By Jon Cartwright
We have Leon Lederman to blame. For the “God particle”, that is. Since he published his 1993 book, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?, the layperson might be forgiven for believing the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is not searching for a particle called the Higgs boson, but a path to spiritual enlightenment.
Many physicists hate referring to Him. For some particle physicists, the “God particle” belittles the hoards of other theoretical particles that might be detected at the LHC. They say it reveals little of the particle’s function, and is savoured by writers with little rhetoric. For some non-particle physicists, the God particle epitomizes the hype that surrounds particle physics. Then there are those who think divine connotations are always a bad idea.
Are they, though? When a furore about the use of “God particle” began bouncing around the blogsphere last August, mostly in response to an article written by Dennis Overbye of the New York Times in which he defended the term, several agreed that religious metaphors should be an acceptable part of our language. Einstein used them all the time (e.g. “Quantum mechanics…yields much, but it hardly brings us close to the secrets of the Old One”) yet historians tend to conclude he was not a theist. Even when I began writing this blog entry I thought I might be clever and refer to the Higgs as the light at the end of the LHC’s tunnel — before I reminded myself that the Higgs is not the only particle of import they expect to find.
As Sean Carroll noted on the Cosmic Variance blog, it is a fear of pandering to the religious right that is driving the expulsion of religious metaphors. If certain atheists succeed, religious metaphors will go the way of the dodo. The God particle is not one of the best, but it might be one of the last.
Which brings me to the point of this entry (not that Earth-shattering, I’ll warn you now). This morning I was looking at the news links posted on the Interactions website, only to find one from the Guardian newspaper headlined “The hunt for God’s particle“. That’s right — you read it right the first time. “God’s particle”? Where’s the metaphor in that? Have we now come full-circle, having compared the search for the Higgs boson to the path for spiritual enlightenment, only to reduce it to another of God’s creations?
Poor old Lederman must wonder what he started.