Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What’s in a Name?
Parsing the ‘God Particle,’ the Ultimate Metaphor
Published: August 7, 2007

We need to talk about the “God particle.”

Recently in this newspaper, I
reported on the attempts by various small armies of physicists to discover an elementary particle central to the modern conception of nature. Technically it’s called the Higgs boson, after Peter Higgs, an English physicist who conceived of it in 1964. It is said to be responsible for endowing the other elementary particles in the universe with mass.

In a stroke of either public relations genius or disaster, Leon M. Lederman, the former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, referred to the Higgs as “the God particle” in the book of the same name he published with the science writer Dick Teresi in 1993. To Dr. Lederman, it made metaphorical sense, he explained in the book, because the Higgs mechanism made it possible to simplify the universe, resolving many different seeming forces into one, like tearing down the Tower of Babel. Besides, his publisher complained, nobody had ever heard of the Higgs particle.


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