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Thursday, November 27, 2014

The “God Particle” Is A Stupid Name

Posted by jlwile on July 5, 2012

The lines between these two charged particles represent the electric field that they produce. (Click for credit)

The media is abuzz with the announcement that two separate groups have discovered evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson, which has been called “the God particle.” That’s an unfortunate name, because the Higgs boson has nothing more to do with God than any other particle in His creation. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the Higgs boson is unimportant. Indeed, it is very important, and if the results announced really do indicate the existence of the Higgs boson, it is a major victory for the Standard Model of physics. It just has nothing special to do with God.

To understand what the Higgs boson is, think of something that is probably a little more familiar to you: the electromagnetic force. When two particles are charged, they affect one another through the electromagnetic force. If they are oppositely charged, they will attract one another, and if they both carry the same charge, they will repel one another. We can represent this interaction with a series of field lines, such as those given in the illustration above. Those lines show you the electric field, which causes the charged particles to interact with one another.

But how do these particles interact? How does one charged particle “know” that there is another charged particle out there, and how does it “know” whether to be attracted to it or repelled by it? The answer is that the charged particles exchange photons (particles of light). This exchange allows the electromagnetic force to work. If it weren’t for the exchange of photons, the two charged particles could not affect one another, so without the exchange of photons, there would be no electromagnetic force. In “physics speak,” we say that photons mediate the electromagnetic field.

The Higgs boson is, like the photon, a mediator. It is supposed to mediate the Higgs field, which is what the Standard Model of physics says determines the mass of every particle in the universe.

Now wait a minute. Doesn’t the amount of “stuff” in a particle determine its mass? After all, consider two books. They are both made using the same kinds of cover and paper, but one book has 100 pages, while the other book has 1,000 pages. The latter book is the heavier one, right? It has more mass because it has more pages. Isn’t that how particle mass is determined as well? Not really. Consider the electron, for example. Modern physics calls it a point particle. That means it is infinitely small. In other words, it has no volume. How can something with no volume have any “stuff” in it at all?

In the Standard Model, the mass of a particle is not measured by how much “stuff” the particle has in it. Instead, mass is considered a property, like charge. A particle doesn’t have to hold any “stuff” to have charge, and in the Standard Model, it also doesn’t have to hold any “stuff” to have mass. So in the end, the Standard Model needs something to give particles (like electrons) their mass. That’s what the Higgs field is supposed to do. The Higgs field permeates the entire universe, and the way a particle interacts with the Higgs field determines its mass. Photons don’t interact with the Higgs field at all, for example, so they have no mass. Electrons have mass because they interact with the Higgs field, and the amount of mass they have depends on the strength of that interaction.

The Higgs boson, of course, is what mediates the Higgs field. In other words, it provides a way for particles to interact with the field. We can never see the field, but if the field is real, we should be able to see the particle that mediates it. That’s why scientists have been searching for the Higgs boson. If we find the particle that mediates the field, we know the field is real. If we know the field is real, we know the mechanism by which particles have mass.

Why has the Higgs boson been called the “God Particle?” Well, some physicists say that without it, particles would have no mass, therefore there would be no gravity, therefore there would be no stars, no planets, and no people. So the Higgs boson is the reason we all exist. However, that’s rather foolish. I could just as easily say that without electrical charge there would be no people, because the chemistry that runs our bodies depends on the existence of electrical charge. In that case, then, the photon is the “God Particle,” since it mediates the electromagnetic field. Others have suggested that because the Higgs field permeates all of space, it is like God, who is omnipresent. But space permeates all space as well. Is space like God? Of course not.

So the Higgs boson has nothing more to do with God than any other particle in His creation. It is a very important part of the Standard model of physics, and although I haven’t been able to look at their data yet, the scientists at CERN really think they have found it. If that turns out to be true, it’s great news for the Standard Model, but it really has nothing to do with God!

Comments

34 Responses to “The “God Particle” Is A Stupid Name”
  1. Colin says:

    Ok…You aren’t just an armchair apologist like myself. lol.
    I see you have qualifications, and knowledge to match. I am linking this to my site for sure.

  2. Jessica T. says:

    Alright, physics is not my strongest subject. I’m trying to understand this article, though! :)

    So the Higgs bosun is a particle that is very important to mass, right? Like the photon is important to the electromagnetic field? I’ve heard the media say that the so-called “God particle” could “explain how the world was made.” Why do they say that?

    Thanks! :)

  3. anonymous coward says:

    I remember reading in Leon Lederman’s book by the same name that it was called the “Godd*mned Particle” because it was so hard to find. It was shortened to God Particle since that is more media friendly. Apocryphal, I know, but Leon Lederman would know, if anyone did.

  4. WSH says:

    Oh yes, physicists have been irritated by the way the media and popular culture use the “God particle” name for years. I’ve recently seen this result in misunderstandings from both atheists and Christians. In one case, an atheist posted a derisive comment about how Christian’s belief was somehow not necessary now that the “God particle” had been found. A Christian friend of mine posted that God allowed physicists to finally catch up with Scripture in seeing evidence of God in the Higgs boson. What both stemmed from was the idea, pushed by popular media, that the God particle had more to with the existence of God than any other particle like the top-quark, charm quark, or any other fundamental particle, when it doesn’t.

  5. jlwile says:

    Thanks, Colin.

  6. jlwile says:

    Jessica, I think the media say that because they don’t really understand what it is. The Higgs boson can explain how particles get mass. It cannot explain how the world was made any more than the photon can explain how the world was made. It’s an important discovery, because it tells us that the Standard Model is on the right track when it comes to understanding fundamental particles. However, the Standard Model says nothing about how the world was made. It just tells us how the world works.

  7. jlwile says:

    Hehe, anonymous. I have no idea whether or not that story is true, but it makes more sense than than any other explanation I have heard!

  8. gracekalman says:

    I think my brain just exploded…and the fact that my father is playing his banjo right next to me isn’t helping matters. I will never major in physics.

  9. David says:

    @anonymous/jlwile in replying to him – that story is on Wikipedia (although that really isn’t proof…)

    Thanks for this explanation, I had read about the Higgs boson but never really understood what it was or what it did, or even why it was so important.

  10. Seth says:

    Thanks for the crystal clear explanation :)
    It seems every time I read about the Higgs Boson I get a different explanation of what it is; making it very hard to understand. Here’s two facts I’ve heard, are they true?

    1. The Higgs Boson (or field) slows photons to that they travel slower than light, this requires them to gain mass.

    The Higgs Boson explains the imbalance of Antimatter and ordinary matter in the universe.

    For me as a major in physics this sciencey stuff I find really interesting, unfortunately most of physics is math which takes awhile to learn, so by the time I start learning about the Higgs Boson, it’ll be 2 years down the road. :/

  11. Gavin Donley says:

    Hello Dr. Wile. I used to participate in your science question of the week, and I have worked through your entire series of science textbooks, with the exception of marine biology.

    My question was whether this important particle is actually a graviton, or is it something completely different?

  12. W. Brown says:

    That story concerning the name of the particle and its origins is also here http://lightyears.blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/05/higgs-boson-is-like-a-justin-bieber-fan/?hpt=hp_t2 . Hopefully CNN didn’t just take that from Wikipedia, although one never knows with CNN. =P I’m glad some people have made it their profession to go after projects like this, because I certainly wasn’t cut out for it. =D

  13. jlwile says:

    Seth, neither of those things is true. Photons do not interact with the Higgs field, so it doesn’t slow them down. Other particles interact with the Higgs field, and the strength of the interaction determines the mass of the particle. The Higgs field also has nothing to do with the imbalance of matter and antimatter in the universe. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which was also looking for the Higgs boson, is doing experiments to try to understand this imbalance. Right now, Supersymmetry (Susy) is the favored hypothesis, and the LHC will try to find evidence for Susy. However, the Higgs field and Higgs boson are not related to this at all.

  14. jlwile says:

    Gavin, I can see why you think the Higgs boson might be a graviton, but it is not. The Higgs boson is what allows a particle to interact with the Higgs field, which gives the particle mass. Once the particle has mass, it is affected by gravity, but if gravity really is a force, then it must be mediated by some other particle, such as a graviton. I personally don’t think that gravitons exist, because General Relativity seems to be a good description of gravity, and it tells us that gravity isn’t really a force. It is just a consequence of how mass warps spacetime. If General Relativity is true, then, the Higgs field gives a particle mass, and that mass then warps spacetime to produce the effect we see as gravity.

  15. jlwile says:

    Thanks W. Brown. I hope that story is the right one. It at least tells us that the origin of the name had nothing to do with trying to attribute extraordinary properties to the particle itself.

  16. seth says:

    Thanks for responding :)
    I guess sometimes you just can’t trust everything you hear…

    You also shouldn’t open your mouth unless you really know what your talking about.

  17. A homeschooled science geek says:

    I watched MSNBC on the 4th and they said that scientists discovered what they call the “God particle.”

    I was like -_____-

    They also said it might make parallel universes more plausible. Huh?

    What can you expect, they’re journalists, not scientists.

  18. jlwile says:

    The idea that the Higgs boson makes parallel universes more plausible is truly nonsensical. I realize that they are journalists, but where in the world did they get that idea from?

  19. josiahkane says:

    Is there something in the standard model that allows for parallel universes, wherein evidence for the standard model would indeed make the existence of parallel universes more likely?

  20. jlwile says:

    Not really, Josiah. The Standard Model is really just about fundamental particles and how they interact. It really doesn’t touch on issues like parallel universes, at least not to my knowledge. As a nuclear chemist, however, parallel universes are not exactly close to my area of study. Thus, there might be something I am missing.

  21. josiahkane says:

    Well, what else can you expect from people who name a boson “the God particle”.

    There is one thing I really don’t get though. According to everything I’m hearing about this boson, it exists at rest energies on the order of 100 GeV. Yet the very familiar (massive) particles we’re familiar with such as Protons have energies on the order of 1 GeV. To suggest that the HB gives their mass seems a bit like explaining that a normally tiny and floppy party balloon has its volume because there’s an elephant hiding inside.

  22. A homeschooled science geek says:

    I don’t know where they got it from. They were talking to this one scientist who said it.

    They are completely unrelated, Dr. Wile. I do some research in physics and we have enough trouble understanding how particles interact with each other in ONE universe.

    The main thing I get is that parallel universes try to explain away the fine tuning of the universe. Looks fine tuned, must be random and if it weren’t this way we wouldn’t be around to observe it.

    That is a philosophical argument that isn’t even wrong.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Not_even_wrong

  23. jlwile says:

    Josiah, I think you have the wrong idea. The Higgs boson isn’t inside other particles, it links particles to the Higgs field. If you think of the Higgs field as a big “reservoir” of mass, and the Higgs boson as what links other particles to that reservoir, then it makes sense that the Higgs boson must have a lot of mass. If mass is “flowing” from the Higgs field to each particle through the Higgs boson, then the Higgs boson itself must have a lot of mass.

  24. Jessica T. says:

    Thanks for your very helpful answer! :)

    I have another question… So when certain media say that this particle explains or supports the Big Bang hypothesis, they don’t understand what the Higgs boson actually is/does? Where do the reporters get that idea, then?

    Thanks again!

  25. jlwile says:

    Jessica, I think most “journalists” these days don’t take the time to learn enough about anything on which they report. When it comes to science, this leads to a lot of misconceptions being reported. Consider a journalist interviewing a scientist who says something like, “In order for galaxies to form after the Big Bang, particles had to have mass so that they would be gravitationally attracted to one another. The Higgs boson tells us how those particles got mass.” To a journalist who doesn’t care to do his or her job well, that could easily be reported as “The Higgs boson supports the Big Bang,” even though the scientist said nothing of the sort. If the journalist would bother to learn about the issue, he or she would learn that whether the Higgs boson gives particles mass through their interaction with the Higgs field or the Giant Universal Unicorn imparts mass by touching each particle with the tip of its magic horn, the Big Bang model stays the same. Thus, the Higgs boson tells us a lot about mass, but it tells us nothing about the Big Bang.

  26. josiahkane says:

    “then it makes sense that the Higgs boson must have a lot of mass”
    It would, except that photons don’t have a lot of charge.

  27. jlwile says:

    Touche’, Joshia. There is one problem with that excellent rejoinder, however. Physicists don’t think that photons give particles their charge. They think that photons mediate the electromagnetic force. According to current theory, the exchange of photons produces the electromagnetic force. However, the photons don’t impart charge. The charge that a particle possesses drives it to exchange photons.

    So what gives particles their charge? The answer is that charge is an intrinsic property of the fundamental particle. That might sound like a cop-out, and in some sense it is. However, there are really only a few possible charges for fundamental particles: -1e for the electron (where e=1.602×10−19 Coulombs) and either -1/3e for three types of quark or +2/3e for the other three types. By contrast, there are a myriad of masses for fundamental particles. Each of the six types of quarks, for example, has its own, distinct mass. The Higgs field takes those myriad masses down to a single type of interaction. Since there are only a few possible fundamental charges, and since they are all rational multiples of a single charge (e), it is easier to think of charge as a fundamental property of certain particles. That might not be correct, but it is where the Standard Model stands right now.

  28. Jessica T. says:

    Ah, that makes a lot of sense. Thank you so much for your help! :)

  29. Mary Kay Radnich says:

    Dr. Wile, yes, Lederman’s comment as posted by anonymous coward was also noted in TIME magazine. I think the Higgs Bosun is very important not only in Physics but in faith issues as it brings us to a closer understanding to the inner workings of God’s Universe/Creation.

    I used your Chemistry textbook this year in my class at a very very small Christian school. While the text explanations were excellent, the lack of graphics, photos and other goodies made it difficult for my 3 students. They found the book tedious and boring. (sorry)I realize you are no longer in control of the publishing of the books but I just wanted to make a comment. For me, the book was a good refresher of Chemistry for me, something I haven’t pondered much in the past 40 years! Blessings.

  30. jlwile says:

    Thanks for your comment, Mary Kay. I agree that all major scientific discoveries are important, as they help us understand how God has orchestrated His creation. However, the Higgs Boson is no more important in that sense than the photon or any other boson.

    There is no reason to be sorry that your students found my texts tedious and boring. My books are not the first that have been reviewed that way by some students! Personally, I find all those “extras” as distracting to the learning process. In my opinion, if I added such extras, the books would not be as understandable.

  31. Silvaqua says:

    Thank you for explaining this in such a clear manner! Also, I would like to leave you with this charming perspective on the matter.

    https://i.chzbgr.com/completestore/12/7/22/9PzPfzjxB0u1zzGnY4eVJw2.png

  32. jlwile says:

    That’s awesome, Silvaqua!

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