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19Mar 2013

Michio Kaku Says Higgs Boson Caused the Big Bang. Should Reporters Trust Him?

Physicist Michio Kaku

Like many complicated concepts in science, the Higgs Boson is a challenge to explain, both for journalists and the scientists who try to help us.  It would be a lot simpler if it were generally accepted that the Higgs Boson was important because it caused the big bang. If that were true it would seem almost justified to call it the God particle.

In a recent Tracker post I expressed surprise that CBS News made the big bang claim in this news story. I wondered where the author got this idea, since there was no direct attribution:  

The Higgs boson is often called "the God particle" because it's said to be what caused the "Big Bang" that created our universe many years ago. The nickname caught on so quickly (even though scientists and clergy alike do not care for it) partly because it's a great explanation of what it's supposed to do -- the Higgs boson is what joins everything and gives it matter.

 I have since learned one source of the claim that the Higgs caused the big bang: Physicist, author and TV personality Michio Kaku.  And so the CBS News post may say less about weird interpretations of science and more about judicious use of sources.

Kaku connects the big bang to the Higgs in a video that accompanies the CBS News piece. Physicists Sean Carroll and Matt Strassler brought Kaku’s claims to my attention. Neither of them agree with it, and several other physicists told me that indeed, the Higgs Boson did not cause the big bang.

The CBS News piece illustrates the risk of quoting one person as the voice of authority on any topic. The story does not attribute the big bang connection to Kaku but simple states it as fact, qualified only by, “it's said.” That phrase implies the big bang statement represents more than just one person’s controversial view.

That’s not to say there’s no connection between particle physics and cosmology. There is, and understanding what the universe is made of and the forces that govern it has helped scientists better understand how it originated. But the idea that the Higgs caused the big bang does not appear to be scientific consensus. It’s not clear anyone besides Michio Kaku is promoting that view.  

Physicist Sean Carroll has gone public with his disagreement over Kaku’s spin in this post, for his blog The Preposterous Universe. It didn’t take me long to find that Scientific American blogger Michael Moyer also publicly expressed some reservations about Kaku’s credibility, Tweeting a Kaku link prefaced by this plea:

“Can we all stop paying attention to the unfounded pronouncements of Michio Kaku now? Please?”  

I agree with Moyer more broadly - we should not present unfounded pronouncements by famous people as truth. The burden is on us journalists to use good judgment in picking sources of quotes and information and being straight with our readers about why these sources were consulted and what their limitations might be. Readers deserve to know if they’re hearing from an active member of the particle physics community or not, and whether the views represent consensus or one person’s speculation.

The CBS News story not only says the Higgs caused the big bang but that this phenomenon explains why the Higgs is called the God Particle. That phrase has been traced back to the title of a book by physicist Leon Lederman, published in 1993. It might be interesting to see why Lederman chose that phrase, though he’s been quoted ad nauseum saying that he wanted to call the book, the God Damned Particle, but the publisher took out the damn.  (I first heard that story back in 1993 when I interviewed Lederman for a short item in Science)

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