Sunday, December 18, 2011

Why the God particle is an accurate term

Leon Lederman originally wanted to call his book on the Higgs boson "The Goddamn Particle" because it was so hard to find it.

But the title was too long and the publisher recommended to shorten it. "The God particle" is shorter and also potentially more catchy. The publisher turned out to be right. Lederman's book was selling well and the term "God particle" became the nearly dominant term for the Higgs boson in the press. (At Google News, the "Higgs boson" still beats the "God particle", 1900-to-1300.) Also, the "God particle" is a more lasting term than "the Goddamn particle" because once the Higgs is found (and this "once" has almost become the reality by now), we will no longer be angry about it so there will be no reason to call it "the Goddamn particle" anymore.

A few days ago, Fox News quoted a couple of physicists including Matthew Strassler, Michio Kaku, and Gordon Kane who claim that almost all physicists (if not all physicists) hate the term "God particle". Well, this ain't so as the respectful comment by Greg Landsberg of Brown University indicates.

It's obvious that because there's no "scientific proof" that the God particle is a wrong term, you will inevitably find physicists who think that the term is OK. I am probably among them. There are many other not-quite-justified names that are not being attacked; the proton (coined by Rutherford) comes from "protos", or "first", but there's nothing "first" about this random hadronic composite, either. I guess that the hatred directed against the term "God particle" is a ritual that helps to assure many physicists that "they're a part of the right community", a classical example of a group think. But the physics community nurtures some kind of independence so you're always pretty likely if not guaranteed to find people who (sometimes deliberately) avoid this kind of group think.

Journalists do lots of bad things but using a catchy name for the Higgs boson isn't one of the, I think.

In the Fox News article, physicists propose new nicknames for the Higgs. Matt Strassler thinks that people should call it "the evanescent yet essential Higgs boson". It's good that Matt isn't a publisher because he wouldn't sell Lederman's book even as a roll of toilet paper. It's long, redundant, smug, hard-to-pronounce, hard-to-remember, arbitrary, and just universally annoying. Others say that it should be "masson" or "billion", to highlight it's a boson and to emphasize that $10 billion was spent to find it. :-)

Let me say that one could also call it a "hardon" because it makes previously soft/light/placid particles hard/heavy. It sounds better than "stickyon", "inertiaon", "oom" (for "origin of mass"), and "weighton", doesn't it? This name would also explain why its glimpses were first detected exactly at the Large Hardon Collider, as a big fraction of the journalists call the world's largest particle accelerator. Another advantage is that the word starts with "h" so the abbreviation of the field wouldn't have to be modified. The same advantage is shared by another proposal of mine, "haton", inspired by the Mexican hat potential.

There's one more reason why the God particle may be a preferred term over the Higgs: Peter Higgs is great (and I once shared an office with him for a day in Santa Barbara) but the term Higgs boson still somewhat overestimates the role a single physicist played in the developments of particle physics.

Using really old papers to justify the term "God particle"

To show why the God particle is a pretty accurate term, let's analyze one of the most influential papers ever, the Bible. It wasn't written by Peter Higgs; it was written by God or at least by one of His real or self-believed assistants.

The first book of the Bible is called Genesis; it should say Baryogenesis but you see that it was close to the truth. Let us now compare the traditional wording of the paper with the modern one.
1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
The accurate modern version says
1. In the beginning, the Higgs field created, by interactions with itself, the unstable stationary point at the top and the stable stationary valley at the bottom of the potential.
You see that it's almost the same thing. The author of the Bible wanted to say that the Higgs field allows both unbroken symmetry as well as broken symmetry. It goes on like this:
2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
The refined version says
2. The symmetry-breaking vacuum was a sea of radiation without any internal structure; and electromagnetic interactions and light were previously mixed with the other electroweak gauge bosons. And the condensate of the Higgs field moved into the sea of radiation.
It's pretty obvious what the Bible was supposed to say. The following three verses ("First Day", or "First Quantization Applied To Gauge Bosons") explains the impact of the Higgs field on the gauge fields:
3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light (in esperanto Lumo, much like in "Luboš Motl" or "Nokia Lumia").

4. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

5. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
I don't need to tell you that what they meant was this:
3. And the Higgs field had the quantum numbers to preserve the unbroken symmetry of light: and light particle remained light and probably massless.

4. And the Higgs field was able to interact with light (via virtual loops of W-bosons and top quarks), i.e. to "see it", and the vanishing tree-level interactions guaranteed that the quantum number sourcing the interactions via the exchange of virtual light particles was a good quantum number (called the electric charge).

5. The introduction of the condensate of the Higgs field divided the gauge bosons to massless ones and massive ones. The Higgs vev included light to the first category; and the term Z-bosons was adopted for the massive part that isn't light. The Z-bosons, separated from light, were not protected against mass corrections, and therefore became massive. Because they're electrically neutral, they remained dark, at least at the tree level. The first period of the massive gauge bosons' oscillations ended.
You must agree that the modern rewriting of the paper is much more comprehensible; when you read the King James version of the Bible, you could sometimes even misunderstand that they talk about the electroweak symmetry breaking.

The "Second Day" verses have the modern title "Second Quantization For Fermions". They say, in the King James edition:
6. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

7. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

8. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
The modern version says:
6. And the Higgs field decided to generate positive fermion masses. Due to the Pauli exclusion principles, fermions are impenetrable and firm and they may separate regions occupied by unlimited amounts of bosons.

7. And the Higgs field generated the massive fermions, and divided the upper components of the fermion doublets (such as charged leptons and top-type quarks) from the lower components (neutrinos and down-type quarks) whose third component of the weak isospin was beneath zero: and the previous symmetry mixing both components of the doublet was suddenly broken, indeed.

8. And the Higgs boson gave rise to the charged leptons and neutrinos; and quarks. Many of them could have been born because the fields associated with them were subject to second quantization.
You see that the original version of the paper has an inconsistency. God created the Heaven twice, in verse 1 and verse 8, and in those two contexts, the Heaven meant something else. It was a fundamental concept in verse 1 but became just a firmament in verse 8. The updated version of the paper fixes these typos.

I don't want to copy-and-paste the whole modernized Bible ("The Bible Demystified") for you (although some people could also be interested in the Gospel of Matthew Strassler and other books) but the conclusion is clear: the Higgs boson is the God particle.

You have heard the holy/Higgs-field-related word.

Apologies to readers whose religious beliefs could have been desecrated. I am from a country of infidels.

According to the latest 2011 census, one-half of the Czech citizens refused to discuss the voluntary section on links to any religions – probably because they don't have any and they don't want to waste a minute with this part of the form. (Only 10% of the people dared to choose this solution 10 years earlier.) Additional 36% who did fill it identified themselves as atheists. That's already 86%. Well over 90% of the people don't attend churches on a monthly (or more frequent) basis. 15,070 citizens (including almost 4,000 Prague folks, i.e. 0.3% of Prague) answered that they worship the religious values of the Jedi knights from the Star Wars.

That makes them approach many of the old-fashioned evangelical churches. ;-) (On a non-religious topic, the Ukrainian folks jumped by 260 percent since 2001; Germans jumped by 500 percent. 90% of the Roma people in Prague disappeared, probably because they suddenly became Czechs.) The Jedi's success in the census puts Czechia right in the core of the British Commonwealth, together with Montenegro. :-) The percentage of Jediists in Czechia is higher than in any country of the British Commonwealth except for England and Wales themselves where the phenomenon was recorded. A reason why it's even more remarkable was that the answer "Jedi" wasn't included on the form; the respondents had to know it in advance and actively fill it out!

On 16 November 2006, two Jedi delivered a protest letter to UN officials in recognition of the International Day for Tolerance. They requested that it be renamed the "UN Interstellar Day of Tolerance" and cited the 2001 Census showing 390,000 Jedi in England and Wales. The Czech Jedi knights report made it into full-fledged news at AFP and Japanese TV stations which also show ads with Shinkansen riding on the Charles Bridge. ;-)


  1. And now, Vaclav Havel has gone and what else is there left to say. The blows of death hit one again and again in the solar plexus. The Czechs, his people, where ambivalent about him - he made an extraordinary brave decision early in his Presidency - he decided that since one couldn't determine who was a criminal and who a political prisoner one should let all of them out. And they hated him for that. And his yearly soliloquies, his radio 'sermons', reminding them of their complex but beautiful Capek (sic! Sorry, I forget) roots. These extraordinary brave people, flawed, yes, for look how they continue to treat, despite their better nature, the so called 'Gypsies', but riddled with the ultimately Pyrrhic cancer of freedom. Vaclav, you were the best, the better self of ourselves and I feel guilty that latterly I didn't pay attention to you. The power of the powerless, my friend.

  2. Hi Lubos,

    I really do not know why people have a problem with the term God Particle?

    It's as if you accept it some how this weakens their case for being a scientist in some way? That's just my opinion. Theorist or Experimentalist does not weaken their case for being an atheist nor does it provide sound evidence for?

    It to me speaks more to the elusiveness of finding something that "appears" intangible. One may statistically find evidence somewhere, sometime?

    Given the parameter space of something we like to measure, what said that such an anomaly like statistical fluctuation may be provided with sigmas greater then 3 as to the sureness of the idea of such a matter forming particle? Just imagine all the decay products formulated and proofed.

    Again used in context of the Fly's eye experiment, such comments were provided too, which spurred on further research into high energy particles. Maybe such a location might have caused the same consternation as to the viability of true scientific research?

    Sometimes it the intangible which spurs on our quest to push our own limitations beyond what we have currently accepted?


  3. I'd be surprised if the people who killed "Truth" and "Beauty" as names of quarks will allow "God" to stand.

  4. The god-particle is a good name, in the sense that the Higgs mechanism is a religious rather than a scientific theory. Trying to explain the mass of an electron on the basis of a particle about 250,000 times its mass, is way beyond crazy.

    The only way to make sense of the universe, and achieve a theory of everything, is to accept that electric charges are the fundamental building blocks of particles. I have done the maths and it seems to work, but I really need Cern to stop piddling around trying to prove the existence of physicists’ imaginary beings, and instead concentrate its efforts on measuring the mass of as many particles as possible, as accurately as possible.

    Apologies to any physicists whose religious beliefs are offended, I too am an infidel.

  5. The only problem with calling it the God particle is that it is more or less saying that that is the end of the road - you might as well call it the ultimate particle. It's time to shut down the colliders and never build another one - it's time to close up shop. We are done.

    Or am I wrong?

  6. Seems like God lost His marbles.