A Failure to Communicate…

I suggest you watch this clip first, and then read the post: http://youtu.be/R7n71pm0K04

From the July 7th 2012 edition of The Economist:

“We have a discovery.” Rolf Heuer, the director-general of CERN, was in no doubt. He left none of the wiggle-room with which physicists often hedge their announcements when he summed up the results of his organisation’s search for the Higgs boson. These were presented in detail on July 4th by Joe Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti, the leaders of the two experiments that have been looking for the elusive particle. CMS, run by Dr Incandela, and ATLAS, run by Dr Gianotti, are fitted to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the principal piece of equipment at Europe’s main particle-physics laboratory, near Geneva, which CERN runs. Both have found conclusive evidence for a particle of the right type and mass to be the Higgs.

The discovery puts the finishing flourish on the Standard Model, the best explanation to date for how the universe works—except in the domain of gravity, which is governed by the general theory of relativity. The model comprises 17 particles. Of these, 12 are fermions such as quarks (which coalesce into neutrons and protons in atomic nuclei) and electrons (which whizz around those nuclei). They make up matter. A further four particles, known as gauge bosons, transmit forces and so allow fermions to interact: photons convey electromagnetism, which holds electrons in orbit around atoms; gluons link quarks into protons and neutrons via the strong nuclear force; W and Z bosons carry the weak nuclear force, which is responsible for certain types of radioactive decay. And then there is the Higgs.

The Higgs, though a boson (meaning it has a particular sort of value of a quantum-mechanical property known as spin), is not a gauge boson. Physicists need it not to transmit a force but to give mass to other particles. Two of the 16 others, the photon and the gluon, are massless. But without the Higgs, or something like it, there is no explanation of where the mass of the other particles comes from.

There are several reasons why it has taken nearly half a century to nab the Higgs. For a start, theory suggests the particle’s own mass (which it gets by interacting with itself) should be huge. Since, as Einstein showed, energy and mass are the same thing, a heavy particle takes more energy to produce. That meant bigger, more powerful and more expensive machines, like the LHC, which smashes together protons travelling in opposite directions in a circular tunnel 27km (17 miles) in circumference.

To complicate matters, the Standard Model is non-committal about what a Higgs should weigh, so physicists had to look across a broad range of possible masses. That meant having to sift through thousands of trillions of collisions.

Nor were they looking for the Higgs per se. Higgs bosons are so unstable that they can never be observed directly. Rather, ATLAS and CMS, which are located on opposite sides of the LHC’s loop, are designed to detect patterns of observable particles that theory suggests the Higgs should break down into. Unfortunately, such patterns are not specific to the Higgs; other subatomic processes produce similar traces.

The experiments could not, therefore, simply identify a Higgs signal. Instead, they looked for an excess of possible signals, amounting to a fraction of a percent over what would have been expected were the Higgs not real. They have both found it at a mass of around 125 giga-electron-volts, in the arcane units used to measure how heavy subatomic particles are. At one chance in 3m of being a random fluctuation, the findings leave no room for doubt. A new particle has been observed.

One problem is that, as it stands, the model requires its 20 or so constants to be exactly what they are to an uncomfortable 32 decimal places. Insert different values and the upshot is nonsensical predictions, like phenomena occurring with a likelihood of more than 100%.

Nature could, of course, turn out to be this fastidious. But physicists have learned to take the need for such fine-tuning, as the precision fiddling is known in the argot, as a sign that something important is missing from their picture of the world.

The discovery of the boson, then, is rightly hailed as the crowning achievement of one of history’s most successful scientific theories. But it is also almost certainly the beginning of that theory’s undoing, and its replacement by something better. In science, with its constant search for the truth, this is something to celebrate.

The Economist, along with many other publications, rightly recognized the historical importance of these events. They began their coverage with the statement: “Historical events recede in importance with every passing decade. Crises, political and financial, can be seen for the blips on the path of progress that they usually are. Even the horrors of war acquire a patina of unreality. The laws of physics, though, are eternal and universal. Elucidating them is one of the triumphs of mankind. And this week has seen just such a triumphant elucidation.”

Ainissa G. Ramirez

Yet, as Ainissa Ramirez Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science at Yale University observed, the announcement of its discovery was met, for the most part, by a collective silence by the mainstream press and a shrug by most of the human beings on this planet. She wrote:

Here’s what you need to know about the God Particle.

The Higgs boson (Higgs is a guy’s name, BTW, and a boson is a particle that’s smaller than an atom) is the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st Century. Period.

This discovery is 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. We would have had nice equations that describe things we observed in the world, but they would have been crap. That would have been $10 billion flushed down the toilet with the creation of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and we would have gone back to the drawing board with our tail between our legs after fifty years of an aimless pursuit.

It was a big gamble, and we won. It is that big.

And while we don’t know exactly how, this discovery will shape our world and that of our great-grandchildren in ways that we can’t quite imagine. When the electron was discovered in 1897, its uses were not obvious. But, what is obvious today is that we can’t live without electrons, since they run through all our electronics (of cellphones, laptops and TVs) and even make it possible for you to read this now.

So what’s the problem?

One of the founders of the Higgs theory, Gerald Guralnik, was quoted in the New York Times saying he was glad to be at a physics meeting “where there is applause, like a football game.”

The problem is that it’s only physicists that are excited. A few thousand scientists (less than 1 percent of the population) are losing their minds, not taking any calls, getting buzzed in the middle of the day, and crying and hugging each other.

The rest of society is trying to figure out why this is a big whoop.

The biggest discovery of the 21st century, which connects you (and the world and the universe) to the Big Bang, was barely a whimper to over 99 percent of the population.

As Cool Hand Luke said, “ What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

I think 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.

For the past few days, I’ve been interviewed by CNN and several radio programs to talk about the God particle. In preparation, I was armed with all kinds of pithy facts about the Large Hadron Collider, where the discovery was made, and the Higgs boson itself. I spent time searching for the best analogy to describe how this Higgs boson helped other particles gain mass. I had great facts like this: the LHC creates millions of mini-Big Bangs each second in an effort to create traces of Higgs bosons, like footprints in the snow. And, that protons are accelerated to make these collisions at nearly the speed of light in a 17-mile long circular tunnel–-going around 11,000 times per second.

The facts about the experiment are mind-blowing.

But, what my interviewers really wanted to know—all apologizing for their lack of science background as they asked the question—was what does this all mean and why should we care. Like many of my physics brethren, I almost missed the boat myself in stating the significance.

People don’t want to know the details of the Higgs. Not yet. They want to know why it is important and how this changes human history.

I did my best to tell them in terms they could understand. I felt like a voice in the wilderness.

Far too many physicists are freaking people out discussing how this changes religion, philosophy, and the like.

Hold up! You’ve got to get people to understand what has been done before you claim to rock their world. Shouldn’t we let people decide for themselves what this means?

The headline is that we got it right. We came up with a theory, crunched the numbers, then we built a massive and wondrous machine to see if we were right, that this thing really does exist, and we were right. That’s big. It’s a reason to be proud to be a human being.

Scientists can and should bask in that glow for a while, but we should also spend a bit more time talking with the rest of the population, sharing the enthusiasm. Specifically, I think we should do a better job at teaching science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) using events such as this as a catalyst. Since science is right now part of the national conversation, let’s strike while the iron is hot and create ways to get more people excited about science.

Now, I’ll admit, the folks at CERN (the home of the LHC) have made some valiant efforts to teach the general public about science. There is a cute pop-up book on the LHC that I cannot wait to get a hold of.

But they could do much more. Since this is the biggest scientific experiment in history, they should set the gold standard for how to communicate science too. They are the role models that everyone will follow. If they made it a priority to communicate the meaning of this discovery all along, we wouldn’t have reporters scrambling to use the same sound bite all week.

So how could we have done this differently?

CERN should have hired a PR firm to develop a website for the general public on the Higgs Boson. Maybe CERN should have hired a TV personality to be a spokesperson. (I’m in the book should anyone care to follow-up.) How about educational video games where the player makes his or her own Higgs boson? Or an amusement park ride called the Supercollider?

I think Ramirez has a good point. Now more than ever organizations need to really work on connecting with stakeholders. When I read her piece I thought of Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996) (http://carlsagan.com/).

For my generation he brought science to life as perhaps no one has done quite as well before or since. His series, Cosmos, cowritten with Ann Druyan, though sometimes parodied (“billions and billions”), also brought a sense of wonder and magic to the subject of physics and astronomy. He conveyed the interconnectedness between the smallest particle and the grand scale of the universe, between ourselves and the cosmos. He would have known how to communicate this to the rest of us http://youtu.be/dADUBcoEEHw?t=53m4s.

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