The Man Who Coined 'The God Particle' Explains: It Was A Joke!

Mar 15, 2013
Originally published on March 15, 2013 6:02 pm

We've explained it many times: Physicists are irked when we in the media call the Higgs Boson, "The God Particle."

The Higgs is important because the elusive subatomic particle is believed to give everything its mass. But as Marcelo Gleiser — of NPR's 13.7 — explained, the nickname doesn't quite explain the particle because while it "does have something of a centralizing influence," it's "nothing quite divine."

It's misnomer, even stupid, some physicists say.

All Things Considered spoke to the man credited with giving the particle its moniker. In 1993, Dick Teresi co-wrote The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? with Leon Lederman, the Nobel prize winning physicist.

He told Melissa Block that the name was born out of a joke, a working title he never thought the publisher would buy.

In fact, he said, "for us being atheists, it's kind of a scary, evil kind of particle that obfuscates what's really going on."

So what does he say to his detractors?

"They protest too much," he said. In fact, the name will likely stick, he said, just like another famous deregatory term has — "The Big Bang."

Teresi added that in truth, he didn't resent most physicists for complaining. The only one he has a problem with is Peter Higgs himself.

Six others helped discover that particle, he said.

Yet the Higgs is "the only major particle that the discoverer, or the theorist, named after himself," he said.

If there's a misnomer, it's Higgs.

Much more of Melissa's conversation with Teresi on tonight's All Things Considered. Check here for a list of local stations that carry the program. We'll post audio of the as-aired interview on this post later tonight.

Update at 6:01 p.m. ET. An Explanation:

We should have included an explanation for the Higgs. Here is a comprehensive one we provided back in July of last year.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. Now to a story that has physicists gnashing their teeth. We're talking about the news that scientists in Switzerland have firmed up their discovery of the Higgs boson particle. It's not the discovery that's the problem. It's what we call that particle. Case in point, our editor, Alison MacAdam, got this email from her physicist father who implored: Please avoid referring to this as the God particle. It's really stupid. True, the Higgs particle is often short-handed in the media as the God particle. Sorry, Dr. MacAdam.

But reporters didn't make that term up. In fact, it's the title of a book of popular science written by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman back in 1993. And his co-writer Dick Teresi joins me to explain. Dick, welcome to the program.

DICK TERESI: Good afternoon.

BLOCK: So in the end, can we blame a physicist for this term, the God particle, that has other physicists so upset?

TERESI: Well, you should probably blame me.

BLOCK: Blame you? OK.

TERESI: Yeah. Well, we were writing the proposal for this book around 1990, and I was reading through some of Leon Lederman's notes from his lectures, and what he talks about is this search for the ultimate elementary particle. What is the basic ingredient of the universe, the particle or particles with which we can make anything else? And then he drew a funny picture of a funny little particle. He called it the God particle as a joke because he's an atheist. I'm an atheist. Maybe there's an ultimate particle that's inside these other particles. He didn't think so, but maybe there was. And so I said, well, this is a good working title, and he said, oh, no, no, no, no, no.


TERESI: And I already typed it up, and I said, Leon, look, look, I have written seven books by this time, and I said in no case has an editor ever used any one of my titles, so if you don't want a title, this is the time to use it. And the rest is history. They loved the title.

BLOCK: You figured they would never accept it.

TERESI: No, no, not in a million years.

BLOCK: Silly you.

TERESI: Yeah. Of course. You know, my instincts are always wrong.

BLOCK: Well, you can imagine a publicist or a book publisher thinking, well, quarks, leptons, I don't know. "The God Particle," now, that will sell.

TERESI: Yeah. If only that were true.

BLOCK: It didn't sell.


TERESI: Well, it did all right.

BLOCK: Well, there is a section in the book where Leon Lederman talks about the name that he really wanted to call this particle, not the God particle, something else.

TERESI: Yeah. Well, that's a joke. He said, you know, he really originally wanted to call it the goddamn particle, and the publisher objected.

BLOCK: And why did he wanted...

TERESI: But it's not true. Leon always wanted to be a stand-up comedian...


TERESI: ...and he had to settle for being a physicist...


TERESI: ...with a Nobel Prize. And so if you read the book, you couldn't possibly take this seriously.

BLOCK: Well, in the preface to a new edition of the book, Leon Lederman wrote the title ended up offending two groups, those who believe in God and those who do not. We were warmly received by those in the middle. Did you and he over the years hear from physicists who were really angry about this title, thought it was offensive to the science they do and all their very hard work?

TERESI: Here's the funny thing. We did not.

BLOCK: Really?

TERESI: Yeah. It was all in the press. And on the day that the Higgs boson was originally discovered, there were 281 million entries on Google for God particle and, you know, I didn't read them all.


BLOCK: But you looked.

TERESI: But everything I read had just repeated the rumors and misconstrued or took it out of context, and nobody did any original research.

BLOCK: You know, from the perspective of a physicist who were studying really elemental forces in the universe and then are always asked if their work is proof of a God or evidence that there is no God, can you understand the frustration behind that?

TERESI: Well, it's not an unreasonable question, is it? I don't see it. But if people want to see this as a key to something else, I think that's fine. Or when Schrodinger, Nobel Prize winner, he was very religious. He was into Eastern religion. And he saw no connection. He thought that religion was far more important than physics even though he had a Nobel Prize. And so he never mixed the two.

BLOCK: Well, Dick Teresi, thanks for talking to us about the God particle.

TERESI: You mean the Higgs boson?

BLOCK: The Higgs boson.

TERESI: Thank you.

BLOCK: Dick Teresi co-authored the book "The God Particle" with physicist Leon Lederman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.