05 July 2012

It’s kind of a Higgs deal

The great thing about this picture of CNN’s coverage about the announcement of finding the Higgs boson (spotted by Jon Mitchell)...

Is how wonderfully multi-purpose it is. I can use it as a slide in my next talk, no matter what the subject is!

Yesterday’s announcement that the teams at the Large Hadron Collider had almost certainly found the Higgs boson once again focused my attention on how different the community standards of scientists are. Karen James asked:

How is the Higgs announcement today anything other than science by press release?

This led to some conversation on Twitter with Karen, Ed Yong, Matthew Francis, and Cathy Kerr (mainly - apologies if I have overlooked others!) about why the physics community is perfectly cool with this. In biology, you’d probably get smacked down pretty hard for having a press conference without a paper at least accepted to show for it.

Twitter may not have been the best forum for this discussion. I referred to the Higgs announcement as a “shortcut” – not a good term in retrospect – which Ed rightfully called me on. Different community standards.

What I was fumbling to say was that in science, we do try to standardize our approaches to things to a fairly large degree. We deal in evidence. We subject ideas to peer review. Papers are the major coin of the realm. Credit is usually given to the person who makes the first announcement. It’s not absolutely uniform, but in broad strokes, people in one field of science can recognize the processes in other fields of science.

Why is there so much divergence in how results are communicated? Would there perhaps be some benefit in trying to harmonize how scientific results are communicated? We could, dare I say it, become a little more empirical about this. What are we out to achieve with announcing scientific results, and are some ways better to do this than others?

Comic Sans

The announcement may have also moved the awareness about Comic Sans and its use in the scientific community to a new level. That the cane toad of type appeared in the Higgs presentation itself became a newsworthy story for the media.

Some thought this was a deliberate move to provoke people. Some thought they were using it ironically to show they have a sense of humour. Some thought that making a big scientific discovery like this granted you immunity from prosecution for all past, current, and future type crimes. Me? I’ve made my views known before.

You can do better than that, physicists.

Higgs humour

All that aside, I had fun on Twitter putting standard anti-science arguments with this discovery, with the #HiggsDenier hashtag:

"Those graphs are perfect. A little TOO perfect, if you ask me!" #HiggsDenier

"Physcists getting rich off the government grants to find a particle HAVE to say there's a boson or lose their funding." #HiggsDenier

"They're announcing the discovery by a press conference because they know the results can't pass peer review!" #HiggsDenier

"Genesis doesn't say, 'In the beginning, God created a 126 GeV boson.'" #HiggsDenier

"Discovery of Higgs boson, particle physics 'missing link', just creates two new gaps in the standard model." #HiggsDenier

"A 126 GeV particle a perfectly consistent with my theory that the universe is made from earth, air, fire, and water." #HiggsDenier

"They want to teach the Higgs boson in school? What about parental authority? I should be able to decide what my kids learn!" #HiggsDenier

"What if the Higgs boson falls into the wrong hands? It could be the engine for new weapons of MASS destruction!" #HiggsDenier

Which led to #HiggsPressCoverage:

"Scientists announced they've discovered the #Higgs boson, the particle that creates mass. How will this affect Obama?" #HiggsPressCoverage

"The Higgs particle gives everything mass. Will this help you shed mass in time to fit into your summer bikini?" #HiggsPressCoverage

"Scientists announced today the discovery of the particle that gives mass. Next, the weather forecast with Dawn." #HiggsPressCoverage

"Next, our investigative report: What you NEED TO KNOW about the mysterious Higgs boson! Is it a threat to your health?" #HiggsPressCoverage

"Stock markets [rise / tumble] as Wall Street reacts to news of Higgs boson." #HiggsPressCoverage

"Apple aims new iBoson squarely at Higgs' share of boson market." #HiggsPressCoverage

Related posts

Are neutrinos and science journalists both going faster than they should?

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