God, physics and book titles

There are ways to open a talk and ways not to open a talk and in the summer it wasn’t so clear which I’d picked when I stood up to give a lecture on Massive at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It went something like this. No. It went exactly like this. “I must be the first author to speak at an international book festival who winces at the title of his own book.”

The audience must have been a friendly bunch because they were good enough to laugh and forget for a moment all those other authors who surely cringed at the titles of their own books. The room was dimly lit but I could hear them well enough. Behind me, at the back of the stage, the UK cover of my book was projected onto a large screen and the words stood out in bold against a glowing white background: “Massive: the hunt for the God particle.”

There’s nothing wrong with Massive as a title. It so happens that I love it. The book tells the story of the science and scientists behind the Higgs field and the race to find the elusive Higgs particle. The field is thought to give mass to elementary particles, that is, to make them massive. Read the book and you will see that this is profoundly important. But the title is more than a geeky pun. Look at the scale of the hunt for the Higgs particle: its duration, the number of people involved, the cost and the size of the machines built to do the job. Look at how important discovering the particle has become to physics. Look at the media hype that breaks out periodically when the particle hits the news. I’d say massive is about right.

You might have guessed that the root of my unease was not so much the title as the subtitle, and more specifically, the last two words: “God particle.” The name is deeply unpopular with physicists and for good reason. What I wanted to tell the audience in my opening line, I suspect, was that I shared scientsts’ contempt for the monicker. But not enough to stop me using it, at least not in the UK.

This week, on 2nd November, the US version of Massive hits the shelves. The book is more or less the same as the UK version (there are some differences I’ll explain later), but the most visible change is with the subtitle. The God particle is done away with. In the US, the book is called “Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science”. This was the US publisher’s idea and I embraced it wholeheartedly. Apart from simply liking it, I took it as an opportunity to see how people reacted to the different versions: God particle vs no God particle. I expected criticism in the UK. I anticipated testy reviews. I imagined a few letters from religious-minded people.

Let’s get one thing straight. The “God particle” is not my phrase. The Nobel prize winning physicist and former director of Fermilab, Leon Lederman, hit on the nickname in his book of that name in 1993. Lederman justifies his choice in various ways: that his publisher insisted no-one had heard of Higgs; that the particle deserved elevation because it was crucial to our understanding of matter; and that his preferred phrase, the “Goddamned particle” (on account of its elusive nature) was over-ruled. Whatever the reason, the media seized upon it and the name stuck.

God has a habit of cropping up in physics. Einstein was perhaps the most relentless in churning out references to God, or “the Old One”, and I won’t plough through them all here. Stephen Hawking dropped the G-word into “A brief history of time”, with his now infamous “mind of God” line. Then, in 1992, George Smoot announced the discovery of faint irregularities in the ancient radiation still reaching us from the Big Bang and said, “If you are religious, it is like looking at God.”

None of the above references to God were meant to imply the existence of a supernatural being. For God read nature, or the laws of physics, or the origin of the cosmos. When Einstein said: “He does not play dice”, he was doubting that quantum randomness lay at the heart of nature. When Hawking clarified what he meant by “the mind of God”, he said: “If we discovered the complete set of laws and understood why the universe existed we would be in the position of God… One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature.” Similarly, Smoot elaborated: “It really is like finding the driving mechanism for the universe, and isn’t that what God is?”

But there is a problem. God works as a metaphor only if the meaning is clear. In the case of Einstein, Hawking and Smoot, there is little room for doubt. We get what they mean. That, I suspect, is not true with the “God particle”. The first time I heard it, I had no idea what to make of it. We can bolt on meaning after the event, and we might even find it justifiable, but at heart it is unclear and an unconvincing nickname. This, I think, is why physicists hate it so much. Stripped of any greater meaning, the “God particle” becomes a cheap shot, a PR stunt and nothing more.

So why did I still use “God particle” in the subtitle of my book in the UK? Here’s why. By the time I wrote the book, I had read that phrase more times than I care to remember. Not one of the countless physicists I interviewed for the book said anything nice about it. I don’t like it myself. But the thing is, that nickname was always there, and a necessary issue to explore in the conversations I had. The bottom line is that the God particle phrase is an indelible part of the story, and one that comes from within the scientific community. I used it because I didn’t want to shy away from it. Having done so in the UK, I was more than happy not to in the US.

Then the emails and letters arrived. The first was from Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society. “Really nicely done,” he said of the book, before unleashing the jab: “My only regret is that you’re perpetuating the silly phrase “God particle”. He went on to say it might help with sales. I disagree. My own view is people in Britain (where God is increasingly struggling for followers) will be put off by the subtitle, not attracted.

The letters were more bizarre. One man wrote to tell me he had witnessed miracles and that these might have something to do with the Higgs boson. He included a photo of himself. Another person wrote to me with something quite extraordinary. He had developed a quantum field theory for God and I must say it wasn’t lacking in some indefinable kind of genius: there was a ubiquitous, invisible “love field” that filled the universe and had its own quanta, called something like a love-on. It made me smile. Others have got in touch too, mostly to berate me for not fearing The End of the World (or worse) at the hands of physicists and their wonderful machines. So it goes.

The UK and US versions of my book differ in more than just the subtitle. The US version has no first person sections, and some people may prefer that, though they will never read of my car ride with Steven Weinberg and other encounters. That said, there is little of substance that is lost. The US publisher had more time to edit my manuscript, with obvious and positive consequences. And of course, my references to all kinds of things that would leave an American scratching their head have been removed, translated or explained. I hope it works.
 

Comments

Almost

Bought Massive at a bookstore in Helsinki (Finland), started reading it at the airport on my way back home and almost miss the flight.

Great book

Great book.  Congrats on the effort.

Loking forward to USA book tour.

BUY THE BOOK

Massive

UK edition               US edition
Jan 2013               Jan 2013
 

  

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter