It’s not the God particle!

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Monday, July 16, 2012

European scientists announced last week the discovery of a new particle consistent with the Higgs boson, a far cry from finding the so-called “God particle.” In this simulated data from one of the experiments, a particle collision creates a Higgs boson, which quickly decays into more particles. // Lucas Taylor/CERN
By now, everyone who cares about the subject probably already knows about this month’s announcement from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) about the discovery of a new particle. Probably a lot of people who don’t care have also heard a little about it. In fact, a lot of analysis and writing has already appeared on the subject, so I won’t add too much here; I just want to clarify two things.

First of all, we have to keep in mind what they actually announced: not that they’ve discovered the Higgs boson, but rather a new boson consistent with the Higgs. Reading between the lines on this, it’s clear that pretty much everyone expects it to be the long-sought Higgs — which would explain how matter gets mass — but the scientists are being extra cautious. They don’t have the definitive proof yet, so they’re holding back on officially calling the search over. Scientists are a careful bunch.

Second, I wish I could just tell everyone to stop referring to the Higgs boson as “the God particle.” That name makes no sense, and it distracts from the actual significance of the thing. The particle has nothing to do with religion, gods, or the divine, so there’s just no reason for the name. It’s nothing but a weird little nickname, and would make about as much sense as referring to a pi meson as a “devil particle.” No one in science actually calls the Higgs the God particle, and I think they actually make fun of people do. So again, I encourage everyone else to stop calling it that too. (I may have mentioned the misnomer before.)

But by all means, celebrate! CERN researchers definitely found a new particle, and it’s very likely to be the missing piece of the standard model, which would be a huge step forward for physics and for our understanding of the universe. Just keep in mind that it’s not a sure thing yet — and that it’s certainly not a God particle.

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