How to understand and explain ‘the God particle’

Journalists love to use words like “discovery” and “breakthrough,” but scientists cringe at such words. They might be especially uneasy with the phrase “The God Particle,” a term created by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman as a way of explaining how the subatomic world works -- not who created it.

Scientists use a different phrase, the Higgs boson, and offer descriptions like the one CERN director general Rolf Heuer gave on Wednesday morning in a news conference near Geneva:

“The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle's properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe.”

No wonder journalists are tempted to say things like “Scientists have discovered the God Particle, the key to understanding the universe.”

No, not yet.

The God Particle

Lederman described the particle as the thing that, “I believe orchestrates the cosmic symphony.”

Lederman also explained how he came by the phrase “The God Particle.” In a paper called “The Tale of Two Particles and the Ultimate T-Shirt,” he explained:

This boson is so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive, that I have given it a nickname: the God Particle. Why God Particle? Two reasons. One, the publisher wouldn't let us call
it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing. And two, there is a connection, of sorts, to another book, a much older one ...

He was referring to the Biblical book, Genesis 11: 1-9, a passage he says evokes a time when people shared one language and matter was symmetrical. Then, it got complicated.

Lederman was one of legions of scientists who have been searching for this particle that could explain how atoms get their mass. In a way, it is an effort to understand the smallest thing, subatomic particles, so we can understand the biggest thing, the universe.

Lederman wrote his own version of a new-fangled Genesis 11 in which he imagined this day, a day when scientists might be able to announce that they were on the verge of unraveling a mystery:

“And the whole universe was of many languages, and of many speeches. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Waxahachie, and they dwelt there. And they said to one another, Go to, let us build a Giant Collider, whose collisions may reach back to the beginning of time. And they had superconducting magnets for bending, and protons had they for smashing.

And the Lord came down to see the accelerator, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold the people are un-confounding my confounding. And the Lord sighed and said. Go to, let us go down, and there give them the God Particle so that they may see how beautiful is the universe I have made.”

— The Very New Testament, 11:1

The journalism landmines

When you start using words like God Particle, you start mixing theology (a belief system) and science, a system of provable facts that can be replicated.

When you use words like "discovery" you imply that now we know something that we did not ever know before. Some have said finding the Higgs particle is like finding a dinosaur footprint; you have found a remnant or trail, not the THING itself.

But let’s be clear, even the scientists involved in this work believe they are very near knowing something big and important.

This undated image made available by CERN shows a typical candidate event including two high-energy photons whose energy (depicted by red towers) is measured in the CMS electromagnetic calorimeter. The yellow lines are the measured tracks of other particles produced in the collision. The pale blue volume shows the CMS crystal calorimeter barrel. (AP Photo/CERN)

“Discovery” is a misleading word, though. This announcement has been more like a decades-long oozing of understanding that has picked up speed in recent months.

A few days ago, American scientists said they were close to being able to say they found the God particle. Close but not quite.

Back in March, American scientists reported pretty much the same thing, that after studying data for more than 40 years, they were pretty close to being able to say they isolated the God particle.

Six months earlier, in December 2011, two European groups found roughly the same thing.

But this week, the reports hail what appeared to be something brand new -- a “discovery.”

One report said, “Scientists today hailed the "momentous" discovery…”

The New York Times said scientists, “discovered a new subatomic particle that looks for all the world like the Higgs boson, a potential key to understanding why elementary particles have mass and indeed to the existence of diversity and life in the universe.”

What were scientists looking for and what did they find?

Let's start small. Subatomic particles like electrons, protons and neutrons make up atoms. Atoms make up molecules. Molecules stick together to make substances like water, wood, chemicals and rubber.

Then there are these things that physicists call bosons. Bosons are particles such as photons, but they do not react the same as other particles. They appear to help other particles get along.   Photons do not possess mass, just energy. Other particles, protons for example, do have mass.

But where did those tiniest particles, the bosons, come from? A scientist named Peter Higgs (hence the Higgs boson) suggested that maybe there is a key particle that others interact with. If scientists could figure out this particle, they could understand what gives electrons, protons and neutrons their mass, their substance.

CNN’s Nick Thompson offered this analogy:

“Imagine the universe like a party. Relatively unknown guests at the party can pass quickly through the room unnoticed; more popular guests will attract groups of people (the Higgs bosons) who will then slow their movement through the room.

"The speed of particles moving through the Higgs field works much in the same way. Certain particles will attract larger clusters of Higgs bosons -- and the more Higgs bosons a particle attracts, the greater its mass will be.”

When scientists made their big announcement this week, they were very careful NOT to call it a breakthrough or discovery.  They did not claim to have found the Higgs boson, although clearly that is what everyone hopes.

The Wall Street Journal’s story shows just how gingerly the announcement was made:

“Joe Incandela, spokesman for one of the experiments, told scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, that the new particle was definitely a boson and the heaviest boson ever found. “

"The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks."

The work that produced today's announcement is the product of the scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, located on the border of Switzerland and France. The collider is an underground pipeline, a racetrack of sorts, in which scientists blast two beams of subatomic particles called "hadrons" -- either protons or lead ions -- at each other in an effort to make them collide.

The notion has always been that by smashing the atoms together, they could replicate the so-called "Big Bang" explosion that may have happened when the universe began.

Americans have been involved in this collider business for decades. But last year, the Department of Energy closed the Fermilab Tevatron collider near Batavia, Illinois because of budget woes.

So, why does all of this matter?

(A little play on words for you physics geeks.)

Particle science has tangible benefits, beyond explaining how the universe works.

Medicine now uses particle science to diagnose and treat cancer.  MRIs, which you can find in major hospitals worldwide, use superconducting magnet technology.

Homeland Security uses particle physics to look inside big shipping crates.

The World Wide Web was created by "CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee ... to give particle physicists a tool to communicate quickly and effectively with globally dispersed colleagues at universities and laboratories."

The Department of Energy’s website points to other ways its supercollider has touched our lives:

  • Food sterilization
  • Medical isotope production
  • Simulation of cancer treatments
  • Reliability testing of nuclear weapons
  • Scanning of shipping containers
  • Proposed combination of PET and MRI imaging
  • Improved sound quality in archival recordings
  • Parallel computing
  • Ion implantation for strengthening materials
  • Curing of epoxies and plastics
  • Data mining and simulation
  • International relations
  • Nuclear waste transmutation
  • Remote operation of complex facilities

What you can do with this story

So you want to tap into this story and your editor’s eyes are rolling to the back of his/her head. What now?

First, get the story right. Don’t overplay this week's announcement as some new breakthrough discovery that just happened. Don’t play it as some theological discussion because it is called the God particle.

Second, treat the story seriously. Particle physics may sound too intimidating for you to tackle. But the local applications that affect the public are all around you. Look in the nuclear medicine department of your local hospital and at port security.

Third, how are your local universities involved in discovery? How excited are students to live in an age of accelerated discovery? Talk to the best science students and ask them what they hope to discover in their lifetimes.

Fourth, what is the state of science education in your part of the United States?

I wonder if we live in an age where America will find ways to invest in big ideas like a super collider again. We mothballed the Space Shuttle program with no idea of what is next. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some vision, plan of action and funding for what we want to learn and discover next? Ask Congressional and Presidential candidates about that.

I bet you have ideas too. Share them in the comments section.

  • Profile picture for user atompkins

    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon