Sunday, October 27, 2013

What's In A Name?

I've dealt with many non-scientists who put too much emphasis on the names or labels given in  science, and especially physics. Because they do not understand the physics attached to these names, they put all their understanding based on what the name seems to imply. Examples are the over-emphasis on the name "theory" and "law" and "model", etc.

With the Higgs, a lot of people, especially crackpots, pseudoscientists, and downright misguided people seem to have jumped on the moniker given to the Higgs by Leon Lederman, which was the "god particle". People seem to think that this particle has a more important significance or that it carries religious meanings. All this with many of these people not even having the capability to understand the physics associated with the Higgs.

This is a rather amusing article on how some of the names given in physics have a rather mundane, and utterly boring origin, devoid of any deeper significance. For example, on how the Higgs particle got its name:

There are two-and-a-half theories to explain why Higgs' name won the title, Carroll said. One is that the works of Higgs, et al., were cited in a study by Steven Weinberg in 1967, but Higgs was listed first, unintentionally leading later researchers to cite his work ahead of the others. The second is that physicist Benjamin Lee, who wrote and spoke about the theory and is credited with popularizing it, read Higgs' paper first, and began using the shorthand "Higgs" to describe it, Carroll said. And finally, he said, "Higgs boson" just sounds better than "Brout boson."

"Once it was there, there was never a strong attempt to change it," Carroll said. "And it's just a name."

This is not unusual. Often, another researcher citing another paper would tend to either give it a name, or a short abbreviation, rather than citing the full thing over and over again. In publications such as Phys. Rev. Lett., where there is a page limit, you don't want to type down the full thing. So you either give it a short name, or abbreviation (example: BCS theory). That's how many of the names and labels orginated.

Moral of the story: stop paying too much attention to the names and labels. Understand the underlying physics. That is more important.


1 comment:

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

I deal with similar crackpottery from Electric Universe types who have an issue with "Magnetic reconnection" and similar 'placeholder names' like Dark matter.