What the Higgs Boson Owes to the World Wide Web
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the Web as a communications fabric. Finally, the Web has provided the model for the LHC Computing Grid, a vast network of 140 computing centers in 35 countries that collaborate to house the huge volumes of data generated by the collider’s detectors.
“Particle physics always has been pushing the envelope on communication,” said Sarah Eno, a University of Maryland scientist who is part of the CMS detector team at CERN, in 2006. “That’s why the World Wide Web was developed by the particle physics community. We’ve always had a tremendous need for communication.”
Speaking of communication, we’ve arrived at Part 2 of my argument. I’ve been following the coverage of the Higgs boson announcement all week, and frankly I think the broadcast media have been doing a bad job of explaining the science. It’s only on the Web and in the leading newspapers that the context and significance of the discovery have been adequately conveyed.
Let’s take a look at how PBS and NPR covered the July 4th announcement at CERN. I have immense respect for these two organizations and their reporters. But when it came time to explain what this $10 billion particle actually is and why we should care, both outlets fell short. Here’s Richard Harris, about 3 minutes and 30 seconds into a 4-minute report for NPR’s All Things Considered: “If it is indeed the Higgs boson, the discovery would provide evidence that there’s a field—the Higgs field—that permeates our universe and interacts with particles to create mass. It explains why the atoms that make us who we are actually have substance.”
And here’s ITN reporter Tom Clarke, who supplied a report broadcast by the PBS NewsHour: “Most of the things we’re familiar with in the universe have mass. But without the Higgs boson, there is no mass…. take away the Higgs, and there’s nothing left to hold the entire universe together.”
That’s all they said about the actual science. It’s not that these descriptions are wrong—they’re just incredibly vague. I won’t even bother you with the lame descriptions of the Higgs boson offered by the mainstream TV networks. (But Stephen Colbert’s take was amusing: to understand the excitement of physicists at CERN, he said, you “had to be there…and simultaneously not be there.”)
But on the Web—in which I include the websites of the major newspapers and other media organizations—writers have offered a variety of thorough and clever explanations of the Higgs boson, how it fits into the standard model, and how its associated field imparts mass. When the actual math is so inaccessible, there’s no alternative but to use analogies, and I’ve seen a number of great ones offered this week.
Particles moving through the Higgs field are like ping-pong balls rolling across a tray of sugar, said Ian Sample, science correspondent at The Guardian. It’s “not unlike a field of snow, in which trudging through impedes progress,” offered the BBC. Or maybe it’s more like actors moving through an ocean of paparazzi, said physicist Brian Greene for a PBS Nova segment: “Some particles, like unknown actors, pass through with ease. The paparazzi simply aren’t interested in them. Other particles, like superstars, have to push and press. The more those particles struggle to get through, the more they interact with the ocean and the more mass they gain.”
But my absolute favorite analogy came from Dennis Overbye at the New York Times: “Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.”
YouTube and Vimeo have also been a gold mine of physics information this week. At Minute Physics, cinematographer-physicist Henry Reich offers a three-minute overview of the Higgs that’s already been viewed 112,000 times. For an explanation of the Higgs boson that’s both accurate and fun, meanwhile, you can’t beat the cartoon version of roboticist Jorge Cham’s talk with CERN physicist Daniel Whiteson, embedded below. (The video is also online here and is part of Cham’s PhD Comics series.)
The medium CERN invented, in other words, turns out to be the best one for explaining the science CERN is uncovering. It doesn’t matter that the Higgs is a kludge, or that the standard model, while now “complete,” still offers a woefully inadequate explanation of the universe—it offers no clues about the nature of gravity, dark matter, or dark energy, for example. This just leaves more for us to chew on in coming years, as researchers create more Higgs bosons, study the different ways they decay, and debate the relationship between the standard model and more radical ideas such as string theory.
Maybe it’s a good thing that the SSC went unfinished in the 1990s. Without today’s Web, we might not have appreciated the results anyway.
Addendum July 10, 2012: On the flip side of the coin, Hank Campbell at Science 2.0 documents how the Web has been the scene of some unbelievably silly stories using the Higgs discovery as the jumping-off point for pseudoscientific click bait.