Thursday, August 23, 2012

HIGGS BOSON: A Failure to Communicate


Illustration by Moonrunner Design Ltd., NationalGeographic







Scientists may be ecstatic about the Higgs Boson particle, which has been described as “the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st Century.  Period.”  But how many average people actually have a clue what it is?

I was interested to read an op-ed in Forbes (http://www.forbes.com/sites/allenstjohn/2012/07/08/higgs-boson-why-you-should-care-about-the-god-particle-and-sadly-why-you-dont/) by Ainissa Ramirez, a Yale University materials scientist and “science evangelist.” 

She says that the discovery of Higgs Boson is a “up there with Copernicus.  If we did not find the Higgs Boson, everything that we understood about how the universe works would have been wrong.”  Meanwhile, “the rest of society is trying to figure out why this is a big whoop.”

Ramirez thinks “the nerds got it wrong by not inviting everyone to the party. The biggest discovery of the 21st century may actually widen the gap between scientists and the general public.”

I found one outstanding explanation of Higgs Boson in The Daily Beast (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/06/the-higgs-boson-why-you-should-care.html).  It was written by Daniel Stone, who is not a physicist (he’s Newsweek’s White House correspondent), although he is clearly a smart guy who’s familiar with complex issues, as he also covers national energy and environmental policy.

Stone describes the Higgs Boson thusly:   “Imagine a set of Legos.  As any 8-year-old knows, with Legos you can build anything:  a castle, a race car — hell, even an aircraft carrier. But until now, Legos are the smallest building blocks we’ve ever known about.  What if we could get even smaller? What if we could deconstruct a Lego block into more fundamental parts: the plastic, the adhesives, the coloring agent.  That coloring dye, in essence, is the Higgs Boson, something we’ve never seen before in a raw state. Except in this case, it would help explain some fundamental qualities about the universe, such as how it formed, why everything in it has the shape it does, and how much about our universe we still don’t know.”

Higgs Boson was discovered at the Geneva-based CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) laboratory, whose mission is to further human understanding of what makes the universe work, where it came from and where it’s going.  What could or should they have done differently? 

According to Ramirez, CERN should have hired a PR firm to develop a website for the general public on the Higgs Boson … or hired a TV personality to be a spokesperson … or produced educational videogames where the player makes his or her own Higgs Boson.  Maybe we in the public relations industry should have been proposing those ideas to CERN.

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