- Education and Science»
The god particle - what a stupid nickname for the Higgs Boson.
The Higgs Boson
Religion has actually both helped and hindered science. It's a huge topic and not one that is appropriate here but let's look at one particular silly clash of terminology. The Higg's Boson, a.k.a. "The god particle".
Scientists need funding and publicity. The discipline is also littered with some colorful opinionated characters. In some cases, banter between two opposing views can be scathing, sarcastic, clever and funny. One example is the term 'big bang' - a term coined by Fred Hoyle who was a proponent of the 'steady-state' theory. His theory invoked some kind of mechanism that continually produced matter to explain observations of the day. The opposing theory was one that reduced all matter to a singularity as you wind the clock back. Both theories seemed to solve observational problems at the time, but Fred was so opposed and venomous to the idea of a singularity origin that he derided it as a 'big bang'. His aim was to ridicule the theory but instead it ignited people's imaginations which made it more popular and more studied.
However, the term 'big bang' also has connotations of an explosion of compressed 'something' *into* a pre-existing space, thus misleading many laypeople into a wrong analogy. The theory says nothing about 'before' or 'space into which an explosion could happen'. If this was true, then there would be a center of the universe, and we would be able to detect which direction it lies. But there is no center to the universe, and everything looks the same in every direction. Neither Earth, nor anywhere else is a centre of the universe.
The reason for that little story is to show how easy it it to confuse the public with flippant words. It leads me also into the term 'God particle'. This is a joke. Really... it's a joke. It's not, as you seem to think, a particle from which all others came. Peter Higgs apparently said, “Although I am not a believer myself, it’s a misuse of terminology that might offend some people.”.
The nickname has much to do with its central role in particle physics - like a keystone in an arch, or a jigsaw puzzle that completes the face of a central character in the composition. Most particle physicists are very certain its there. They know a range of energies between which it must exist, and they know why it must be there, and what is its role. None however will say for 100% certain that it exists until it is detected. But due to the huge energy involved, this particle is elusive (like a god). It's such an important part of the jigsaw puzzle, that multiple nations have banded together on a multi-billion dollar, multi-decade project to detect it.
Not only is this particle an important piece of a puzzle, it is also a sign-post. If it is there, then it will confirm with extreme confidence a huge body of particle-physics-knowledge. If it is not there, this is an equally important finding. It will simply point to new areas of research, some of which may be already promising but currently underfunded. So It is this central elusive important place in particle physics which gives the Higg's boson the nickname 'god particle'.
On the one hand, it generates publicity, but on the other it is grossly misleading to those not versed properly in the subject. This Higg's Boson is a necessary inclusion of the Higg's field. Every field requires a force carrier and the Higg's boson is the force-carrier for gravitational force.
Another misconception is the term 'force-field'. The field itself is not a force although there can be lengthy debate on the physical reality (or not) of a field. A field is more like the playground, while the play equipment and the children are the various particles. The Higg's boson fits into several theories - the most stable and predictive to date is known as the "Standard Model".
In order to transmit force, you need a field, and you need a force-carrier. For the electromagnetic force, the force-carrier is the photon. This happens to be massless, and as such travels at the speed of light. We can easily detect photons (just open your eyes).
The Higg's however, is massive. It's very hard to detect. Hopefully, by the end of 2011 the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, Switzerland will have revealed the presence (or not) of this elusive and important particle.