Hitting sweet spot in reporting on new subatomic particle

So, Wednesday, July 4, was supposed to be THE day, when physicists scheduled an announcement about the 30-year search for the existence of a subatomic particle known as the Higgs Boson.  The Higgs Boson is predicted to exist by the so-called Standard Model, a theory that describes the interaction of the energy fields and associated particles that make up all matter in the universe.  Finding the Higgs would complete the Standard Model.  The buildup to the announcement began weeks and months earlier.  Back in December 2011,  physicists at CERN, which runs the Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border where the most recent experiments have been done, offered preliminary evidence for the likely mass of the sought-after boson.  Mass is a critical characteristic of the particle, and narrowing down the range of likely mass was an encouraging sign that scientists were, finally, on the right track in their search.  The intervening weeks and months provided ample opportunity for scientists and science writers to lay the groundwork for the possible discovery.  We were treated to everything Higgs (e.g., Dennis Overbye, Beth Teitell, Ben Zimmer, James Weatherall, Numbers Guy, Curt Brainard, etc.), both before and after the announcement.

And, yet, on the big day, there was a curious reticence in the way physicists were describing their findings.  “We think we are very close to finding evidence for the Higgs Boson,” “We think we have it,” we’ve discovered a “Higgs-like” particle, etc.  Apparently, after so many years of failures to find any evidence for the particle predicted by the Standard Model to induce other subatomic particles to have mass, these folks were going to proceed cautiously.  Few if any physicists referred to it as the “God particle” by the way, as it turned out that this was an inside joke started by Leon Lederman.  That didn’t stop journalists from using the phrase, as a provocative catch-phrase that improperly implies that this work has anything to say about God, no matter the theoretical relevance of the Higgs Boson to the Big Bang. 

Nevertheless, with a few exceptions, most news organizations accurately reflected the caution expressed by physicists.  For example, in the article by Dennis Overbye for the NYT, Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe was the headline, followed by “… a new subatomic particle that looks for all the world like the Higgs boson” in the text, and conservative quotes from physicists such as “I think we have it” and “Higgslike”.  I saw similar journalistic approaches presented by the Washington Post, Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, and Fox News, among many.  As for the exceptions I saw, the problems lay only with the thrust of the headlines (e.g., “Scientists say God Particle Discovered” — MSNBC.com; “God particle: Physicists celebrate Higgs boson ‘triumph'” — LATimes.com).  The subsequent text in each case came much closer to representing the actual caution expressed by physicists.

It’s a wonderful thing when so many science writers are successful in accurately reflecting the science they write about.  And, because of their diligence, I think I now have a passing understanding of the Higgs Boson, good enough to be able to discuss it with my 15-month old grandson, Ben.

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© Thomas A. Schoenfeld and dissectingpublicscience.com, 2012.   Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas A. Schoenfeld and/or dissectingpublicscience.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About Tom Schoenfeld

I am an olfactory neurobiologist who practices his science at Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, MA, in the Department of Biology and Chemistry. I have created "dissectingpublicscience.com" to help educate both my science students and the interested non-scientist about the process of science, by focusing discussions on how science is presented and misrepresented in the public media.
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