In the great scheme of things it’s no big deal. Hardly worth getting all hot and god-bothered about, really. Of all the targets I can aim my keyboard mightier than the sword (yeah, as if) at, this one should be down the list at number 1000 (yes, it’s a big list, you got a problem with that?), I mean, Higgs Boson, come on, you can find weightier topics than that can’t you?
Look, I’m not a physicist (something the physicists are probably grateful for), but I am probably even angrier than they are about the constant, ubiquitous, use of “the god particle” for “Higgs Boson”.
It apparently began with a book written 20 years ago in America. Titled originally, it seems, “The Goddamn Particle”(at that time the search to prove the existence of the Higgs had already been going on for 20 years with no hint of success), the publishers, scared of upsetting the notoriously sensitive religious Americans, changed the name to “The God Particle”. I also assume that they thought this was a pretty cool title that would get buyers running into stores, in a way that “The physics of the search for the Higgs Boson” wouldn’t.
Anyway, the god particle dice were loaded and rolled, and away went the media, who loved it. Every time the search was mentioned in some form (for example in the building of the Large Hadron Collider) the heading, and the text would be full of more god particles than a Baptist Sunday School, and if poor old Higgs, let alone Bose, got a mention, it was only enclosed in brackets. Physicists could complain all they liked, the media had a meme, a Higgs Memeson, and by god they were going to keep calling it a god particle until the Swiss cows came home.
Which they did a week or so ago. Proved the existence of the Higgs with a certainty greater than Samuel Johnson kicking a rock (although more recently it looks as if the rock might have been a rock cake, the finding certainly a Boson but not quite yet definitively Higgs). And away went the journalists again, with more mentions of “god particle” than there are Hindu gods, one Australian newspaper excelling itself in its quest (presumably) for differentiation by saying scientists had found “a fragment of god”. It is possible I swore a little when I saw that.
There are two reasons why this nonsense matters. It is part of what seems a deliberate policy to maintain religiosity in secular discourse to an extent that wouldn’t have seemed extreme in the Dark Ages. Sportsmen don’t merely try to win they “seek redemption”. Places are not merely the sites where military battles took place they are “sacred sites” and so on. So even as science is decoding the last remaining elements explaining the origins and structure of the universe, the media seems to be hell bent on reassuring people that “don’t you worry there are still plenty of gaps for god to be hiding in”. Mustn’t ever admit that there is a significant number of the people of the world who literally believe in imaginary beings. And it is effective – there were frequent comments I saw on twitter, of the religious saying that at last science had proved existence of god (see, told you so), or telling people to read some bible verse that, was the fevered mind of the believer, predicted the finding of a nuclear particle 2000 years or more ago.
And second it represents the kind of sloppy populist know-nothing journalism that has become the norm in 2012. Dumb journalists reporting to a dumbed-down audience. Little different to a credulous uneducated monk in, say 800AD, mumbling half-learned and totally not understood bible verses to credulous uneducated peasants. The old saying that any subject or event you personally know something about which appears in the Press will be wrongly reported has become more and more universal. I’m not saying that reporters need to be expert in nuclear physics (in this case) to report on the Higgs Boson, but they do need to talk to those who are, read some background, get what they write checked, respect the concerns of those doing the work. The constant, mindless use of “god particle” is like a collective thumbing of the nose at scientists (as is the coverage of climate science and evolutionary biology in most cases). We have no interest in the facts of a case, say the journalists, we are just here to entertain you.
The real story of the Higgs Boson is that it shows, counter-intuitively, that “mass” is not an inherent property of matter, but is a quality that has to be added, like velocity. The media treatment of it shows yet again that, counter-intuitively, truth is not something inherent to journalism, but must be added. I will call the particle by which truth is added to journalism the Horton. Hopefully someone will prove its existence a bit quicker than was the case with the Higgs Boson.