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Jul 5, 2012

You don't have to understand the Higgs boson to love it

Science educators don't mind if you understand the God particle -- they're just delighted that you're reading about science.

“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.

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55 comments

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55 thoughts on “You don’t have to understand the Higgs boson to love it

  1. wayne robinson

    As far as I’m concerned, the good thing about the Higgs boson is that it gets rid of supersymmetry, extra dimensions (does anyone understand what 7 extra dimensions curled up so small they can’t be seen actually means?) and string theory, and might explain what dark matter is.

  2. Elohim

    I have some questions for you, and you must answer them. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much. Do you know how its dimensions were determined and who did the surveying? What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? “Who defined the boundaries of the sea as it burst from the womb, and as I clothed it with clouds and thick darkness? For I locked it behind barred gates, limiting its shores. I said, ‘Thus far and no farther will you come. Here your proud waves must stop!’ “Have you ever commanded the morning to appear and caused the dawn to rise in the east? Have you ever told the daylight to spread to the ends of the earth, to bring an end to the night’s wickedness? For the features of the earth take shape as the light approaches, and the dawn is robed in red. The light disturbs the haunts of the wicked, and it stops the arm that is raised in violence. “Have you explored the springs from which the seas come? Have you walked about and explored their depths? Do you know where the gates of death are located? Have you seen the gates of utter gloom? Do you realize the extent of the earth? Tell me about it if you know! “Where does the light come from, and where does the darkness go? Can you take it to its home? Do you know how to get there? But of course you know all this! For you were born before it was all created, and you are so very experienced! “Have you visited the treasuries of the snow? Have you seen where the hail is made and stored? I have reserved it for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war. Where is the path to the origin of light? Where is the home of the east wind? “Who created a channel for the torrents of rain? Who laid out the path for the lightning? Who makes the rain fall on barren land, in a desert where no one lives? Who sends the rain that satisfies the parched ground and makes the tender grass spring up? “Does the rain have a father? Where does dew come from? Who is the mother of the ice? Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens? For the water turns to ice as hard as rock, and the surface of the water freezes. “Can you hold back the movements of the stars? Are you able to restrain the Pleiades or Orion? Can you ensure the proper sequence of the seasons or guide the constellation of the Bear with her cubs across the heavens? Do you know the laws of the universe and how God rules the earth? “Can you shout to the clouds and make it rain? Can you make lightning appear and cause it to strike as you direct it? Who gives intuition and instinct? Who is wise enough to count all the clouds? Who can tilt the water jars of heaven, turning the dry dust to clumps of mud? “Can you stalk prey for a lioness and satisfy the young lions’ appetites as they lie in their dens or crouch in the thicket? Who provides food for the ravens when their young cry out to God as they wander about in hunger? Job 38

  3. Andrew L

    Mentoined this to a friend the other day. He said: “Didn’t he bowl leg spin for Australia?” 🙂

  4. Daniel Ruben

    I don’t think the Higgs boson eliminates the need for supersymmetry. From what I can tell by completing the standard model it paves the way forward for research into unifield field theory which solves the problem of the Higgs boson being subject to quantum corrections. Now that we know the boson exists we can get on to unifield field theory and proving SUSY.

  5. JG Downs

    I am sure that “Elohims ” paraphrasing was not meant to be contrary to the very well written article written by Karla and especially not contrary to the excellent comments from Wayne Robinson and Daniel Ruben, but maybe a dig at ” some ” the so called science – press experts who continue to look in the wrong places.

  6. Mike Smith

    The Higgs Boson walks into a church.

    The priest says, “We don’t allow Higgs Boson in here.”

    Te Higgs Boson says, “But without me how can you have mass?”

  7. Andrew L

    Mike! A classic!

  8. Larry

    hehehe…very cute Mike.

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