GENEVA (Reuters) - “We don’t call it the ‘God particle’, it’s just the media that do that,” a senior U.S. scientist politely told an interviewer on a major European radio station on Tuesday.
“Well, I am the from the media and I‘m going to continue calling it that,” said the journalist - and continued to do so.
The exchange, as physicists at the CERN research centre near Geneva were preparing to announce the latest news from their long and frustrating search for the Higgs boson, illustrated sharply how science and the popular media are not always a good mix.
“I hate that ‘God particle’ term,” said Pauline Gagnon, a Canadian member of CERN’s ATLAS team of so-called “Higgs hunters” - an epithet they do not reject.
“The Higgs is not endowed with any religious meaning. It is ridiculous to call it that,” she told Reuters at a news conference after her colleagues revealed growing evidence, albeit not yet proof, of the particle’s existence.
Oliver Buchmueller, from the rival research team CMS, was a little less trenchant.
“Calling it the ‘God particle’ is completely inappropriate,” said the German physicist, who divides his time between CERN and teaching at London’s Imperial College.
“It’s not doing justice to the Higgs and what we think its role in the universe is. It has nothing to do with God.”
The Higgs boson is being hunted so determinedly because it would be the manifestation of an invisible field - the Higgs field - thought to permeate the entire universe.
The field was posited in the 1960s by British scientist Peter Higgs as the way that matter obtained mass after the universe was created in the Big Bang.
As such, according to the theory, it was the agent that made the stars, planets - and life - possible by giving mass to most elementary particles, the building blocks of the universe; hence the nickname “God particle.”
“Without it, or something like it, particles would just have remained whizzing around the universe at the speed of light,” said Pippa Wells, another Atlas researcher.
But Wells also has no time for theological terminology in describing it.
“Hearing it called the ‘God particle’ makes me angry. It confuses people about what we are trying to do here at CERN.”
According to people who have investigated the subject, the term originated with a 1993 history of particle physics by U.S. Nobel prize winner Leon M Lederman.
The book was titled: “The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?”
Physicists say Lederman, who over the years has been the target of much opprobrium from his scientific colleagues, tells friends he wanted to call the book “The Goddamned Particle” to reflect frustration at the failure to find it.
But, according to that account, his publisher rejected the epithet - possibly because of its potential to upset a strongly religious U.S. public - and convinced Lederman to accept the alternative he proposed.
“Lederman has a lot to answer for,” said Higgs himself, now 82, on a visit to Geneva some six years ago.
But James Gillies, spokesman for CERN and himself a physicist, is slightly more equivocal.
“Of course it has nothing to do with God whatsoever,” he says. “But I can understand why people go that way because the Higgs is so important to our understanding of nature.”
Reporting by Robert Evans; Editing by Kevin Liffey