparent ploy — y’know, it gives things mass, just like on Sundays?

I know the use of “God particle” is largely a media problem, born of the Leon M. Lederman book of the same name, and that most scientists find it maddeningly overstating of the particle’s qualities and importance. Lederman himself came out of a long tradition of scientists using “God” as colorful shorthand for the mysterious workings of Nature, rather than literally. Albert Einstein, who famously over-used the word, was not religious as much as a Spinozan humanist, explaining that “we followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists.” This usage was not uncommon, but in a post-Intelligent Design scientific discourse, the habit has waned. And, while we scramble to find new, immediately relatable metaphors for “that grandiose, awe-inspiring quality of the Universe which eludes us,” God does in a pinch.

Yet punctuating the language about an elusive subatomic particle with the G-word seems like just the kind of thing that would infuriate anti-science religious nuts, or at least strike them as besides the point. I can’t help but think of Yuri Gagarin, in 1961, returning from the first manned space mission and saying, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” Did the certainly unsurprising revelation that the Creator wasn’t lounging around in space like the man in the moon shatter global theology? Of course not — “I looked and didn’t see God” is irrelevant if you believe (like the Catholic Church) that God exists in a realm outside of physics, or even the physical world. The discovery of the Higgs boson should reveal what the universe is physically made of, at its deepest level, but it shouldn’t make a difference to those who see the making itself as an act of God. Which raises the question: do we say “God” particle because its existence would debunk religion, or because it would be an ultimate example of the manifold complexity of God’s creation (ostensibly)? More importantly, of these two radically different readings, which is the most common?

When the New York Times uses the phrase in headlines without discussion, which version of the phrase does its readership infer? It’s impossible to know, and this rattles me. Language has a hypnotic, iterative power: with every use, a word becomes more engrained into its new context, increasingly impossible to view objectively. “God particle” has become a colloquialism for “Higgs boson,” and it does neither physics nor the idea of God any service. Rather, it sells them both short: by implying that the questions we deal with in physics are so easily reducible, and that the Higgs might have any effect on how the religious see the world.

“God particle” is a convenient phrase. It haphazardly gets at the importance of the whole enterprise — and it definitely grabs people’s attention. Still, its meaning has become unclear, and no real information can be gleaned from it. At best, it hints at weightiness; at worst, it simplifies the Higgs to the point of obfuscation.

Comments

  1. #1 Ethan Siegel
    August 6, 2010

    Which raises the question: do we say “God” particle because its existence would debunk religion, or because it would be an ultimate example of the manifold complexity of God’s creation (ostensibly)?

    Two things: if you read Leon Lederman’s book, he states very clearly that “The God Particle” was pushed on him by his editors and publisher, because his preferred title, “The Goddamned Particle” (because it’s so maddeningly hard to find), was unsalable.

    But second off, more laypeople take notice of it because of this name than they would if it were merely called the Higgs Boson. And if you can increase public awareness and interest in particle physics, I can’t see how that’s bad at all.

  2. #2 Russell
    August 6, 2010

    I think it’s quite the other way around. To rationalists, Jesus and God are just members of a pantheon from which names can be drawn, perhaps with some desired or metaphorical similarity to their use. A phone can be labelled the Jesus phone the same way a security protocol can be labeled Kerberos. Because there is no magic in names. Because the traditional myths have some tie to the names as reused. And because we don’t take seriously the notion that we’ll run into either mythical entity after we die.

    The folks more likely to be offended by the reuse of these names are the ones who actually believe.

  3. #3 Eli
    August 6, 2010

    Interesting thought. I suppose I’ve always thought it was a sort of implication that, in finding it, a final nail would be put in God’s coffin, so to speak. That science was well on its way to removing supernatural from the universe.

    I’m not sure how much deeper the idea would really go, however, as you’ve laid out pretty well in your post. The meaning of the word sort of pre-determines the answer. To anyone seriously interested in the concept of God, the particle would be nothing more than a hint of some other mystery. While anyone uninterested in God would have found him irrelevant long before.

  4. #4 Ricky
    August 7, 2010

    Yet punctuating the language about an elusive subatomic particle with the G-word seems like just the kind of thing that would infuriate anti-science religious nuts, or at least strike them as besides the point.

    You absolutely have to be kidding me, because there is a commonly known history on this which says that the exact opposite is the case, rather, it is the liberals fighting the culture war who are offended, not the fanatics on the right:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/07/science/07essa.html

    And I say big freaking deal either way. Nobody should care, and it certainly should not be it into an issue, because this does nothing but hurt science at the expense of fanatics on both end of the ideologically righteous spectrum of God vs. CopernicanISM… pick your lame religion.

  5. #5 yogi-one
    August 7, 2010

    I think the term is a distraction, and a sensationalizing marketing term. You can get more people to read articles about the “God particle” than you can about the Higgs boson.

    It’s like all those ads that used to say “FREE SEX!…Now that I have your attention, blah, blah, blah.”

    It’s bad taste. Like picking your nose at the dinner table – it gets people’s attention, yeah, but…

  6. #6 Theresa
    August 7, 2010

    The phrase “The God particle” may captivate attention, but what will captivate everyone’s attention is when Christ returns. If you just observe everything going on around us, it has all been prophesied in the Holy Bible, especially in the book of Revelation. The Bible says that in the end “Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that He is Lord”. Don’t take my word for it. Read the Bible yourself and you will find that it is impossible to separate science and God (not talking about religion). In the book of Psalms it mentions that God placed the stars in place and knows them by name!

  7. #7 MiG71
    August 8, 2010

    ^ That last assertion seems highly implausible given that Psalms was written long before Muslim scholars started naming them.

    btw The quote about not seeing God in space is falsely attributed to Gagarin. I searched for it once and found that it was Khrushchev who declared at a party meeting that Gagarin did not see any God during his flight

  8. #8 Claire Evans
    August 8, 2010

    @MiG71: That’s sort of lovely, isn’t it? One more myth for the science side.

  9. #9 Hardie K
    August 22, 2010

    A lot of talk and no real explanation of why it’s called that in the first place… because they’re both hard to find, is that all? How about more science, less chit-chat and social commentary?

  10. #10 Claire Evans
    August 22, 2010

    Hi Hardie K, there are plenty of blogs on this network alone that will give you all the hard science you could ask for. Universe is, unfortunately for you, devoted almost solely to social commentary, discussion, and attempts to bridge the always-widening chasm between the sciences and all other spheres of experience — namely culture, language, and art.

  11. #11 Nakliyat
    September 6, 2010

    Actually, I read some of Adams’ ranting and I certainly remember more about immunology than him, even after all of these years.

    In short, my guess is on Dunning-Kruger effect at its best.

  12. #12 Hansatanu Roy
    November 12, 2010

    I`ll give infinite percent assurance that there is no such thing as god, an everything is just hoax. See, when you`re unable to do something, then automatically you start to believe:
    “There is someone supernatural and divine, who has created everything, and he/she/e is the sole powerful being”
    Actually even the stubbornest theist is unable to give a scientific, logical, mathematical and”real” proof of god.
    So, there you have it, from a student of Class 9.

  13. #13 James Ph. Kotsybar
    November 21, 2010

    UNPUBLISHED FINDINGS
    — James Ph. Kotsybar

    They granulate the universe to pulp
    crashing particles only newly found.
    They figure their trajectories and gulp,
    “So much data upon which to expound!”
    Their energies unbound by quantum course,
    they separate the world we think we know.
    They rip particles into force by force.
    Unification’s where they say they’ll go.
    When at last they prove life is illusion,
    where do you think they’ll publish the result?
    They may just ascend beyond confusion
    and leave us in the lurch of the occult,
    for once that testimony’s imparted,
    expostulation just seems false-hearted.

  14. #14 This is what I think
    April 24, 2011

    Wow so what else is new. The non believer will always try and does put 100% of their faith in the scientific community with all their THEORIES which have NEVER been proved to within 100% yet they will always put down and ridicule the Born Again Christian who puts 100% of their faith in the Living God/Christ in which they all have a viable personal reationship!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    The scientist is the same individual/community that confidently states that the world will end this year…. or is it next year!?!?!?!?!?

    Yet the Bible CLEARLY states that ONLY GOD knows when that time will come!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    So far the scientist has never been correct in their “end of world” prediction!!!!!! What makes you think they will be correct this year…… or is it next year, LOL!!!!!! or the next???!!!?!?!?!

  15. #15 Look beyond the word
    July 31, 2011

    Why did such an important issue need to be cluttered by the use of 1 word “God”, this not about his / her / their existance. Look beyond the words used and look at the meaning of the whole statement. Who knows we may all learn something. If this does exist my only hope is that we can eradicate ego’s.

  16. #16 Alex
    October 13, 2011

    Well, im not here to get into all of this religious talk… But the guy spazing out about God literally proved himself wrong… I see no proof anywhere that anything the bible says is true, it only states things that supposedly happened. Btw its not like 100% of science is Myths, or `not proven yet` But if you find me even a spec of information that proves somehing the bible says (not things like Donkeys exist) I will personally give you a prize.

  17. #17 evan
    November 1, 2011

    Not to dispute the meaning behind your bet, but you realize what you’re asking him to do is categorically impossible. Anything he comes up with will immediately be written off by you as in the category of “donkeys existing.” You are setting up an imaginary conceptual category which only includes all the things you have already decided are false. With no understanding of what that category actually entails, any number of potential responses could be deemed unsuitable by you. There is lots of information in the Bible that is demonstrably “true,” or at least as close to it as any text can be, e.g. historical geography, information about ancient languages, idioms, anthropological information. It is after all, a real book, and a real old one on top of that. You need to be more specific in your request, first by providing a systematic and complete list of all of the statements that you are putting in the category that isn’t “things like donkeys exist.” Then you should probably also demonstrate plenty of textual evidence to support your assumption that all of these things were written in order to be understood literally. You should also tell us what the prize is going to be, otherwise it’s difficult to motivate ourselves.

  18. #18 tery fugate-wilcox
    nyc
    March 16, 2013

    I have 1993 first addition of “The God Particle” & the original text is “The Goddess Particle”…..not “the goddamned particle”…my,my…..