We've heard the rumors. Now for the news physics nerds have been waiting for: the "official" discovery of the Higgs Boson. But something is gnawing at me like children on my lawn: this whole "God Particle" business.
Don't get me wrong. Science — and physics, in particular — is filled with bad naming conventions: The big bang was neither big nor a bang; the "color" of a quark or a gluon has nothing to do with what they actually look like; even "spin" has staggeringly less to do with a gyroscope than you might have at first guessed. And while the Higgs deserves our respect, "God Particle" is just going too far.
Seriously. What's wrong with you people?
First, a bit of history. The Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman coined the phrase "The God Particle" as the title of his otherwise excellent book as a way of underscoring how essential the Higgs is in our Standard Model of Physics. You can get away with that sort of hype when you're a Nobel prize winner. It also sold roughly 10 gajillion copies. He also got cutesy afterwards, and used to semi-seriously defend the name by saying that the publisher wouldn't let him call it the goddamn particle.
Meanwhile, National Geographic went one step further, comparing it to "The Force," from Star Wars — which did at least make for an awesomely adorable graphic at our sister site Gizmodo — but really kind of misses the bigger picture.
Just to be clear, discovering the Higgs will be a huge deal. It is the last remaining particle of our Standard Model of physics, and in a lot of ways it's very different than any other particle that we've ever seen. It's the first spin-0 particle, which is fairly significant. There's also the whole "creating mass" thing that it's so famous for. We should give credit where credit is due.
But let's not go overboard. I can think of at least three good reasons that referring to the "God Particle" should be a wedgieable offense. Knowing the io9 readership, I expect dozens more in the comments section.
1) It makes us sound like those mutants in Beneath the Planet of the Apes who worshiped a nuclear bomb.
Even if discovering the Higgs answered all of the fundamental questions in physics and gave us a Theory of Everything (it doesn't), the particle itself is just a particle, like any other. It interacts with other particles, and those interactions take the form of changes in energy.
Seriously, just dial it back a bit.
There have even been contests to rename the damn thing to something a bit less grandiose. The Guardian newspaper apparently came up with, "the champagne bottle boson." To my mind, though, this is both a bit silly and very unnecessary. The Higgs already has a name: the Higgs. We don't insist on calling the electron "ol' current-carrier" (though perhaps we should).
In fact, the Higgs has LOTS of names. While Peter Higgs came up with his version of the mechanism in 1964, about half a dozen other scientists came up with similar solutions at around the same time. This is going to cause the Nobel committee a giant headache when they try to figure out who to award the Prize to. Virtually every combination of names has been used as a descriptor for the particle, so if you want to call it something else, might I suggest the "Englert-Brout-Higgs-Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble Boson"?
2) It's not the only thing that can make mass.
The Higgs mechanism was developed to address a very specific problem. It was well-known at the time that assuming what are known as "local gauge symmetries" (PROTIP: work that phrase into conversation as often as possible) would give rise almost immediately to various mediator particles. For electromagnetism, we expect 1, the photon. For the weak force, we expect 3, the W^+, W^-, and Z^0.
But there's a problem — the theory also predicts that all of these mediators should be massless, and the W and Z particles are huge. The W particles are both about 86 times the mass of a proton, and the Z boson is about 97 times as massive as the proton.
Energy and mass are equivalent to one another. Remember, E=mc^2. But this reaction holds in reverse: m=E/c^2. Pour enough energy into a system and you create mass!
The basic idea (after glossing over LOTS of details of symmetry-breaking and the like) is that there is a Higgs field out there, and the interaction between the Higgs field and the W and Z fields creates energy, and we measure this as mass.
But this isn't just true of the Higgs, but of every energy of interaction. Just to give you an idea, you are made of protons and neutron, and your protons and neutrons are made of quarks. But the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. The total mass of quarks in a proton is only about 2% the mass of the proton, itself. The rest –- virtually all of your mass -– is made up of the interaction energies between the quarks.
Put another way, even if the mass of the quarks comes from the Higgs somehow — and even if the Higgs exists, we don't know exactly how it relates to other particles besides the W's and Z — almost none of your mass comes from the Higgs.
3) There's still a hell of a lot that remains unanswered.
The biggest problem with all of this "God Particle" nonsense is that it's a rather short-sighted way of announcing to the world that the particle physics community doesn't need any more money, thanks.
Besides greed, there's the simple fact that while discovering the Higgs means that we're on the right track with this whole Standard Model, it is absolutely not the end of the story. What doesn't the Higgs tell us?
- It doesn't explain how gravity works.
- For that matter, it doesn't really tell us much about how the strong force relates to the electroweak force — the combination of electromagnetism and the weak force for which the Higgs is so useful.
- It doesn't tell us what dark matter is — roughly 23% of the energy of the universe.
- It doesn't tell us what dark energy is — another 72% of the universe.
- It doesn't tell us why the electric charge is what it is, or an electron mass is what it is, or really, much at all about a huge number of physical constant.
- It doesn't explain why we have certain symmetries in our universe and not others.
I guess what I'm saying is: more money, please.
Dave Goldberg is a Physics Professor at Drexel University. He apologizes for the interruption of your "Ask a Physicist" service, which will be restored once he completes his first draft of "The Universe in the Rearview Mirror," a new book all about symmetry that will be published by Dutton in 2013. In the meanwhile, follow him on twitter, send an email, or get caught up with his first book
Top image: Shutterstock.com. Pulp Fiction meme via TigerDroppings.com