Inside the 50-year battle over what to call the Higgs bosonS

All the latest data suggests we're at last on the verge of finding the elusive Higgs boson...and that will likely reignite one of physics's longest-running controversies. Let's gear up for the surprisingly fierce debate over what to call this particle.

This issue is all about who really deserves the credit for theorizing the existence of the particle, and that is a matter fraught with controversy. The Higgs boson is currently named for Peter Higgs, who was the sole author of an October 1964 paper that first predicted the existence of an elementary particle responsible for other particles have mass. But science, particularly cutting edge physics, doesn't happen in a vacuum, and several other scientists were working on the same problem at the same time as Higgs and reaching many of the same basic conclusions.

The most crucial immediate predecessor to Higgs's work was an August 1964 paper by Robert Brout and François Englert, who clarified the mechanism in particle physics that would produce this boson. While they didn't predict the particle's existence as unequivocally as Higgs did two months later, they still essentially theorized its existence. The question then is whether Peter Higgs should be the only person to claim physics immortality by lending his name to the boson?

Then there was the independent work done by Dick Hagen, Gerald Guralnik, and Tom Kibble, who had arrived at the exact same conclusions about the existence of the Higgs as the other physicists and published just one month later in November 1964. Writing a historical overview of the matter in 2009, Guralnik explains that they had no idea three other scientists were working on the same problem as them, and their decision to be assiduously honest likely cost them their claim at a share of the Higgs boson's fame:

As we were literally placing the manuscript in the envelope to be sent to Physical Review Letters, Kibble came into the office bearing two papers by Higgs and the one by Englert and Brout. These had just arrived in the then very slow and unreliable (because of strikes and the peculiarities of Imperial College) mail. We were very surprised and even amazed. We had no idea that there was any competing interest in the problem, particularly outside of the United States...

After seeing the competing EBH analyses, we unhesitatingly thought that we should do the completely honest thing and reference them, as they were clearly relevant with examples, even if not convincing to us. Our paper was finished and typed in final form when we saw these other works and made this decision. We only altered the manuscript by adding in several places references to these just-revealed papers. Not a single thought or calculation was removed or added, nor was any change made but to the referencing in our manuscript as the result of Kibble's having pointed out the existence of these new papers. In retrospect, I wish we had added the true statement - "after this paper was completed, related work by EB and H was brought to our attention." We were naive enough to feel that these other articles offered no threat to our insights or to the crediting of our contribution. Nearly 45 years later, it is clear that we were very wrong.

The whole paper is well worth a read, particularly for how Guralnik says as nicely as a professional physicist that those other papers were complete crap compared to what he and his team accomplished. But it does leave open the question of just who should be honored by being the namesake - or namesakes - of this particle that has so dominated physics research and the public imagination.

There are four basic possibilities: stick with the good old Higgs boson, use an anonymous name like the scalar boson, honor the three "primary" discoverers by using their initials to form the BEH boson, or throw abbreviated caution to the wind and use all six initials to from the BEHHGK boson. The BEH boson name was recently discussed - while BEHHGK was not - at the recent Moriond meeting in La Thuile, Italy, which some physicists have suggested was simply a political decision to assuage the feelings of François Englert, who was attending the concert.

This whole mess does point to the unique nature of the Higgs boson's name, in that no other particles are named after their discoverer. We don't call the electron the Millikan lepton or the neutron the Chadwick meson. As such, I'd say it probably is just best to cut through all the questions of credit and just refer to it officially as the scalar boson, which is a much better fit for all the other names of standard model particles. Of course, I'm guessing the Higgs boson is pretty much the particle physics equivalent of Pluto at this point - however you try to reclassify it, the public has already decided what it's going to be known as.

Via New Scientist. Higgs simulation image via CERN.