July 7, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich
Not God but Goldilocks? Musings about particle communication
Being on a rain-washed holiday in the depth of Dorset, what else is there to do but watch some news, read some newspapers and getting a long lecture on the Higg’s from one’s offspring. I still don’t understand exactly what’s going on with the Higgs, but the whole thing ties in nicely with various topics explored in this blog, such as uncertainty, hype (in this case, I believe, unjustly, called ‘higgsteria’), and even impact, for example. (On impact and the Higgs read an opinion piece by Colin Blakemore in The Times published on 7 July, p. 24; but for online access you have to pay)
Everybody probably knows what happened with ‘the Higgs’. At a seminar held at CERN in Geneva on 4th July, scientists announced that they had found strong indications that a theoretical particle proposed in the 1960s by Peter Higgs and eight other scientists may exist in some incarnation or other. This would confirm some assumptions about the standard model (which describes how particles and forces behave and interact) and would allow physicists to explain why some particles have mass (which is obviously important in terms of explaining the existence of life, the universe and everything).
Of course things are much more complicated than this brief summary can even hint at. Making something so complex ‘public’ is quite a feet of science communication. As far as I can tell without being able to do any empirical research (surfing the web for any length of time), scientists and science communicators seem to have managed that quite well this time. The nick-name for the Higg’s boson, the ‘God particle’, was of course used, but was not as omnipresent as in September 2008 when CERN switched on the Large Hadron Collidor and the news was full of ‘end of the world’ scenarios (including black holes, gates of Hell and so on), narratives popularised by one maverick scientist in particular at the time, but narratives that were also used by many science communicators (again, this is just from memory!).
What makes the announcement of ‘the Higgs’ such a difficult task in terms of science communication? I think two issues in particular needed careful navigation: uncertainty and hype. I’ll have to leave it to others to do real research around how these issue were actually handled, but let’s go with what I have at hand, e.g. the print issue of the New Scientist that was composed just before the CERN announcement (and some newspapers bought in paper form on the 5th of July). In New Scientist we find Francois Englert’s answer to the following question for example: “What if it isn’t there after all?” [A question that presupposes an anwer in terms of ‘existence’, a term that only tenuously applies to what scientists can actually find]. Englert answers: “No bosons? [shifting from a singular existence of something to a plural of possibilities] Oh, I doubt that. That would be sad. In December there were indicators, albeit with different statistical uncertainties. Nevertheless, when you have different uncertainties in the same place… I am ready to bet now that they have it [shifting to the singular], but am not necessarily sure what kind of boson it is.” This nicely highlights difficulties in making the probable public.
What people, even scientists, expect to see announced is ‘a thing’ (there was a lot of talk about ‘it’), whereas what scientists are actually dealing with are probabilities, uncertainties (which are a good thing if they are nicely narrowed down), possibilities etc. Numerous references were made to 5 sigma (a probability that the results achieved were not just a chance occurrence), and so on. What people (and perhaps not scientsits) also expect, perhaps, is the announcement of an ‘end’-result, whereas, to use a very tired cliché, the Higgs (for short!) is in fact only a step on a still quite long journey of discovery or as the New Scientist article says, “the particle is more a tool, than an end in itself”.
What all these probabilities, narrowed down uncertainties, near certainties and measurements mean is that we may be closer to understanding the universe better. However, this is an understanding that does not directly affect peoples’ lives (unlike the current floods for example). So how do you talk about this? How do you make this exciting without hyping things up too much. Some used the metaphor of understanding better ‘the fabric of the universe’. Some communicators used analogies to explain what this better understanding of the universe actually meant (and on twitter I fleetingly saw a call for collecting the ‘worst’ analogy). In The Times (and elsewhere) CERN’s director Rolf-Dieter Heuer was using the analogy of the Higgs as a particle that “clung to other particles to give them mass as hangers-on cling to celebrities at press conferences. The more hangers-on, the heavier the particle”. There were also graphs and one ubiquitous image of what looked like a yellow star burst (particles smashing) within a blue cylinder (which could obviously not be the real thing but science communication needs an image). These were all valiant efforts of making something that is not obviously (visibly, viscerally, or voyeuristically) exciting, exciting.
The question is basically, how can you communicate to a wider audience the excitement felt by scientists about something that is (only) probable but profound, something that contributes deeply to the process of scientific discovery but is not of itself the discovery of a particular ‘thing’?
For scientists the excitement stems, it seems, not so much from having found something definitive but something to work with. The excitement is about a process not a product. It’s not just about having expectations confirmed. If what they found turned out not to have any unexpected properties, what would scientists do next? In a sense, with the discovery of ‘the Higgs’, they hope to have found exactly what they needed, a sort of Goldilock’s particle that may allow them to refine and rethink the standard model. Not too certain, not too uncertain, but just right.
Let us close with a quote by Alan Barr from the University of Oxford (The Times, 5th July): “It would be great if this is not an isolated island coming over the horizon, but an indicator of a whole new world to come.”
(Image: Taken from the Manor House in Studland, Dorset, which gave us shelter and a working wifi connection; and tea and scones)