Monday, November 24, 2014
Failure to Deliver Meaning: The Higgs Boson Case
When Higgs Boson was being deified and being mentioned as some thing beyond discussions, I wrote a piece in local Telugu press questioning the whole affair of communicating about the matter. People world wide called it a God Particle. Telugu press called it Godly particle also. There is a subtle difference between the two, at least to me.
I am happy to share this piece written by another friend who thinks like me!!
How much do you know about the Higgs boson? The elementary particle confirmed to exist in 2013 was big news around the world. Physicists waited a half-century for this event. The media told us the breakthrough was huge. If you read about the discovery, can you tell me why it was epic?
My learning experience with the Higgs boson wasn't so much a revelation about physics, but about how many communicators fail to deliver meaning to their audiences. I read several articles and blogs that described great zeal over the discovery. Yet in some of the world's most respected media outlets, no reporter or blogger could explain why this particle was a paradigm changer in a manner I could understand.
It bothered me that I couldn't comprehend this story. I wondered…am I just that dense when it comes to physics? Or are these articles ineffective? So I surveyed the morning regulars at Peregrine Espresso here on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, to see if any of them got it. A group of mostly middle-age-plus guys, and an occasional brave woman or two, meet there most mornings to discuss politics, sports, relationships, and just about anything on anyone's mind.
This collection of college professors, lawyers, international aid workers, government executives, a few random politicos, and a social worker turned handyman aren't shy about expressing their opinions. If this group of highly educated, well-informed latte drinkers didn't grasp the significance of the Higgs, I figured, most of America wouldn't, either. My suspicions were confirmed: Everyone had heard about the discovery, but no one comprehended it. Later, a physicist I interviewed for this book, who chose not to be identified, told me he estimates that probably less than a percent of Americans can speak knowledgeably about the Higgs boson or why it's important.
Frustrated, I dedicated a couple of days to doing nothing but research to discover the mystery of the famous particle. I read and reread dozens of articles and blogs to see if I could find a glimmer of light that would lead to some low level of understanding. But in everything I read, nothing seemed to bring meaning to me. I felt either assaulted by physics jargon or underwhelmed by fluff. Nothing was helping me figure out why this was a big discovery and why I should care about it. It doesn't matter to me if physicists are excited about confirming a theory; I wanted to know what's in it for me! Why should I care about the Higgs boson?
If I had been asked to write about the Higgs boson at this point in time, my summary would look something like this:
Scientists are celebrating because the discovery of the Higgs boson confirms that the Standard Model of particle physics is consistent with what they hypothesized. Physicists use this theory to explain how the universe works. The confirmation of the Higgs boson's existence can help them better understand how the Big Bang occurred.
That summary may be factually correct. But we could do much better. My readers can take away from this that the discovery is an important scientific breakthrough, but there's nothing there that is particularly meaningful to them.
After hours of research, I finally came across a video clip of Columbia University physicist and best-selling author Brian Greene lecturing on the Higgs boson at the Aspen Ideas Festival (like a Western Chautauqua). Eighteen minutes into the twenty-minute video presentation, he said something that finally resonated with me. The clichéd light bulb went off over my head. Greene said that the Higgs boson discovery has no practical implications of which scientists are aware—yet. That piece of information gave me some relief. I'd been waiting for something tangible to help me comprehend this revelation…and it turns out there is none—just yet. We humans crave tangibility.
Ironically, it was the understanding of the lack of tangibility that finally created the spark that helped me grasp the enormity of this discovery. Greene, apparently a super communicator, eloquently explained: Sometimes we need to “wait for theoretical discoveries to turn into practical applications.”1 He drew an analogy to the discovery of quantum mechanics back in the 1920s and 1930s. Apparently, quantum mechanics was as abstract to people back then as we find the Higgs boson today. But Greene explained that quantum mechanics helped scientists and engineers in unprecedented ways—they understand more about molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. The discovery of quantum mechanics ultimately led to the invention of things that today we couldn't imagine living without. Take, for instance, personal computers and cell phones. Anything with a circuit wouldn't have been possible without the discovery of quantum mechanics.
With this example I now understood that the Higgs could soon usher in a new era of scientific understanding that could lead to more, greater technological breakthroughs.
Now, let me try again to rewrite the summary. This time with meaning:
The discovery of the elusive Higgs boson confirms the theory scientists have been using to understand how the universe works. Physicists are celebrating this breakthrough because it can lead to other significant findings like the discovery of quantum mechanics did almost a century ago. Quantum mechanics led to the invention of many of the twentieth century's most notable technologies…like cell phones, computers, and even the atomic bomb. The discovery of the Higgs boson could be equally important…if not more so. It can lead to innovations we can't yet imagine.
By linking the Higgs boson discovery to tangible examples that resulted from the discovery of quantum mechanics, I was finally able to grasp some of the significance of this highly hyped science story. The discovery of the Higgs boson is possibly much bigger than opening the door to new technologies, but this simple comparison helped me put the Higgs discovery into a context I could comprehend. From here I could grow to understand more about this great physics discovery. Finally, I found meaning.