July 6th, 2012
Some prominent scientists have an unfortunate tendency to wax poetic about physics, mixing popular cultural ideas — including religious and non-scientific terminology — into their public outreach. Einstein was particularly bad, using the term “god” which has a pretty standard meaning to most religious people, when he himself was an atheist according to common usage of the term and readily said so; to Einstein, “god” was an easily grasped shorthand for the laws of an orderly universe. People see an Einstein “god” quotation on a poster and assume he was religious, and the scientists is then abused by religious types who want to make the false claim and fallacious argument that their religious belief is supported by a really smart scientist. Einstein said that introducing the Cosmological Constant into his equations and failing to predict the expanding universe was his greatest blunder (even though we now have evidence for just usch a constant being needed), but I sometimes wonder if it is this misconception some of his quotes have left behind.
Physicist Leon Lederman is similarly guilty, although perhaps his publisher should share the blame, for nicknaming the Higgs boson the “God Particle.”
Well, as you’re likely aware, the so-called “God Particle” has been found, with a 99.99995% certainty. I’m late with this post and I’m not a particle physicist, so I’ll just refer to this nice explanation by Phil Plait for the discovery details. A lot of people seem excited by the discovery, likely because particle physics hasn’t made much experimental progress in decades. It’s a little disappointing for me as a scientist since it’s merely consistent with the standard model we have, and therefore less exciting than something totally unexpected would have been.
A few days ago I ran across an article on io9.com urging us to “Stop calling it “The God Particle”" and I couldn’t agree more. This is science and there’s nothing religious about this particle or how it was discovered. No one found it by praying to it, and it hasn’t done anything miraculous not predicted by physics. It does, however, suggest to a mildly interested member of the public, or perhaps a motivated but poorly informed religious person, that somehow science is supportive of their superstitious beliefs. It’s compounding Einstein’s misleading language. We should and ought to fix it, or at least make enough fun of it that people stop taking the term “God Particle” seriously. Toward that effect, let me repeat some of the internet meme images I’ve seen in recent days:
I know you can’t stop a meme, not even with a meme. Fred Hoyle intended the term “Big Bang” to ridicule a theory he was skeptical about, and even though it’s not exactly accurate and gives misconceptions to people, it has stuck. I’m afraid this is the case with the Higgs Boson. Maybe if when it comes up, and someone says, “Oh, are you talking about the God particle?” we can try to say “No, I said the Higgs boson and I meant the Higgs boson.” But it’s going to be way too easy to say, “Yes, the goddamned God Particle.”
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.