Particle Physics


A Higgs by Any Other Name

Physicists are on the brink of a breakthrough discovery: They may have finally cornered the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle hypothesized to give mass to all the stuff in the universe. But should we really be calling this particle the “Higgs”?

Simulated Higgs detection

A computer simulation of a detection of the Higgs boson. Or is that the ABEGHHK’tH boson? Credit: David Parker/Photo Researchers, Inc.

Peter Higgs, it turns out, wasn’t the only one to come up with the idea of a new field (the Higgs field) that endows particles with mass. In fact, he wasn’t even the first to publish the theory. That distinction goes to Robert Brout and Francois Englert at the Free University in Brussels, who wrote up the idea in August 1964. Higgs was close on their heels with his own paper in October of the same year. Just a few weeks later, Dick Hagen, Gerald Guralnik, and Tom Kibble published their take on what would come to be known as the Higgs field and Higgs boson.

This wasn’t plagiarism: It was a kind of synchronicity that is the norm in science, says MIT science historian David Kaiser. In fact, independent research groups simultaneously arrive at similar breakthroughs so often that Robert Merton, a sociologist of science, put a name to the phenomenon: multiples. One famous multiple is calculus, which was simultaneously “discovered” by both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the late 17th century. More recently, the accelerating expansion of the universe was observed at nearly the same time by two competing groups of astronomers, both of which were honored with the Nobel Prize in physics in 2011.

Higgs, Brout, Englert and the rest were continuing a tradition that is as old as physics itself. But why is “Higgs” the name that stuck? “Higgs expressed the challenge”—how do we get particles that have mass and still obey the rules of symmetry?—“and the expected solution especially sharply,” says Kaiser. Another recounting pins the name on Ben Lee, a physicist who used “Higgs” as shorthand in a 1972 Fermilab conference program after having had a productive lunch chat with Higgs.

Higgs himself has always been uncomfortable seeing his name ride solo. He prefers to call the particle the “scalar boson” or the “so-called Higgs,” Ian Sample writes in his book “Massive.” Higgs has also advanced the uncommonly inclusive acronym ABEGHHK’tH—that’s the Anderson, Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen, Higgs, Kibble and ‘t Hooft—to honor all the scientists who played a part in originating the theory.

Frank Wilczek, a Nobel prize-winning physicist who has named a few particles of his own (anyons and axions—the latter inspired by a laundry detergent), thinks that the alphabet soup solution would be “especially absurd.” Says Wilczek: “History is complicated, and wherever you draw the line there will be somebody just below it!”

If the Higgs discovery is confirmed, though, someone will have to draw that line—and that someone will be the Nobel Prize committee. The discovery is seen as a shoo-in for the physics honor, but the prize can be divided among no more than three laureates. There are at least six scientists with reasonable claims on the Higgs—not to mention the cast-of-thousands teams whose instruments are responsible for the experimental evidence that the Higgs actually exists.

Complicating matters is physicists’ anarchic naming methodology. When astronomers have planets, moons, and asteroids in need of naming, they turn to the International Astronomical Union. Elements get their formal names from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Physicists, who have no such official naming body, have historically opted for descriptive names, like “neutrino” (“little neutral one”), or names devoid of any physical meaning at all, like “up,” “down,” and “charm.” As a particle named after a person, the Higgs is essentially alone among the fundamental elementary particles.

So what should we be calling the Higgs? “By now it’s so deeply embedded in the literature that changing to another name would be jarring, and might introduce a gratuitous complication in literature searches or eventually even a hurdle to parsing older papers,” says Wilczek. If he had to choose? “A possibly better choice might be ‘zeron,’ to connote that the particle has zero quantum numbers, and in some sense is an ingredient of what we call nothingness.”

“I’d find a fancy-sounding word in ancient Greek, to give it gravitas, and then add ‘on,’” says Kaiser. In the absence of a Greek dictionary, Kaiser nominates “lardon”—a particle that makes things heavy.

Ultimately, it may come down to branding. “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,” wrote the editors of Nature in a recent editorial. Indeed, “Higgs” seems to have captured the public imagination—and it makes a much better Twitter hashtag than #ABEGHHK’tH.

Now it’s your turn: If you could rename the Higgs, what would you call it?

Go Deeper
Editor’s picks for further reading

Facebook: Peter Higgs
No, you can’t “friend” him, but you can “like” him.

FQXi: Higgs Almighty
Whatever you call it, please stop calling it the “God particle,” says blogger William Orem.

PHD Comics: Higgs Boson Explained
In this video, particle physicist Daniel Whiteson at CERN explains how the LHC is searching for the Higgs boson.

Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or email.

Kate Becker

    Kate Becker is the editor of The Nature of Reality, where it is her mission to blow your mind with physics. Kate studied physics at Oberlin College and astronomy at Cornell University, and spent seven years as senior researcher for NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

    • sean samis

      Since it’s often called the “God particle”, call it the ‘theon’ or ‘theotron’

    • Stenhammar

      Since ABEGHHK’tH looks like a word in a certain ‘alien’ language, how about we call it the ‘klingon’.

    • ulnon…Greek for matter

    • It will just remain what it is, “Higgs,” for much the same reason that we still call the Sears Tower in Chicago the Sears Tower; even though the name has technically changed a couple of times over the years.

    • Jae35087

      Stick with Higgs. It sounds… right.

    • shut…up. Mass Effect is real???

    • bozo no bobo

      bozos’ Higgs boson. (the boson formerly known as Higgs)

      Keep the Higgs name on it for continuity while giving credit to the crowd responsible by collectively calling them a bunch of bozos (as in “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus”).

    • Anonymous

      Rename it as DEF boson

      • I would like to re-name it as “duo-entity-force” (DEF) boson, considering from my study, Nature Knowledge as the center as well as the source of Consciousness emitting “consciousness element factor” (CEF) obtained through “duo-entity-force (DEF)” boson particle ( Graviton + Knowon) we believed as the real Higgs Boson with Knowledge Value ( KV) measurement = 10 -38 (Planck Number) within quantum level through higher level of Nature Knowledge of Classical Physic-Biological world (Human Max Possible KV = 9.00) en route toward beyond human through infinity – ).

      • Graviton is “somatic mediating dependent to SpaceTime (DST)” particle. Knowon, our proposed 5th force as “psychic / consciousness mediating independent to SpaceTime (IST)” particle. Therefore DEF is superposed boson particle –

      • On (Knowon + Graviton) as DEF boson, visit our K-base

      • By definition, Nature Knowledge Theory (NKT) is a theory developed and based on adoption to paradigm of “The Universe or the Nature Knowledge is the source and center of Consciousness” rather than “Mind Brain or Human Being is the source and center of Consciousness”. Nature Knowledge Theory (NKT) judging the Universe as an animate and psycho-somatic being. We believe the development of NKT model framework and its derivatives will facilitate the processes on how we will be able to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics toward Theory of Everything (TOE). The basic consideration in using NKT based on simple rational of human living reality, …” The Universe knows something we don’t. And it acts on cosmic scales”….

      • On Nature Knowledge visit our K-base

    • Guest_074

      BEHHGK – pronounced “Beck”. However, BE did not have a “boson” so somehow that seems odd.

    • Mary

      I would like to know what applications this discovery might facilitate. How might it be used?

    • Linda C. Redman

      What shall we call the particle in everything and the new-found ingredient in what we thought was “nothingness?” What about the “wonder particle!” “Higgs” just doesn’t have an awe-inspiring ring to it.

    • gdc


    • Guest

      You know the one thing that upsets me about life? Its the fact that when I’m gone noone is going to remember who I was or what I accomplished in life. Higgs has a great idea and in 100 years do you think people will know who he is if we name the particle twiddle de or twiddle dumb. Leave the Higgs alone.

    • Grytpype

      As there are still doubts over its existence, call it the Rumsfeld Moral-Codon

    • Blongg

      How about the “RightOn” & be down with it.

    • jbb404

      Cool ideas… But leave it. It is already named. And I agree, it …sounds right.

    • John

      Basic-Fundamental-Origin-Real-Minor-Singularity-Pot-Universal-Life-and many more

    • Seiji

      Higgs sound better than theon

    • pleaserespond

      The Higgs Particle does not exist. The particle is actually a field that interacts with all particles in-relation to themselves and the electromagnetism of the Earth while on Earth. When away from Earths gravity, objects have the weight ratio to particle mass. The particle mass that gives weight on Earth is this field that gives things its structure. In this field, is the answers to the Universe. We and all particles are the hardware and this field is the software. Disrupt this field on Earth and you would achieve almost weightlessness. With harmonics and or a type of electromagnetic or frequency change we could do all sorts of things.