If you had a sneaking suspicion that the Higgs boson hype is pretty much just that — hype — your estimation is shared by John Horgan at Scientific American who writes about it with a welcome sobriety. Note the context for the origin of the silly nickname, “God particle”:
In the early 1990s, when physicists were pleading — ultimately in vain — with Congress not to cancel the Superconducting Supercollider, which was sucking up tax dollars faster than a black hole, the Nobel laureate Leon Lederman christened the Higgs “the God particle.” This is scientific hype at its most outrageous. If the Higgs is the “God Particle,” what should we call an even more fundamental particle, like a string? The Godhead Particle? The Mother of God Particle?
Lederman himself confessed that “the Goddamn Particle” might have been a better name for the Higgs, given how hard it had been to detect “and the expense it is causing.” A more fundamental problem is that discovering the Higgs would be a modest, even anti-climactic achievement, relative to the grand ambitions of theoretical physics. The Higgs would serve merely as the capstone of the Standard Model of particle physics, which describes the workings of electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. The Standard Model, because it excludes gravity, is an incomplete account of reality; it is like a theory of human nature that excludes sex. Even Kaku has called the Standard Model “rather ugly” and “a theory that only a mother could love.”
Our best theory of gravity is still general relativity, which does not mesh mathematically with the quantum field theories that comprise the Standard Model. Over the past few decades, theorists have become increasingly obsessed with finding a unified theory, a “theory of everything” that wraps all of nature’s forces into one tidy package. Hearing all the hoopla about the Higgs, the public might understandably assume that it represents a crucial step toward a unified theory — and perhaps at least tentative confirmation of the existence of strings, branes, hyperspaces, multiverses and all the other fantastical eidolons that Kaku, Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene and other unification enthusiasts tout in their bestsellers.
But the Higgs doesn’t take us any closer to a unified theory than climbing a tree would take me to the Moon. As I’ve pointed out previously, string theory, loop-space theory and other popular candidates for a unified theory postulate phenomena far too minuscule to be detected by any existing or even conceivable (except in a sci-fi way) experiment. Obtaining the kind of evidence of a string or loop that we have for, say, the top quark would require building an accelerator as big as the Milky Way.
Meanwhile I can finally say I’ve found something to agree with in a column by Philadelphia Inquirer science/evolution writer Faye Flam who writes:
[T]he Higgs particle has acquired the most annoying nickname ever to be given to a scientific idea. Every time I hear the term “God Particle” I bring up a hairball.
Photo credit: Graham Brenna/Flickr.