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What we have really learned from the coverage of Higgs boson

What we have really learned from the coverage of Higgs boson

As you are very nearly certain to have read, physicists at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva, made a brain-bending announcement yesterday: the Higgs boson, or at least a “Higgslike” subatomic particle, is very nearly certain to exist.

What on (or beyond) Earth does that mean?

The Internet is awash with explanations, so many of us are probably nearly certain to have a pretty good idea. But in the grand tradition of high school science class, let's double-check with a pop quiz:

  1. Boson is…
    A. A person
    B. A place
    C. A particle
  2. The Standard Model is…
    A. A theory of particle physics now proven to be electromagnetic hogwash, thanks to the discovery of the “Higgslike” particle yesterday
    B. Regarded by some as a theory of almost everything, that describes all of the matter that we can see in the universe (including ourselves)
    C. A car with a clutch
  3. Why is the Higgs boson often referred to as the God Particle?
    A. Because it proves His existence, debunking evolution once and for all
    B. Because the editor of Nobel laureate Leon Lederman would not let him call it the Goddamn Particle, and because of a connection to Genesis 11: 1-9
    C. Because it sounds sexier in a headline than Higgs boson

    Answers:  1- c (a subatomic particle named after scientist S.N. Bose); 2-b and sometimes c; 3-somewhere between b and c.

One certain consequence of the Higgs boson announcement was that journalists the world over performed linguistic gymnastics yesterday as they grappled with one of the major challenges of their profession: wrestling a gigantic concept into graspable sentences, and then crafting those sentences into articles that people actually want to read.

The Internet allows for specialization, simplifying this task. It is no longer necessary for any reporter to serve as the sole conveyor of such a weighty matter (sorry for the pun) within his or her community; those who do not have enough experience in writing about science can comfortably delegate the task to experts.

However, the Internet’s “look at me!” culture may also exacerbate the risk of falling into traps such as sensationalism and hyperbole. In this case, as Poynter’s Al Tompkins points out, the primary traps were an over-reliance on divine references (“God Particle” being nothing more than an unfortunate nickname that stuck), or an over-emphasis on the magnitude of the “discovery” (“this announcement has been more like a decades-long oozing of understanding that has picked up speed in recent months,” Tompkins clarifies).

The keys to covering big, complex issues are to be familiar with, and be transparent about, your storytelling strengths, and to use them to your advantage. Here are five very different examples of Higgs boson coverage that, for different reasons, worked:

1. The Guardian’s Jon Butterworth is well versed in physics. His article was prefaced with a tantalizing teaser: “Inventing a whole-universe-filling-field to make your maths come out right is quite extreme. But it looks like it might just have worked.” To infuse his short piece with big-picture clarity and insider appeal (while avoiding hyperbole or misleading references to an almighty force), Butterworth mixed three ingredients:

  • Agility with the subject-matter: a physics professor at University College London and a member of the High Energy Physics group on the Atlas experiment at CER, Butterworth has no fear of science. As such, he was able to eschew jargon as only a true expert can. He also began his piece with a shakily scribbled replica of “A Higgs boson decaying to two photons via a quantum loop.”
  • Bluntness: according to Butterworth, the Higgs boson “had to turn up, or our understanding of fundamental physics was incomplete. Well, let's be frank, wrong.”
  •  Genuine amazement: “Today we saw a completely objective, repeatable, observation of something fundamentally new,” he wrote, adding: “Say that again. Twice.” As a reward for his earnest excitement, one commentator (a fellow scientist) obeyed.

2. At the New York Times, Dennis Overbye’s magic was in his use of metaphor:

  • Example 1: “Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view since last winter, as the first signals of its existence grew until they practically jumped off the chart.”
  • Example 2: “According to the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.”

…with a special mention for the clearest description of the meaning of God:

“To the eternal dismay of his colleagues, Leon Lederman, the former director of Fermilab, called it the ‘God particle,’ in his book of the same name, written with Dick Teresi. (He later said that he had wanted to call it the ‘goddamn particle.’)”

3. The Irish Times’ Science Editor Dick Ahlstrom did not pretend that he was going to tell us what went on inside the Large Hadron Collider, nor was his prose style particularly alluring. His strength was rather in offering a transparent, blow-by-blow account of the scientific conference at CERN, allowing readers to feel like they were there:

  • He set the scene: “The 300 seats available in the theatre were available on a first come basis for the 9am start, but by 6.30am the queue was already too big... Thousands such as myself relied on a live web feed to keep tabs on the event.”
    He used the vibrations of the scientists to establish the stakes: “It was a scientific conference like none I had ever seen; speakers so full of nervous anticipation that their voices trembled, the hushed silence of an audience hanging on every word.”
  • He transparently breezed past the science: “The presentations were almost unintelligible for non-scientists.”
  • He dispelled confusion surrounding the degree of certainty by differentiating between the way Rolf Heuer, Cern’s Director General, spoke to his fellow scientists, and the way he spoke to the press: “Heuer again took the floor, declaring to the meeting: ‘As a layman I would say I think we have it. Would you agree?’” and then, describing a shift of attitude in the press conference that followed: “Heuer was determined to dampen down claims of a Higgs boson.”

In short, Ahlstrom managed to convey to the non-scientific reader the magnitude of the experiment’s results and the margin for error without bogging him or her down in details that should really be acquired elsewhere on the Internet, if at all.

4. In practiced blogger style, BoingBoing’s Maggie Koerth-Bake did a brilliant roundup of the best of what was out there yesterday, and Xeni Jardin hooked us with humour, rounding up a selection of Tweets that parodied the particle. Some examples:

  • ed casey @edcasey:“Whoa whoa whoa! We’re cross-breeding hogs and bison now? Thanks a lot Obamacare!”
  • Kallee @Kallee:“The #Higgs #Boson walks into a catholic church. Priest says "What are you doing here?" HB says "You can't have mass without me" #higgsjokes
  • Guardian style guide @guardianstyle: “Overheard on the newsdesk: "I don't care what the Higgs boson headline is, just make sure we spell Hadron correctly."

5. Over at The Verge, Sam Byford generated a flurry of Twitter activity, (including a reference in the above-mentioned list of Tweets) by ignoring the findings altogether, and instead concentrating on a completely different concern (sorry):

“For many of us, the most shocking revelation to come out of CERN's Higgs boson announcement today was quite unrelated to the science itself. Rather, we were blown away by the fact that a team made up of some of the most undoubtedly brilliant people in the world believe that Comic Sans is an appropriate font for such a historic occasion.”

To conclude, as an addendum for those who have little recollection of high school physics but are left thirsty for more information about what just happened, here is a cartoon in which two scientists and a NASA-approved cartoon describe the Higgs boson. The very loud prelude shows what looks like the CERN cafeteria, with a strong visual emphasis on fried potatoes.

And for those who do not have 7 minutes and 45 seconds to devote to the Higgs boson, the solution may lie in a tested and true method of storytelling: the sonnet.

Sources: Poynter, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Irish Times, BoingBoing (1), (2) The Verge

Image Credit: Karma Decay


Emma Knight


2012-07-05 17:50

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