Tuesday, July 10, 2012

God Particle: Embrace the Name

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 boson.

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.

5 comments:

  1. Well, one could argue that crackpot associations are not a new thing in (pseudo)science and it has managed to attract public attention to physics-ish concepts (although not to physics). It has worked well for the new-age movement and has made some profit by feeding crap to people. So, if some of us believe that people should be informed on the actual science, “What the Bleep Do We Know!?”...

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  2. But...some of us get it right.

    (p.s. Gosh, I wish I could see that guaranteed bump in readership you mention.)

    Eileen Schuh, author
    SCHRÖDINGER'S CAT

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  3. Eileen, I guess you could have called your book "A Thought Experiment Demonstrating the Macroscopic Implications of Quantum Entanglement."

    I like "Schrodinger's Cat" better, and I'm guessing it sells better with that title than it would if you'd gone with my suggestion. ;)

    All the best,

    Buzz

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    1. Ha,ha... The novella is more about exploring Everette's Many Worlds Theory but that doesn't have the same ring to it, either. There's just something irresistibly cute and cuddly about a cat.

      If we shortened your suggested title to ATEDMIQE it might 'pique' some interest???

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  4. The god particle was discovered over a century ago. We just have better microscopes these days to actually see it. The who what when where and why will be announced and explained soon. It will challenge everything you have believed to be true about yourself and the universe. Holisticdna

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