The “God Particle” and the Nobel Prize in Physics

Two theoretical physicists who suggested that an invisible ocean of energy suffusing space is responsible for the mass and diversity of the particles in the universe won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday morning. They are Peter Higgs, 84, of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and François Englert, 80, of the University Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.

New York Times, October 8, 2013

Peter Higgs and François Englert July 4th

Peter Higgs and François Englert at the celebration last July 4th

I have previously written several posts about the quest for the so-called “God particle” since its celebratory discovery last 4th of July, see here with links. That these two distinguished scientists are both in their 80s, with the Nobel Prize marking a culmination of a lifetime quest makes the award and its important implications all the more impressive.

Unfortunately the popular misnomer, “the God particle,” coined by the publisher of a book by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, has caused widespread misunderstanding among the general public as to what is being talked about here. The Higgs particle surely has nothing to do with “replacing” God or explaining the origins of the universe. It is about the fundamental, elegant, and beautiful way that the physical universe works. Clearly the phrase is an irresistible headline for the media despite the fact that physicists don’t use the term or approve of how it is being misunderstood. Such misunderstanding and craziness has given rise to widespread conspiracy fears that the CERN efforts might lead to the creation of a mini-”Black Hole” that would bring on the end of the world, spanning a host of films like “Angels and Demons” in which “antimatter” is set to destroy the Vatican.

For a saner more informed overview of the 2012 4th of July discovery this piece in the Washington Post is among the best. You can also watch Peter Higgs himself explaining his theory on PBS’s Nova here. The clearest explanation of the Higgs particle theory I have found is this marvelous “cartoon” presentation by Jorge Cham. Watch it and you will be moved by the elegance of the theory, should it turn out to be fully established.