From Superfast Neutrinos to «the God Particle»

© 2008 CERN

Peter Higgs, discoverer of the boson that bears his name, has shown his disagreement with the name «God particle». Picture taken at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

On the occasion of the Prince of Asturias Award for Technical & Scientific Research granted to Peter Higgs and Françoise Englert for the discovery of the Higgs boson, we review two of issues regarding particle physics that have recently drawn the attention of the media: superluminal neutrinos and the Higgs boson.

If science allows no final statements, that cannot be corroborated and —therefore— refuted (according to Popper), and if we accept that scientific knowledge is «provisional» or knowledge that «has not yet been falsified», experiments that seem to contradict established and accepted statements should not stir up controversy. Stories of theories superseded by other more precise theories appeal to us because they perfectly fit with the idea of science as a discipline continually in progress. This idea helps us keep the faith in unlimited progress and a brighter future. Now, what happens if these «novelties» question the great Einstein? It will at least give rise to much debate. You don’t get the chance of bringing mythical figures down every day.

That is what happened on September 23, 2011, when CERN explained that, according to different experiments conducted at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory (Italy), neutrinos might have exceeded the speed of light. Had these results finally proved to be right, they would have questioned Einstein’s special theory of relativity. That meant being able to dream about time-travels to the past: too appealing a topic for the media to let it go. So, they did not give it a second thought and spread this controversy while the scientific community embraced the news with a mixture of perplexity and scepticism. CERN called for caution until results were corroborated, but the announcement was too appealing and was therefore hard to stop speculations.

In November 2011, the experiment was conducted again and neutrinos exceeded the speed of light once again. They insisted that new verifications were needed, as indeed new data provided in 2012 showed, which questioned the first results. The mistake pointed to a poor connection of the optical fibre between a GPS reception unit and an input/output card from a computer.

A recent study carried out by Martí Domínguez —Professor of Journalism at the University of Valencia— published in Science Communication analyses this controversy from the point of view of cartoons in different European newspapers. Cartoons are important elements for the analysis of social reality and contribute to the evaluation of how news are received, how society interprets them.

the speed of neutrinos

According to the study and regarding different countries, the Italian press was the one that paid closer attention to the news. We must bear in mind that the neutrino detector used in the already mentioned experiments is located at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, in the Apennines. Regarding the topics dealt with, there were many cartoons that compared the speed of neutrinos with the speed of politicians, especially Silvio Berlusconi’s. The extraordinary speed of neutrinos is another aspect used to refer to current affairs like the economic crisis.

In France, cartoons depicted a wider range of topics. References to speeding, politicians (from Gadaffi to Strauss-Khan), sports (Usain Bolt) and economy (tax evasion) are good examples of the impact of the topic. Humour is more reserved and with less political references in English cartoons, in which the personalisation of neutrinos predominates. Regarding Spanish cartoons, most of the previous topics are repeated: speeding, politicians sidestepping their commitments…

Neutrino representation is also very interesting. They are usually depicted as bullets, an amorphous mass or tiny beings with big eyes, while light –with which they compete– is portrayed as a legged light bulb, as a lightening bolt or as a rainbow. Scientists are usually depicted wearing a white coat and a frown and making statements about neutrinos.



«Experiments that seem to contradict established and accepted statements should not stir up controversy»

Javad Alizadeh’s cartoon. It reflects the possibility that Einstein might have been wrong.

Einstein was wrong

If the scientific discovery had not implied the refutation of Einstein’s theories, the issue would not have been so relevant. Einstein has become an icon in the collective imagination. Time magazine named him «person of 20th century» in 1999. That the great scientist might have been wrong was too appealing an idea to give it up and not make the most of it.

There were, therefore, a series of cartoons that exploited this side of Einstein losing against something so intangible as some neutrinos determined to travel faster than light. Despite the caution shown by the scientific community, humourists considered the Einstein vs. neutrinos battle too interesting to let it go. So they decided to depict the scientist sad, wearing donkey ears or sticking out his tongue while CERN scientists stick their tongue out at him.

On the other hand, the possibility of Einstein being wrong was interpreted as putting into question the reliability of science. If Einstein theories proved to be false, what level of reliability was left for science? The process of falsifiability was interpreted more as a weakness than as a guarantee for the progress of knowledge. Instead of seeing it as a triumph of science, the constant revision of its laws was used as evidence of the little importance one should confer to any scientific result. In a cartoon by James Whitworth, a child said to his teacher: «If a neutrino can defy the laws of physics, I can hand over my homework late». After the CERN’s refutation, cartoonists were less interested in the news. From the 127 cartoons studied, only 29 of them showed the refutation.  

THe «god particle»

The Higgs boson is another topic that has recently focused the media attention. On July 4, 2012, CERN claimed to have discovered a particle that, according to corroborations, it was the Higgs boson. Science Magazine proclaimed it the most important scientific discovery of the year. Last March, CERN provided new data that confirmed the hypothesis that it is, indeed, the Higgs boson.

This particle became widely known as The God Particle, thanks to the physicist L. Lederman. The name, suggested by the editor of the book with the aim of making it more appealing for readers, was never accepted by the scientific community, which mistrusted a concept that alluded to a deity. Higgs himself has never liked that term. Despite everything, this name has always had an effect on the media and is normally used still today.

In fact, last May 29, 2013, when it was announced that the Prince of Asturias Award for research was granted to the discoverers of the Higgs boson —the physicists Peter Higgs and Françoise Englert— some agencies and newspapers chose to make direct reference to the divine particle: «The Parents of the God Particle and CERN, Prince of Asturias Award for Research» (EFE, 29/5/2013) , «Peter Higgs vindicates the other “father” of the ‘God particle’», «”The God Particle”, Prince of Asturias for Research» (El Periódico de Catalunya, 29/5/2013), «The God Particle Parents, Prince for Research» (Levante, 29/5/2013).

More popularisation?

Has all this media attention been used as a vehicle for the popularisation of science or has it been used in a sensationalistic way widening the gap between scientists and public? Is there more people that know what a neutrino is now? Actually, what made this news relevant was its link to Einstein’s theory of relativity. The possibility that he might have been wrong encouraged the cartoonists’ imagination.

Likewise, there is no doubt that naming the Higgs boson the God particle, increased the media interest on the topic. In fact, despite Higgs reluctance to that name, it is still usually used in the media. But, has this use meant a better understanding of the Higgs boson? As the journalist Alicia Rivero says in her article in El País «”The God Particle”: a Nickname Nobody Likes» (20/12/11) : «That nickname does not clarify anything, it does not help to the popularisation of the concept and fails to bring the concept closer to society, like the Big Bang, black holes or dark matter do, because it is not linked to any physical concept. Diety does not recall any idea that helps to understand what the Higgs particle is…»

In short, two stories that teach a lesson to everybody: journalists and scientists. The CERN’s director of research, Sergio Bertolucci, said regarding neutrinos: «The event caught the public’s attention and gave people a chance to see the scientific method in action, an unexpected result put the study under public scrutiny and enabled the collaboration of different experiments to verify the results. That is how science progresses» (La Vanguardia, 08/06/2012). These well-meant words provide an idea of knowledge and scientific collaboration, which, however, can be put to question from the neutrinos event. Priority (and rashness) when delivering such news, the scientific community’s own mistrust and the resignation of the Head and scientific coordinator of the experiment, are good examples of science’s contradictions.

Lucía Sapiña. The Two Cultures Observatory, Mètode, University of Valencia.
© Mètode 2013.



«The possibility of Einstein being wrong was interpreted as putting into question the reliability of science. If Einstein theories proved to be false, what level of reliability was left for science?»

© Mètode 2013

Two Cultures Observatory, Mètode.

Journalism graduate by the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Masters Degree in History of Science and Science Communication by the University of Valencia. She is a member of the Two Cultures Observatory, a multidisciplinary research group of the University of Valencia that focuses on the links between journalism and science. Now her research is focused on the communication of cancer, both in press and social networks.