Science Criticism

The God Journalists

We are living in important times. The scientific enterprise is paving the void of ignorance with the bricks of knowledge. Each day, it seems that we get closer and closer to truly understanding ourselves and the universe in which we live. This crescendo of astounding scoops seems to have climaxed in the past year at the revelation of divine secrets. An article I was reading recently informed me that “God is revealing His secrets as scientist [sic] stand on the verge of learning important new things about the universe”1. Which divine constituent was this god showing to scientists? His particle.

To be fair, the article I was reading was not representative of the state of science journalism. I stumbled upon it when researching extreme inaccuracy in the reporting of this bit of particulate news. The publication, USA News First, proudly states, “Our news is what Americans need to know, not what other nations need to know”2. This fine online rag was started because polls indicated that Americans did not trust “most media”: ergo USA News First, whose entire staff goes uncredited, including its editor-in-chief. For all I know, USA News First is one Pentecostal Republican gun owner writing from his cabin in the woods.

The article I was reading was on the report in July of 2012 that physicists believed they had detected the God particle. Cue the heralding trumpets and the quotes from the Bible. But not so fast. What God particle?

If you have not been living under a rock for the past year, you know the story refers to the Higgs boson. And if you have been living under a rock, I understand. These are uncertain financial times and man-made housing can quickly become a luxury. Let me bring you up to speed.

The evidence that physicists have accumulated over the decades points to what is known as the “standard model” of particle physics. This plain name hides the elegance of its content: that everything around us is made up of particles which belong to one of two families, fermions and bosons. To get to these basic building blocks of “stuff”, we must step inside the submersible and miniaturizable pod from the movie InnerSpace. Next to the pod we’re in is a table and on that table is a pencil. Let’s see how close we can get to that pencil.

The first miniaturization shrinks us down to the size of its graphite tip. It is dark and imposing, but our journey does not end here. A further size compression allows us to see the molecular structure of graphite:

The unit cell of graphite by TschonDoe, available on Wikipedia

The unit cell of graphite by TschonDoe, available on Wikipedia

Have we reached the most elemental composition of this graphite tip? Not even close. Each “ball” we see is an atom of carbon. As we get closer, we notice that this atom is not indivisible, as Ancient Greek Democritus believed, but is rather like a tiny solar system. Electrons orbit around a central nucleus, which is composed of protons and neutrons. Most of you will remember this from high-school physics.

(Click here to view a 3D animation of what is known as the Rutherford model)

(This model is not completely accurate: electrons don’t calmly orbit around the nucleus like planets around a star, but the model will suffice for our present purposes.)

But is this the end of the road? For the electron, it is. Our current model holds that the electron is indivisible: it is an elementary particle. Not so elementary are the protons and neutrons clinging to each other at the nucleus of this carbon atom. Let’s miniaturize even more.

As we approach the gargantuan sphere of influence that is the proton, we can clearly see that it is not an impenetrable sphere but rather an arrangement of three even more basic particles called quarks. And this is the end of the road: quarks are elementary particles and cannot, under the current model, be separated into smaller pieces.

If electrons and quarks (and neutrinos, which I skipped over) are fermions, what are bosons? Bosons are commonly called “force-carriers”. Physics teaches us that the world is under the influence of four main physical forces: the electromagnetic force, gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear forces. Bosons “carry” these forces. For example, the glue that holds those three quarks together to form a proton? It comes in the form of a boson appropriately called a “gluon”. Said gluon is responsible for the strong nuclear force; the weak nuclear force is transmitted via W and Z bosons; and electromagnetism’s boson of choice is the photon. Gravity? Well, gravity is the tricky one. Physicists haven’t found a clean way of explaining gravity using bosons. We are still “stuck” with Einstein’s general relativity model to explain this black sheep of physical interactions. If gravity can successfully be explained in “quantum mechanical” terms (which is the framework under which fermions and bosons exist), then we will have the Holy Grail of physics, a Theory of Everything (which sounds like something Douglas Adams coined).

But where’s God in all this? Nowhere at the moment. This standard model simply describes the smallest bits of matter and how they interact with each other to cause the phenomena that we observe, like electricity, magnetism, and the composition of objects. But there was a problem with the model, you see. The problem was mass. What could possibly explain the fact that these fermions had a mass, a resistance to being moved? Different fermions have different masses: for example, while electrons are relatively light, the top quark is a veritable Sumo wrestler. The solution to the problem of mass was formulated by a number of physicists, two of whom have recently been announced as the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2013: François Englert and Peter W. Higgs.

What if there was a field, like an electrical field, permeating space? By moving through this field, different particles would encounter different degrees of resistance or “stickiness”, which would translate as different masses. The elementary particle responsible for this field would be a boson, a “force-carrier”. It came to be known as the Higgs boson. If you are confused (and like snow), here is physicist John Ellis to clarify the notion of a Higgs field:

Having a theoretical particle which plugs a glaring hole in a model is a start, but getting proof of its existence is cause for celebration. Finding such a particle would not be easy, because the Higgs boson was theorized to be short-lived and because the energy needed to inspect the Higgs’ wheelhouse would be tremendous. In fact, the road to finding this elusive particle was so long and arduous, physicist Leon M. Lederman wrote a book about it which he titled The Goddamned Particle.

Don’t try to order the book on Amazon (or from your local, brick-and-mortar bookstore). Lederman’s editor had a mild disagreement over the title of the book and convinced Lederman to change it to The God Particle3. Why not The Godd@%#ed Particle? The story does not say. The book was released under the title The God Particle and thus began the confusion of the media and, by extension, of the lay public.

When the original announcement was made that scientists at CERN had detected the Higgs boson, Ned Potter for ABC News wrote, “[…] the Higgs boson — a subatomic particle so important to the understanding of space, time and matter that the physicist Leon Lederman nicknamed it ‘the God particle’”4. Wrong. His colleague, Bailey Johnson, wrote for CBS News that it was called the God particle “because its existence is fundamental to the creation of the universe…”5. Wrong again.

CBS News more recently reported that “the Higgs boson is often called ‘the God particle’ because it’s said to be what caused the ‘Big Bang’ that created our universe many years ago”6. This contradicts Fox News which, in 2011, had stated that “the Higgs Boson is believe [sic] to have emerged from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago….”7. And, of course, I would be remiss to forget Deepak Chopra who explains in a video the findings of the CERN team and, somehow, ends up saying about the Higgs field that “this divine field of possibilities could be infinite consciousness itself”8. Later, Deepak commits an egregious logical fallacy by saying, “It only strengthens the notion that the universe comes out of nothingness, which is everything.” While you up your production values, Deepak, you might also want to work on improving your logic.

Not every journalist gets the story wrong. NPR, CNN, and the Huffington Post all published accurate accounts of how the Higgs boson came to be known as the “God particle”, with HuffPo even devoting an entire article to why this nickname is wrong9-12. Living in Montreal, I ventured into the French-language media to see if the contagious meme had spread. Canoë.ca recently committed the same mistake by explaining the particle’s godly nickname by the fact that the particle is in everything and is hard to find (“[…] il est dans tout tout en étant particulièrement insaisissable.”)13. Le Soleil, a Quebec City newspaper, hypes the cliché by referring to the boson as “la particule de Dieu” without ever explaining the origin of the misnomer14. However, La Presse, owned by the same group as Le Soleil, does its homework and actually explains the pseudo-blasphemous origin of the expression after clearly stating that the boson never pretended to a divine role15. Good journalism, bad journalism; bon journalisme, mauvais journalisme.

All this talk of “la particule de Dieu”… and I can’t help and wonder how Lederman’s original book title would have been translated for a French-Quebecer audience. La maudite particule? La christie de particule? L’estie de tabarnac de particule? One can only dream.

(This article was originally going to be called The Goddamned Journalists, but my editor made me change it. When actual journalists are detected, we will finally have the proof that God exists)

(Feature picture by JoyB)

1. USA News First. “God Particle Found — Higgs Boson Found”. Accessed October 8 2013.

2. USA News First. “About USA News First”. Accessed October 8 2013.

3. Robert Evans for Reuters. “The Higgs boson: What has God got to do with it?”. Accessed October 8 2013.

4. Ned Potter for ABC News. “Higgs Boson: Physicists See Best Proof Yet of ‘The God Particle’”. Accessed October 8 2013.

5. Bailey Johnson for CBS News. “A closer look at the Higgs boson”. Accessed October 8 2013.

6. Shoshana Davis for CBS News. “‘God particle’: Why the Higgs boson matters.” Accessed October 8 2013.

7. “Scientists Close in on ‘God Particle’”. Accessed October 8 2013.

8. Deepak Chopra. “Does The Higgs Boson Rule Out The Existence Of God? Ask Deepak Chopra.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, July 5 2012. Web. Accessed October 10 2013.

9. Eyder Peralta for NPR. “CERN Discovers A New Particle, Likely The Higgs Boson”. Accessed October 8 2013.

10. Elizabeth Landau for CNN. “Scientists more certain that particle is Higgs boson”. Accessed October 8 2013.

11. Chris Lisee for The Huffington Post. “Higgs Boson: ‘God Particle’ Discovery Ignites Debate Over Science And Religion”. Accessed October 8 2013.

12. Javier Garcia-Martinez for The Huffington Post. “An Ungodly Misnomer”. Accessed October 8 2013.

13. “Nobel de physique aux ‘pères’ de la ‘particule de Dieu’.” Accessed October 13 2013.

14. Jean-François Cliche for Le Soleil. “Découverte de la ‘particule de Dieu’: la fête ne fait que commencer.” Accessed October 13 2013.

15. Lucy Christie and Marie Noëlle Blessig for La Presse. “Physique: découverte de la ‘particule de Dieu’?” Accessed October 13 2013.

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