Higgs vs Religion on the Radio: no contest

The Higgs day continues (and I’m not even a particle physicist).

At about 5pm, just as I was dialling into one of my several-times-a-week Planck teleconferences, I had an email from Tim at the BBC, who works with the World ServiceWorld Have Your Say” show, coming on at 6pm. Would I be able to come up with a one-minute analogy for the Higgs Boson? I came up with two (neither original). The first is that the Higgs field acts like treacle or molasses, inhibiting the motion of particles — and it’s exactly a resistance to motion that is the manifestation of inertia, and hence mass. The more fanciful analogy, due to UCL’s David Miller, is that it behaves like a roomful of partygoers when someone famous walks into the room. We peons throng to the celebrity, slowing her down (it was Margaret Thatcher in the original version); a less famous celebrity is impeded somewhat less, and even the partygoers themselves — analogous to the Higgs particles — can’t move freely. Hence, all particles have a mass.

Unfortunately, both of these had been discussed by UCL’s Professor John Butterworth (who blogs for the Guardian and whose excellent explanations made him ubiquitous in today’s media blitz), the IOP’s Caitlin Watson, and journalist (and cosmology consultant?!) Marcus Chown even before I came on. I was prepared to give up the chance for media glory, or possibly talk about the related concept of spontaneous symmetry breaking and the infamous “Mexican Hat potential”. But at just after 6, they rang back and asked if I could join the programme in progress. What I hadn’t quite realised was that the title for the show was “Is there room for Higgs Boson & Religion?”.

I suppose this stems from Leon Lederman’s book, The God Particle. The story that has been told in recent years is that Lederman wanted to call it “The Goddamn Particle” and that his American publishers wouldn’t let that pass — but I always thought that version a little too pat, both getting Lederman off the hook for an ill-conceived name, and tweaking American religious sensitivities.

But whatever the source, the host wanted to use today’s news to try to pound on the usual science-vs-religion drum, inviting listener comments on the topic along with a discussion between the scientists and a series of religious figures. Luckily, none of us really wanted to use this occasion to disagree: the spiritual types wanted to see science as a celebration of the (god-created, god-given) natural world, and we scientists didn’t want to claim more for science than its ability to answer the practical questions about the real world that it has the tools to address. Of course, I felt the need to say, many religious people and perhaps entire religions make supernatural claims about the world. And those, so far, have turned out to be false.

I would have preferred to talk about spontaneous symmetry breaking, but if you want to hear about science and religion, download the podcast.