There has been a lot of hoopla since the July 4 announcement by the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) that the two largest experiments at the Large Hadron Collider had uncovered evidence for a new elementary particle. The particle in question appears to be the Higgs particle, which scientists have been seeking for almost 50 years and is at the heart of our current best theory of nature. But the real excitement seems to stem from the fact that this long-sought discovery is frequently called, in colloquial circles, “the God particle.” This term appeared first in the unfortunate title of a book written by physicist Leon Lederman two decades ago, and while to my knowledge it was never used by any scientist (including Lederman) before or since, it has captured the media’s imagination.
Scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research jumped for joy at the possible discovery of an elementary particle. (Denis Balibouse / AFP-Getty Images)
What makes this term particularly unfortunate is that nothing could be further from the truth. Assuming the particle in question is indeed the Higgs, it validates an unprecedented revolution in our understanding of fundamental physics and brings science closer to dispensing with the need for any supernatural shenanigans all the way back to the beginning of the universe—and perhaps even before the beginning, if there was a before.