Mass appeal

Journal name:
Date published:
Published online

As physicists close in on the Higgs boson, they should resist calls to change its name.

The naming of the Higgs boson as such is clearly a simplification — physicists besides Peter Higgs contributed to the theory that predicts it. But it is far from the most extreme example.

The relationship between the velocity of recession of galaxies and their distance from Earth that we call Hubble's law was first formulated by Belgian cosmologist Georges Lemaître. The quantity known as Avogadro's number was first calculated by Austrian chemist Johann Josef Loschmidt. Higgs, a physicist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, at least has the strongest claim to credit for the boson. And for the arcane world of particle physics, simplification is often a good thing.

In 1964, Higgs was the first to postulate the existence of a massive particle arising from the mechanism of electroweak symmetry breaking, in which a unification of electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force fails in such a way as to give some force-carrying particles masses while others remain without. Yet moves are afoot to rename the Higgs. Earlier this month, some speakers at the Moriond particle-physics conference in La Thuille, Italy, chose to describe progress on the search for the BEH scalar boson (after the physicists Robert Brout, François Englert and Higgs) or the SM scalar boson (where SM stands for standard model).

It is not hard to guess why. Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Europe's premier particle-physics laboratory near Geneva in Switzerland, have reported tentative signals of the Higgs. If these are real, data collected in 2012 should see CERN claim a discovery. A Nobel prize is in the offing, and one that should arguably go not just to the experimentalists, but also to the theorists whose efforts inspired the successful search. But who — besides Higgs — should be included?

The name Higgs boson was supposedly coined by Korean-born physicist Ben Lee, some time between 1966 and 1972. According to journalist Ian Sample, Lee learned about the mass-giving mechanism from Higgs, and later coined the term as a shorthand. Yet several others played an important part in developing the theory that gives rise to the Higgs.

Belgian physicists Brout and Englert were the first to publish on the subject in 1964, building on ideas from condensed-matter physics developed by physics Nobel laureate Phil Anderson and others. Higgs published the same year; his paper contains the first mention of the boson. Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen followed with a third account that is generally considered more complete. One interpretation of this history is reflected in the American Physical Society's joint award, in 2010, of the J. J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics to Brout, Englert, Higgs, Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble.

This provides plenty for physicists to argue about. In 2010, a row over credit erupted when Brout, Englert and Higgs were acknowledged in an advertisement for a conference on the particle but Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble were not (see Nature; 2010). Meanwhile, 2011 saw a dispute over editing of the Wikipedia article 'Higgs boson' between one editor who supported Guralnik's view that his paper with Hagen and Kibble proposed a boson and another who was pro-Higgs.

Particle physicists should not rename the Higgs. And the reason would be obvious to anyone in business: branding. There are already relatively few concepts in their subject that have achieved widespread recognition without crossing one of them out. In business, it would be considered destructive to take a well-known name and replace it with a long-winded, technical-sounding alternative that no one has heard of.

Correct allocation of credit is important, and authoritative accounts of the history of science are useful and enlightening, but both must be balanced with science's need for consistent conventions, brevity, and public communication and outreach, especially when taxpayer's expenditures, such as the US$6.5 billion for the Large Hadron Collider, are at stake. Renaming the Higgs boson in the year when it is most likely to be found gets the balance wrong. (And anyway, Higgs is a better name than the God particle, isn't it?)


  1. Report this comment #40428

    Kausik Datta said:

    in the world of particle physics, Shakespeare doesn't hold much sway, I guess? A boson by any other name...?
    In a discussion about the (re)naming of the Higgs Boson, the emphasis is justifiably on the 'Higgs' part, of course, given the naming conventions and surrounding controversies. However, even then, it probably wouldn't have been out of place to mention at least once the scientist in whose honor the particle was named Boson .
    [Disclaimer: The link points to an old blog post of mine]

  2. Report this comment #40673

    Yaron Sheffer said:

    How about the *Alphon* particle? There are many particles that have been predicted prior to their actual discovery, yet none has been named after their predictors. We do not call the positron a "Dirac lepton", nor do we call the quarks "Gell-Mann-Zweig fermions" nor the nuetron a "Rutherford hadron" nor the neutrino a "Pauli fermion" nor the omega-minus a "Gell-Mann-Ne'eman baryon", nor do we call the W and Z "Glashow-Weinberg-Salam bosons", etc., etc. Therefore, the so-called "Higgs boson" should be assigned a new name that is not associated with names of individuals. I suggest calling it the Alphon, since it is a mass generator for all the others, with its symbol being 'A' for capital Alpha, given the strong influence of greek letters in particle naming schemes so far.

  3. Report this comment #63607

    Kinom Tiron said:

    I think they should keep something under a naming convention. Most of the confusing that is happening when people are reading science stuff is because of the naming. If the naming would be consistent and not change a lot of confusion would disappear.
    Kinon@ jdeg

Subscribe to comments

Additional data