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Posts tagged ‘Higgs boson’

Who’s Higgs? And Who’s Boson? The Arbitrary Power of Names

Physicists Peter Biggs and Satyendra Nath Bose

Where did your name come from? Possibly from one of your parents, or a more distant, long-dead ancestor. Maybe you were named after a song, or a character from a book or movie your parents liked. Or maybe your parents looked at your squishy newborn features and decided you simply looked like a (insert first name here).

In other words, it’s fairly arbitrary. But that makes it no less important. Names are potent things. I’m not even aware of the thousand tiny ways my self-perception would be changed if I had been named Adam or Joshua or Maximilian instead of Chris. I might have even come out a little different if I was Christian instead of Christopher.

This doesn’t just go for people. It’s no less important with the names we give just about anything else. Look at dinosaurs. Everyone knows velociraptors from Jurassic Park, but actual raptors were feathered and about the size of dogs. The dinosaurs in Crichton’s book and Spielberg’s movie were closer to deinonychus. But the name “velociraptor” is more versatile (it can be shortened to raptor), easier to remember, and sounds more intimidating. So the misappropriated name stuck. Similarly, the spinosaurus is bigger and likely more vicious than a tyrannosaurus, but only one of these two gets the Latin “rex” slapped on the end of its name. Thus, the king stays the king.

Just like your name, the names of everything we discover or invent usually end up coming from a pretty arbitrary place: a parent, a long-dead ancestor, a pop-culture reference, or the first impressions of the inventor/discoverer. Almost half the planet bears the name of merchant, mapmaker, and sometime explorer Amerigo Vespucci, simply because he suggested, “Hey, maybe that’s not Asia.”

You’ve heard about the discovery of the Higgs boson by now, right? This is the so-called “God particle.” If you haven’t, here’s the simple version, coming from a guy who needed it really dumbed down before he understood it: Bosons are elementary subatomic particles of energy that do not occupy space, in the way particles like electrons, protons, or quarks do. The Higgs boson was a theoretical but (until recently) unobserved particle that permeates all of observable reality and allows all the stuff of the universe to have mass, giving all objects with mass a consistent set of properties. Got it, Jesse Pinkman?

Actor Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad saying 'Yeah, science!"

While it’s nearly impossible to speculate on the practical possibilities of this discovery, it’s a major scientific breakthrough because it helps us get a tiny bit closer to understanding the most basic mechanisms of the universe. So what do you call something that permeates all matter in the universe? You name it after the guy whose name came first on a paper suggesting that something like this could exist back in the 60′s. I can’t imagine the hubris associated with having a fundamental piece of existence named after you.

Meanwhile, poor Satyendra Nath Bose (whom bosons are named after) gets a bit of a snub. One of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, his work was more fundamental and more revolutionary, and, along with Einstein, he laid the groundwork that gave rise to Higgs’ theory, the eventual construction of the Large Hadron Collider, and the discovery of the particle. But because it’s not immediately apparent that “boson” (lower case “b”) comes from somebody’s name, it’s undeniable that more people will know the name “Higgs.”

Giving something so universally fundamental some guy’s name is one approach, but giving it a name that actually indicates its importance is another. As mentioned above, the Higgs boson has also been dubbed “the God particle,” by Leon M. Lederman and Dick Teresi from the title of their book The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? By and large, it’s a name that makes physicists cringe, since it suggests a science vs. religion debate where there is none. And the actual source of the “God” moniker is even more harmless. The authors originally called their book “The Goddamn Particle” (after the frustration scientists trying to detect it felt), but their editors weren’t comfortable with the profane title. So Lederman and Teresi changed it to “God,” with the after-the-fact justification that the particle is powerful and omnipresent.

So whether you’re naming a building block of existence or a cat you adopted, take your time with its name. It will inevitably affect the way everyone thinks about he, she, or it. Or you can just defy all expectations and go the “Boy Named Sue” route. It’s your call.

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