Dennis Overbye does us all a huge favor by coming clean about “the God Particle.” The phrase refers to the hypothetical Higgs boson, long-time target of particle physics experiments. It was coined by Leon Lederman as a shameless ploy to sell books, and ever since has managed to appear in every single mention of the Higgs in the popular media — for example, in the headline of Dennis’s article from a couple of weeks ago.
Physicists, regardless of their stance toward timeless theological questions, hate this phrase. For one thing, it puts this particular boson on a much higher pedestal than it deserves, without conveying anything helpful about what makes it important. But more importantly, it loads an interesting but thoroughly materialist idea with absolutely useless religious overtones. Even harmful overtones — as Lederman himself notes, his coinage came about just around the time when creationism began to (once again) become a big problem, and this confusion was the last thing that anyone needed.
Furthermore, everyone knows that “the God particle” is misleading — even all of the journalists and headline writers who keep trotting it out. It’s just too damn irresistible. Particle physics is fascinating, but it takes some effort to convey the real excitement felt by experts to people who are watching from the sidelines, and a hook is a hook, shameless or not. If my job were writing about particle physics for a general audience, I doubt I’d be able to resist the temptation.
But, as Dennis notes, this God-talk is part of a venerable tradition on the part of physicists. We use “God” all the time to refer the workings of Nature, without meaning anything religious by it. Or at least, we used to; the nefarious encroachment of Intelligent Design and the religious right on our national discourse has given some of us pause. In the past I could have given a talk and said “Either you need a dynamical origin for the primordial cosmological perturbations, or you just have to accept that this is how God made the universe,” without any worry whatsoever that the physicists in the audience would have been confused. They would have known perfectly well that I was just using a colorful metaphor for “that’s just how the universe is,” in a purely cold-hearted and materialistic fashion. Nowadays I find myself avoiding such language, or substituting “Stephen Hawking” for “God” in a desperate attempt to preserve some of the humor.
All of which is to say: religion is impoverishing our language. I want God back, dammit.