While it may make most physicists cringe, the term "God particle" has gotten way more attention for particle physics than "Higgslike boson" could ever have.
The recent announcement out of CERN that the Large Hadron Collider has detected a particle that is very much like the long-sought Higgs was one of the biggest scientific news stories of the last century. But in the physics community, the news comes with a grumbling of regret
that Leon Lederman chose to saddle the innocent boson with the name "God Particle" in his best-selling book
of the same name.
I'm not fond of the name myself - ever since I first heard it, it seemed to me like an absurd exaggeration. I'd always assumed it was just a gimmick to sell books. Now, like it or not, it's turned out to be an equally effective gimmick to get non-physicists talking about an awesome scientific discovery. Sure, it's a misleading name, but it seems as though everyone I run across who knows where I work wants to talk about the God particle. Every time it's happened so far, we've ended up having coherent conversations about the Higgs, the Standard Model, and physics in general in ways that would probably be near impossible if headlines had been limited to reporting the possible discovery of a Higgslike
This isn't a new problem for physics and physicists. Schrodinger's cat
, for example, is an exciting and weird idea to non-physicists. So much so that linking nearly any quantum mechanical news story to the unfortunate (imaginary) animal provides a nearly guaranteed bump in readership. That, of course, has led to the overuse of the quantum kitty to the point that most physicists roll their eyes at the slightest mention of it. In fact, I've heard that some major physics journals have banned any mention of Schrodinger's cat from their papers, even when it's the perfect metaphor for the science being presented.
There are some who go even further in trying to squash popular science memes. During the World Year of Physics
, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of Einstein's miracle year, I was shocked at how many physicists wanted us to stop focusing so much on Einstein.
People love Einstein, often for all the wrong reasons. Schrodinger's cat is cool, creepy, and compelling. And the God particle has captured the imaginations of countless people who know WAY more about physics today because of its odd, inaccurate, and enticing nickname.
Chemists wish they had the problems we have, but Lavoisier
will never be as cool as Albert. Biologists may have Darwin, and he's a pretty good icon, but he's almost ancient history, and don't even try to talk about Van Leeuwehoek
. No other science has anything as cool/creepy as Schrodinger's alive/dead cat. And now we have the God particle. Why not roll with it? There's nothing better for starting a conversation than a good icebreaker, and it's having the conversation that's truly good for science, scientists, and the folks we now get to talk to.