© 2008 CERN
Peter Higgs visiting the ATLAS experiment at CERN in 2008. The experiments carried out in 2012 in the Swiss centre have finally discovered the particle postulated by Higgs in 1964..
On the last 4th of July, CERN, the largest international centre for particle physics research, announced one of the most expected discoveries in physics in recent years—its researchers had finally found, after years working on it, a particle that matched the expected characteristics of the renowned Higgs boson. Also known as «the God particle», this discovery was all over newspapers, TV programmes and social networks. But, was this media coverage granted due to the scientific value of the news item or had it more to do with the ever-controversial relationship between science and religion.
Peter Higgs himself, the scientist who postulated this particle’s existence in the 1960’s, has shown his disliking for the divine nickname. This disliking is also shared by other physicists, like James Gillies, Head of Communication at CERN and supporter of the separation between science and religion: «We don’t like using this term to talk about the Higgs boson at CERN. But the media are not to blame. Many times both scientists and journalists use the terminology publishers of scientific books coined in their publications». The currently known as «the God particle» was at first named «the goddamn particle», but the publisher decided to change its name trying to make it more appealing for the public.
The announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson is not the first communication challenge CERN has had to face, as Gillies explained in the Communication Workshop for Researchers organised by the Ruvid held in November at Jaume I University (Castelló). In 2009, when the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) started its operation, the idea that the LHC might cause the creation of black hole that would suck the planet into it was rapidly spread in the mass media. «People would call asking us please not to start operating the LHC», said Gillies. CERN replied with a meticulous communication policy explaining in detail the safety of the LHC and the experiments carried out with it. However, one of the greatest successes in the communication of the LHC activity was the appearance of CERN at the American TV programme The Daily Show, hosted by Jon Stewart, who showed the CERN’s facilities and interviewed the scientists working in it (watch the programme here).
«The discovery of the particle known as “the God particle”, was all over newspapers, TV programmes and social networks. A nickname rejected by the CERN scientists according to the CERN Head of Communication»
© 2012 CERN
The CERN’s announcement of the last 4th of July had great coverage. In the picture, Peter Higgs, «father» of the boson, next to the researchers that told the press about their discovery.
«CERN has had to face many communication challenges. In 2009, the idea that the LHC might create a black hole that would suck the planet into it was rapidly spread in the mass media»
Hollywood at CERN
In 2000, the then Head of Communication at CERN, Neil Calder, was sent a book with a dedication from the author — «Neil, I hope you enjoy the novel! Remember, it’s only fiction!» It was a copy of Angels and Demons, the second best seller of the American author Dan Browne, whose plot is partially developed within the CERN facilities. «It was a good story but it got many things wrong», claims Gillies. So he went to his boss’ office and said «If people start to buy this book, we are going to have to explain what we do here».
In spite of the lack of scientific rigor, the CERN’s communication team saw an opportunity of becoming worldwide known when the film version of the book was released nine years later. The film reduced the part of the plot that developed at the CERN facilities to a few minutes, thus avoiding many of the scientific mistakes the book had. However, these minutes were not free from scientific mistakes. «The images shown are very impressive, but the particles do not leave visible remains in the air as shown in the film, although it is true that at CERN we do work with antimatter. Nevertheless, we would need like 250 million years in order to generate the amount of antimatter shown in the film. And I don’t think anyone would be up for it».
In any case, CERN decided to take advantage of the media pulling power and, when Angels and Demons was released, CERN invited the actors and the director of the film to visit the research centre. «That Angels and Demons is both a successful novel and film is a chance for us to show that research on antimatter is fascinating», explained Sergio Bertolucci, scientific director at CERN, on the occasion of the visit of the film cast and crew in February, 2009.
«In 2000, the then Head of Communication at CERN, Neil Calder, was sent a book with a dedication from the author— “Neil, I hope you enjoy the novel! Remember, it’s only fiction!” It was a copy of Dan Browne’s Angels and Demons»
«The Head of Communcation at CERN believes in the motto “bad publicity is still publicity”, and highlights the importance given to communication at CERN»
Visibility and transparency— the CERN’s keys
The Head of Communication at CERN believes in the motto «bad publicity is still publicity», which highlights the importance given to communication at CERN. Communication is not easy to manage within an organisation that involves twenty different states, and that carries out many different research projects that involve 500 different institutions with researchers from more than 85 different countries.
The communication team at CERN knows that particle physics is a difficult topic to deal with for the general public. James Gillies remarks the need to «fight» against the perception the public opinion has of the work carried out at CERN. Along these lines, the head of communication states that «transparency is of paramount importance for the people at CERN», one of the key points developed in recent years.
The great challenge for the future of this great research centre is increasing its visibility in the mass media, beyond the media coverage of the announcement made on July. «We don’t have a Higgs boson every year», concluded Gillies.
© Mètode 2012