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.