The Irish Times and the God particle

Today, The Irish Times has an article of mine on its weekly science page. In the piece, I describe the tentative results from CERN and Fermilab on the famous Higgs boson, amidst some explanatory background on particle physics. I put some thought into the piece, but I suspect what will be remembered is the headline ‘Nearer, my God particle, to thee’. This was not the title I submitted, to put it mildly.

I have no particular problem with the nickname ‘God particle’ for the Higgs boson (unlike many of my colleagues). I admit the moniker is both catchy and reasonably apt as the Higgs field is thought to endow all other particles with mass. It is also appropriate because the Higgs is an important keystone of our model of particle physics, yet it has proved remarkably elusive – so something of a Holy Grail.

However, I’m not comfortable with the Irish Times headline. The hymn ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’ has a lot of resonance for people who have lost loved ones (think Titanic). A pun based on such a hymn isn’t very clever in my view; it manages to trivialise both science and religion, all in my name.

This keeps happening to me. I put time and thought into expressing science clearly, and what eventually appears does so under a headline I dislike. Journalist friends tell me not to be precious but I think language is important.

This morning, I suspect my name is mud in the coffee room of every physics department in Ireland. As for the humanities, we can expect some outraged letters to the editor from professors of theology or philosophy – to the delight of The Irish Times. Sigh.

The article is here.

Caution: silly puns trivialise both science and religion and may cause offence


Filed under Particle physics, Science and society

5 responses to “The Irish Times and the God particle

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The Irish Times and the God particle

  2. Tom Barry

    In journalism I understand that the writer of headlines is a different job from that of article writer. I know a journalist who has the same gripe and has been furious that the headline writer destroyed their article. Surely this should change. I wonder, Cormac, now that you are a ‘celebrity’ writer do you have the power to say to the newspaper that you must approve their headline (or write your own) in future ? Anyway, don’t give up! Best wishes.

  3. cormac

    Haha. Celebrity writer? I don’t think so!
    Re approval, I submit title suggestions with each article, and ask for previews. Such requests are never answered. To be fair, sub-editors live in a fearsome world of tight deadlines and falling sales. As long as something isn’t actually defamatory, it will do, in their world

  4. Cian

    Hi cormac,
    I just discovered your blog whilst googling for this one ( – article relevant) when my dusty brain couldn’t recall the author’s name (David Robert Grimes). He had a similar occurrence, resulting in the selection of a non-preference for the sake of a sexier title, not that it was necessarily harmful.
    I’m glad for a weak memory, as I’ve now encountered your blog too. As somebody who wouldn’t object to being a professor of philosophy (and once upon a time perhaps theology…although unlikely – I’m towards the end of an M.Sc. in philosophy, so I think a D.Div. in theological physics is next), I do perhaps object to the dig at the humanities. Which is not to say that it’s an incorrect dig.
    I honestly hope we’re getting better. For one, no-one with a humanities background is acting with their training in mind when they object to something like an article title and assume it has fully endorsed authorial intent – it’s a methodological hypocrisy. If such a hypocrisy is committed it’s surely a product of that disturbing trend to field-rivalry. Writer’s like yourself, however marred by editorial quirks, help us along considerably. Philosophers are particularly in a good position to engage with science as individuals, even at its “popular” level. Please keep it up!

  5. cormac

    Hi Cian, it looks like you’re right. The anticipated letters of complaint did not materialise, so perhaps the theologians have thicker skin than I thought. That said, I wouldn’t blame them for writing in, I was pretty uncomfortable with the headline myself..