Sit down, boson: I've got to tell you how life really started
BEFORE GETTING TO the question of why we need to stop calling the Higgs boson the God particle, let’s cut to a depressing example of how, in a great week for science, some people are still doing fine work in keeping idiocy on the agenda.
In 2010 Northern Ireland’s then culture minister, Nelson McCausland, wrote a letter arguing that the planned Giant’s Causeway visitor centre should acknowledge the creationist view of its origins. That view is that Earth was made by a supreme being, a few thousand years ago. (The causeway, presumably, was a flourish made between designing fjords and deciding which volcanoes to keep lit.) The visitor centre opened this week.
The UK National Trust, which looks after the Giant’s Causeway, said: “In this exhibition we also acknowledge that for some people, this debate continues today and we reflect and respect the fact that creationists today have a different perspective on the age of the Earth from that of mainstream science.”
Presumably, it would have been a little more troublesome to put out a statement saying: “Have you been to this part of the world? There are people here who actually believe this stuff. But they write letters. And elect their type into positions of power. You want to deal with them, then good luck to you.”
The Caleb Foundation, a Christian group that lobbied for the inclusion, was cock-a-hoop. “We have worked closely with the National Trust over many months with a view to ensuring that the new Causeway Visitor Centre includes an acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this,” it said.
There is no debate, of course. Or legitimacy of the position. It would be as legitimate to argue that there is a debate between the standard geological model and the idea that giants were responsible for the causeway.
The leap from the narrow-minded view of the world acknowledged at the Giant’s Causeway to the “God particle” is a big one, but they are extreme points on a spectrum.
The Higgs boson’s nickname was coined by the scientist and writer Leon Lederman for a 1993 book, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? Lederman is no bluffer. A chemist by training, he was discovering particles while many of today’s scientists were still struggling with The Pop-Up Book of Space. He discovered the muon neutrino and the bottom quark. It was good enough for him to get a Nobel Prize in Physics.
Unfortunately, he also gets some flack for coining the phrase, as physicists dislike it. Peter Higgs, for what it’s worth, is an atheist and doesn’t like the term, either, although he has said that he feels it could offend some believers. But Lederman didn’t mean it as having any divine connotations – only that, 20 years ago, proof of its existence was elusive. His line is that he wanted to call it the “goddamn particle” but that publishers decided they wouldn’t sell so many books of that name.
It stuck. Fast. Its problem now is that it colours the search with a theistic hue that bears no relation to Lederman’s original joke. Instead it suggests that a notional creator developed it as cosmic chicken fillets to give the universe a bit of a lift. More than that, the injection of the supernatural has the unintentional consequence of eroding a rigorously scientific endeavour. In fact, what was so heartening about this week’s news was that it was a wonderful example of how science works.
There was a theory, a search for proof and an awareness across the decades that it might not be found and so could require a rethink.
Even when it came to “discovering” the particle, Cern said not that it was certain, but that it had found something that is in all probability the Higgs boson. But it still has lots more work to do to see what it has actually discovered. That is how science works. And, in this case especially, it is truly awesome.
The “God particle” moniker will survive, though. Even if it is an inaccurate shorthand, it is now a neat and recognisable one – and it touches on the peculiar phenomenon by which it can be easier, when you want to sum up complex science, to reach for a metaphor rooted in the supernatural.
You will often read in the newspapers of a “miracle” rescue or “miracle” survival. This is somewhat neater than saying: “A man was rescued from a cliff edge today in circumstances that, although unlikely, were a culmination of a strong educational infrastructure that created an environment in which people across several disciplines developed expertise, honed their skills and worked as a multidisciplinary team to a level that prepared them for such a challenging situation. The man is in a stable condition in hospital.”
Okay, so it’s more complex, and not much use for headline writers, but the scientific truth behind the Giant’s Causeway, a great rescue or a new dawn in our understanding of the universe is where real, tangible, definable wonder can be found. And the very human work that led to a discovery is where awe should be properly directed.