Of Particular Significance

Peter Higgs versus the “God Particle”

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 04/12/2024

The particle physics community is mourning the passing of Peter Higgs, the influential theoretical physicist and 2013 Nobel Prize laureate. Higgs actually wrote very few papers in his career, but he made them count.

It’s widely known that Higgs deeply disapproved of the term “God Particle”. That’s the nickname that has been given to the type of particle (the “Higgs boson”) whose existence he proposed. But what’s not as widely appreciated is why he disliked it, as do most other scientists I know.

It’s true that Higgs himself was an atheist. Still, no matter what your views on such subjects, it might bother you that the notion of a “God Particle” emerged neither from science nor from religion, and could easily be viewed as disrespectful to both of them. Instead, it arose out of marketing and advertising in the publishing industry, and it survives due to another industry: the news media.

But there’s something else more profound — something quite sad, really. The nickname puts the emphasis entirely in the wrong place. It largely obscures what Higgs (and his colleagues/competitors) actually accomplished, and why they are famous among scientists.

Let me ask you this. Imagine a type of particle that

  • once created, vanishes in a billionth of a trillionth of a second,
  • is not found naturally on Earth, nor anywhere in the universe for billions of years,
  • has no influence on daily life — in fact it has never had any direct impact on the human species — and
  • only was discovered when humans started making examples artificially.

This doesn’t seem very God-like to me. What do you think?

Perhaps this does seem spiritual or divine to you, and in that case, by all means call the “Higgs boson” the “God Particle”. But otherwise, you might want to consider alternatives.

For most humans, and even for most professional physicists, the only importance of the Higgs boson is this: it gives us insight into the Higgs field. This field

  • exists everywhere, including within the Earth and within every human body,
  • has existed throughout the history of the known universe,
  • has been reliably constant and steady since the earliest moments of the Big Bang, and
  • is crucial for the existence of atoms, and therefore for the existence of Earth and all its life;

It may even be capable of bringing about the universe’s destruction, someday in the distant future. So if you’re going to assign some divinity to Higgs’ insights, this is really where it belongs.

In short, what’s truly consequential in Higgs’ work (and that of others who had the same basic idea: Robert Brout and Francois Englert, and Gerald Guralnik, C. Richard Hagen and Tom Kibble) is the Higgs field. Your life depends upon the existence and stability of this field. The discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson was important because it proved that the Higgs field really exists in nature. Study of this type of particle continues at the Large Hadron Collider, not because we are fascinated by the particle per se, but because measuring its properties is the most effective way for us to learn more about the all-important Higgs field.

Professor Higgs helped reveal one of the universe’s great secrets, and we owe him a great deal. I personally feel that we would honor his legacy, in a way that would have pleased him, through better explanations of what he achieved — ones that clarify how he earned a place in scientists’ Hall of Fame for eternity.

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10 Responses

  1. I have read somewhere, that somebody in an interview denotes the Higgs boson as goddam particle (because of troubles with catching it) and the journalist changed it to the god particle.

    However I do not know whether it is an anecdote or a real story.

    1. As far as I know, the closest thing to a correct story is that Leon Lederman, Nobel Prize winner and co-author of the book “The God Particle”, wanted (or a least suggested) to call the book “the goddam particle”, and the publisher (not a journalist) convinced him or forced him to change it. But everyone involved was either a professional or highly-skilled amateur salesperson, so the truth is unlikely to ever be known.

  2. I don’t think the the category tag is working for your site where ‘quantum gravity’ returns this Peter Higgs post at the top: https://profmattstrassler.com/category/quantum-gravity/ . Hence I’ll ask my question here if you don’t mind:

    Having now read your very helpful, informative book and various articles on your site, it seems clear to me that a quantum field is defined over space and time as a background and that the Lagrangian is a Lagrangian density that is integrated over space and time. If space-time is treated as a field, how is the above modified or replaced etc? Are there Lagrangians that use light-like coordinates instead of space-time coordinates?

    1. I was rereading this article and I don’t see an answer to your comment, so let me (very naively) try.

      What would be the physical meaning and use of treating “space-time … as a field” I wouldn’t know. Common methods suggested to be useful for e.g. quantum gravity is treating space-time as a background.

      If you quantize the gravitational Lagrangian you do get a useful effective quantum field theory that is no better or worse than other such, i.e. it will stop being predictive at Planck energy densities. “The perturbative treatment of quantum General Relativity behaves as an effective field theory, and well defined quantum corrections can be calculated.” [ http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Quantum_gravity_as_a_low_energy_effective_field_theory ]

      This will apply if you want to model local gravitational systems such as astronomical bodies since you can assume a locally flat background. It could also work for cosmology since our on average flat universe is quasi-stationary analogous to thermodynamics – the universe has a pressure – assuming a space foliation (such as the cosmic background radiation frame). Space expansion is only 1 nm per meter (10^-10) per year in terms of a distance factor, or – unless I’m mistaken – a local 10^-40 factor for a 10ish billion year old universe in terms of a 3+1 dimensional general relativistic energy density.

      So that’s one example of linearized perturbative approximation. Of course, there is a reason why the non-linear but classical general relativity approximation is handy for large scale models so you wouldn’t necessarily do it in practice.

  3. Two 2-cents questions from a naive soul:
    1/. Is it normal that an essential field like the Higgs field can only be experimentally quantified by studying its (very nearly non-existing) particle? If it has a huge effect on other (frequently occurring) particles, then why can’t it be studied from those effects?
    2/. In how far was Brout’s and Englert’s paper falling short of Higgs’s? Prediction of the actual zero-spin boson in LHC’s results? A missed chance for recognition of Belgium (apart from beer, waffles & chocolate)

    1. 1. It’s an important question, and to really answer it fully takes longer than I can do here. (I do explain it carefully in the book, chapter 19; but even there, it’s still not entirely complete, and I have to write an article about some of the subtleties at some point soon.) Here’s the short answer.

      The Higgs field is very special: it has no “spin”, or in more colloquial language, it doesn’t point.

      Compare it with the electric field: when the electric field is switched on and made uniform and constant, it points, like the wind, in a particular direction. And so, among other things, it makes one direction in space different from another, just as a steady breeze does. This is easily noticed.

      By contrast, constant air pressure does not point — it’s just a number without a direction — and so it does nothing, as long as it is equalized. We are sitting in constant air pressure and don’t even notice it; that’s why humans have recognized wind from time immemorial, but air pressure is a relatively recent discovery.

      The Higgs field is also constant across space and time, and so, similar to pressure, its presence is not obvious. In fact it is even harder to notice than air pressure, because while air pressure is a property of air (and air is obvious because we can feel it, and because it obscures Galileo’s principle of relativity), the Higgs field is a property of the universe itself, and preserves Galileo’s principle of relativity.

      So the only obvious effect of a constant Higgs field — constant across time, and uniform across space — is a change in the masses of certain particles. But if you’ve never seen the Higgs field change, you’ll never notice that the masses could change, either, and so you’d naturally take those masses for granted, assumin they are fixed for eternity. That’s what physicists initially did when particles were first being discovered.

      In short, the Higgs field, when constant, has no obvious effects on the universe except to shift other constant things… masses that you have no immediate reason to attribute to the Higgs field. For this reason it took decades and sophisticated mathematics to realize that something like the Higgs field would be necessary to explain particle physics data. And so, a constant Higgs field (and more generally, any constant spin-zero field) can hide in a way that no other field can. Only by making it change can we see its effects — and the easiest way for humans to change it is to make a Higgs boson (a tiny ripple in the Higgs field.)

      2. As far as the Higgs field, the papers are conceptually the same. Higgs added something about the particle, and made no prediction for LHC because he (like Brout and Englert) were addressing the general question of masses of spin-one particles, not specifically trying to explain the weak nuclear force. (It was Weinberg and Salam that took these ideas and plopped them into the weak nuclear force, and only much later were predictions made for particle colliders.)

      Englert told me that he and everyone else involved were focused on certain particles involved in the strong nuclear force (the “rho mesons”) and it was only clear after Weinberg’s paper that they were applying the right idea to the wrong problem. He also told me that he and Brout didn’t mention the particle because it was (a) irrelevant to the point that they were making, and (b) obvious. Which is true, in my opinion. Sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious when it has an experimental consequence; a single sentence would have sufficed.

      Even so, the reason Higgs has his name on the particle is due to yet another series of misunderstandings or errors by other people, involving Weinberg and then Ben Lee. It is the only particle with a person’s name on it, and this is rather inappropriate. There are some efforts to just call it the “H boson”, and maybe someday they will catch on; I don’t think Higgs would mind, and it would be more respectful to nature. As for the field, there were some efforts to call it the BEH field, which did not work; but it is true that Brout and Englert have been unfairly forgotten outside the physics community.

      Guralnik, Kibble and Hagen also clearly had the same idea about the field, independently. They were a couple of months later, and I think that’s why the credit which used to be given to them was withdrawn, mainly by the European community. They do actually mention the particle we now call the Higgs boson, but their statement about it is incorrect, another small mark against them.

      1. Thanks for such a detailed answer! I would add amongst the many details that Englert, with Brout deceased so not eligible for the third slot, won the Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider” [ https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2013/summary/ ].

        The physics prizes can only be awarded according to Nobel’s will to “who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics”, so the 2012 confirmation was the award trigger [ https://www.nobelprize.org/about/statutes-of-the-nobel-foundation/ ]. And as a piece of chocolate for his country people it is duly noted that Englert is associated with Belgium [ https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/2013/englert/facts/ ].

        On Higgs’s position on the particle name I read an (unreferenced) claim that “From memory, he didn’t like either of the names of the particle. One because it was embarrassing, and the other because it was absurd.” So the current name may be doubly inappropriate.

      2. This is a very insightful addition to the OP, but I comment for a different reason. Pressure of course is no more constant than any other ordinary field. But unlike every ordinary field (as far as I know) it is both outside us and within our bodies and within every other composite body. This is a property it shares with the aethers, though those remain to be verified.

        1. Constancy isn’t really the issue. The Higgs field is simply much harder to change than pressure, and so in the present universe it’s hard to make it non-constant.
          But in the very early universe, the Higgs field changed just as much as pressure does in our atmosphere, and even more.

          All cosmic fields are both within us and outside us everywhere; every location in space has all the fields of nature. They are integrated into space; where you have empty space, you have all the fields, too. Most of them are zero at most locations; the Higgs field is the known exception, though there might well be others still unknown. But inside materials, the Higgs field isn’tthe only field that is non-zero; the electric field within our bodies is non-zero pretty much everywhere (though not constant), since atoms and molecules are held together by electric forces.

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