“This is the physics version of the discovery of DNA” — Sir Peter Knight, President of the Institute of Physics.
It doesn’t really matter if you don’t understand the science of the Higgs boson discovery; science educators say the most important thing is that it’s in our consciousness. It’s on the front pages of the world’s newspapers and it’s the first question at the water cooler today: what the hell is the Higgs boson? Is it really the God particle?
Indeed, if you’re not a science nut, this morning’s media coverage might have had you baffled as to what all of the commotion was about. While there were calls all around for Nobel prizes, you might have been left scratching your head. Crikey asked leading science communicators if we were any closer to understanding the significance of this discovery.
Dr Susannah Eliott, CEO of the Australian Science Media Centre, chaired yesterday’s media briefing where journalists were given the low-down on the Higgs boson discovery. She says journalists and readers alike can often have difficulty getting their heads around scientific lingo.
“Yesterday they tried to explain the experiments but I think it probably went over most people’s heads,” she said. “I think the media has probably done as good a job as can be expected given the difficulty journalists will have had getting their heads around the topic.”
But Eliott says the most important thing is that it’s captured the nation’s attention and is a welcome escape from the same-old news cycle.
“At least they will have picked up some of the excitement of this finding, and perhaps even the bigger picture of our small lives and the minute specks that we are in the universe. It’s nice to get away from the day to day muckracking of petty politics and the daily grind,” she said.
Niall Byrne, creative director at Science in Public and media director for the High Energy Physics Conference, also believes having such a cutting edge discovery as a leading story is the real win — whether people understand it or not.
“It’s really exciting that fundamental science is on the front page of the world’s newspapers. Normally I’d say that we have to make a special effort to make science research accessible … but we should be excited about this and recognise that it’s fundamental without really getting it,” he said.
“The Herald Sun gave it half a page. Okay it was after the Hoddle St murderer but it was half a page in a paper with the largest circulation in the country. So I’m very happy.”
While it was the leading story most media outlets around the world ran with today, Byrne points out that perhaps the most fascinating part of the discovery is the discussion it has created on social media.
“Because physicists are very engaged with social media, we can track through the hash tag for the conference (#ichep2012) that it’s reached nearly 1.8 million Twitter accounts. Now, the press coverage would have reached perhaps a billion people — certainly 500 million or so. But this new media has directly reached 1.8 million,” he said.
Byrne reminds us that it’s a relative contrast to the reporting of significant discoveries made years ago. “Back in the day — back in 1953 — when Watson and Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA they didn’t get press attention for weeks or months, and it took years before most people recognised its significance,” he said.
While confusion abounds, Byrne explains that there are two ways of reporting a story like this. Firstly, “try to make it relevant” — to give people a sense of what it means today. We might not know what it means today, but neither did the discoverers of radio waves imagine the smart phone, or the inventors of the wheel conceive a Formula 1 car.
Secondly, “make it all about the geek moment” — recognising that no one knows what it’s done but we still need to give it its moment.
And what a moment it has had.