Freethought NOW!

Let’s call it ‘the godless particle’ in honor of the late, nonbelieving Peter Higgs

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Peter Higgs visiting the CMS detector at CERNPhoto by Marc Buehler

Peter Higgs, 94, the Nobelist and physicist who first deduced and proposed the existence of the theoretical field known as the Higgs boson, died Monday at his Edinburgh home. (The Higgs boson gives matter its mass — without which there could be no “creation,” no gravity, galaxies, stars, planets, waterfalls, pansies, panthers or “Hallelujah” choruses.)

Cringingly, the obituary headlines are referring to Higgs as the predictor of “the God particle.” But Higgs did not believe in God.

Leon Lederman, another nonbelieving physicist and Nobel Prize winner, had jokingly referred to the mysterious boson as the “God particle.” The phrase became part of the title for Lederman’s 2006 book, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? According to one story, Lederman first called it the “goddamn particle,” but the editor didn’t think that would make a great title.

Higgs was not happy about the “God particle” sobriquet: “I wish he hadn’t done it. I have to explain to people it was a joke. I’m an atheist,” he told The Guardian in 2007.

Other scientists agree. Pauline Gagnon, a Canadian physicist working at the Large Hadron Collider, said: “I hate that ‘God particle’ term. The Higgs is not endowed with any religious meaning. It is ridiculous to call it that.” German physicist Oliver Buchmueller told NBC News some years ago, “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.”

Lederman undoubtedly did not have any spiritual motive. He was using language in an ironic and humorous way. And most likely his publisher knew that the word “God” helps sell books.

When Einstein said “God does not play dice with the universe,” he was not talking about a supernatural being playing a game of craps. “God” is often a convenient placeholder for “We don’t know.”

When the ancient Greek and Nordic civilizations heard thunder, they said, “Zeus is on the warpath” or “Thor is angry.” In other words, “Who knows?” Now that we understand something about the weather and electricity, we no longer need those inventions.

But our language still reflects those old conventions. When Lederman nicknamed the Higgs boson the “God particle,” he was playing with words, joking that since we don’t know what holds matter together, “God” must be the explanation (wink, wink).

While we atheists cannot pretend that the discovery of the Higgs boson proves there is no God, we can certainly say that such evidence, if confirmed, gives God one less place to hide.

Believers will always find other hiding places, so this discovery will pose little threat to their faith. But now maybe they can join us — those with a sense of humor — in officially changing the name of the Higgs boson. From now on, in honor of the atheist Peter Higgs, let’s call it the “Godless particle.”

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