If you have come here for information on the Higgs Boson particle, skip to the end of this blog post. It isn’t what I’m writing about. I’m focussing on the rumours and hype building in the lead up to the announcement.
My Inbox has been filled with background briefings and information on the work being done at the Large Hadron Collider, (LHC), by CERN. There has been a steady stream of emails since the 23rd of June because CERN announced that they would have a worldwide announcement on the 4th of July to coincide with the start of the International Conference on High Energy Physics, (ICHEP) being held in Melbourne. It makes sense. The LHC is smashing protons travelling close to the speed of light releasing a lot of energy and sub atomic particles. That’s the gist of what happens and physicists study different aspects of the collisions so the timing of CERN’s announcement ties in nicely with conference proceedings.
Now, every time CERN makes an announcement or announces that they’re about to make one, ripples of excitement and expectation are sent out. Everyone picks up on it. Ok, well everyone meaning physicists and anyone that has been following the activities of CERN. It’s a big thing. They have set out to look for things that have only been theorised for decades. I won’t lie. I am expecting an announcement on something to do with the Higgs Boson but this is all that I am expecting. I haven’t speculated because I haven’t got anything new to speculate with because I don’t work at CERN and I’m definitely not privy to the research and data leading up to this announcement.
Remember the announcement in September 2011 about neutrinos travelling faster than light? My email inbox filled with media statements from physicists explaining how this could be possible but also a lot more statements on why it probably wasn’t possible. The news headlines that followed were cringeworthy and mostly along the lines of “Einstein was wrong!” as he postulated that nothing can travel faster than light. Of all the commentary I like xkcd’s the most. Yes, a webcomic.
It has since been determined that the neutrinos were not travelling faster than light. Cue headlines announcing, “Einstein was right!” and commentary on how physicists were fools for not checking for a loose wire. Brilliant stuff. As a scientist I felt for the people involved.
Any announcement made is science isn’t done so for adulation, it’s done to invite skepticism, (the kind where you ask questions wanting evidence, not the kind where it’s a rejection of anything different to one’s point of view), critique and an examination of work done. If this all passes, then the congratulations start to roll in. Somehow science reporting is jumping from announcement to the final step reporting in a binary fashion of Yes! The Scientists Got It! or No, Total FAIL Here Folks!. It’s not how science works and it’s not even good science reporting but we all do love a bit of gossip and speculation.
The#higgsrumors hashtag (note the US spelling) is doing the rounds on Twitter and it briefly made it into the Top 10 Trends. It was heartening to see that there is an interest in theoretical physics, (although it’s actually in the doing phase of science so do we now call it experimental physics?), but it was a chaos of actual discussion and jokes. CERN has done one definitive thing and that is provide new material for science jokes.
Seriously though, when it comes to the reporting in the lead up to the CERN announcement, I can’t help to compare it to the stuff that gets produced in gossip columns. There’s been numerous unnamed sources and anonymous sources confirming the discovery of a Higgs like particle. Some other outlets will declare that Higgs Boson has been found in the headline only to have a myriad of caveats correcting the headline. There’s also media outlets quoting from other media outlets. Articles generated from a one individual statement from an anonymous source.
Come on people. We question or ignore reports like this for every other topic don’t we? Politics, sports, celebrities, and whatever else. This is not the sort of reporting that does anyone any favours. It’s trashy, it’s cheap and void of any substance. Admittedly it does whip up hysteria and intrigue resulting in a feedback loop while not providing any new information to those interested. I doubt that an audience base is being built. I’m interested in science and anything like this that pops up I’ll have a look but looking in on current Higgs Boson discussion and most of what I see is noise.
I am going to spend today working. I will pop on some music in my lab. I am not going to visit any news sites. I don’t want any more hype. I am so over the Higgsteria. By the time the CERN live webcast begins, I will be making my way to an airport to fly home from a week of working on a minesite. Hopefully by the time my plane lands, I can load up a news site to read up on what CERN has announced because this will be the reliable source of new information, whatever it may be.
It would be fantastic if the announcement is a confirmation of the Higgs Boson being found but I temper my excitement with my much stronger desire for facts. Whatever the announcement is, it will lead to more work and questions to answer for physicists. Announcements are integral to science, they drive it forward to new areas and that is what makes them exciting, no matter how small or large.
- Physics fever: your guide to the Higgs boson (cosmosmagazine.com)
- Higgs rumours: fun for you, dangerous for me (guardian.co.uk)
- Leaked Video Appears to Accidentally Announce Higgs Boson Discovery (wired.com)
- Higgs boson: US physicists find strongest evidence yet of ‘god particle’ (guardian.co.uk)
- Ladies and Gentlemen, the Higgs Boson has been found! (3quarksdaily.com)