Atomic Prose

Why can’t science journalists just tell it like it is when it comes to particle physics?

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg once summed up his feeling about people who saw evidence of the divine in the laws of physics like so: “I don’t know why they use words like ‘designer’ or ‘God,’ except perhaps as a form of protective coloration.”

God was mostly off the table in recent weeks—except in His particle form—as the Large Hadron Collider revved up for a massive series of experiments in subatomic physics. But among science journalists, there was plenty of protective coloration of another variety. Much of the prose from the hundreds of stories heralding the event arced decidedly toward the purple.

“Here, inside the largest science experiment ever conducted, is the stuff of meditation and prayer, mysteries of the sort that only religion and Big Science can unveil with such grandeur,” reported the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders from Geneva. The Washington Post’s William Booth described the accelerator’s detectors as “crawling, Medusa-like, with blue, red, green cables, like arteries and veins.” These, said CNN, would provide scientists the opportunity for a “religious experience“; the BBC agreed, pointing out helpfully that “scientific study is often mundane but can occasionally slip into the ecstatic.” Reporting from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where scientists gathered to remotely celebrate the event, the New York Times’ Dennis Overbye went for broke:

Outside, a half moon was hanging low in a cloudy sky, a reminder that the universe was beautiful and mysterious and that another small step into that mystery was about to be taken.

LHC model

The color provided by this sort of extravagant prose comes at a cost. It may make for a richer read, but to decorate the science with ornate wordplay has a way of obscuring the very ideas those words are supposed to highlight. Such language gives science a flavor of the mystic and inaccessible, which is exactly the opposite of what it is: messy, full of false starts and wrong ideas, but ultimately committed to making the universe more coherent.

No one ever said writing about particle physics was easy—the field of quantum mechanics shares a kind of proverbial inscrutability with rocket science, and nonscientists are understandably reluctant to dig in. But the best way to meet that challenge is to address it head-on, with clear analogies and straightforward language. The puzzles of the subatomic world—and specifically, the quest for the Higgs boson, a particle theorized to endow all others with mass—are interesting and entertaining in their own right; dressing them up in florid language only adds another layer of confusion between the author and the reader.

Good analogies—not extravagant metaphors—are essential for treatment of tough concepts. Fortunately, there are plenty of good models. The legendary physicist Richard Feynman, for example, was fond of comparing the process of exploring the atom to smashing two pocket watches together and then trying to figure out how they worked by examining the debris—an analogy that neatly captures how particle physics is a distinctly forensic exercise.

Or take the description of the Higgs boson itself. While many of the articles about the LHC dutifully mentioned the Higgs, there wasn’t much attempt to explain the peculiar way it is supposed to work, endowing some particles with much more mass than others. In his book The Fabric of the Cosmos, physicist Brian Greene takes a shot at it, working off the concept of a “Higgs ocean”—a field of Higgs particles that covers the whole universe:

If we liken a particle’s mass to a person’s fame, then the Higgs ocean is like the paparazzi: those who are unknown pass through the swarming photographers with ease, but famous politicians and movie stars have to push much harder to their destination.

Greene succinctly captures two essential concepts: First, that mass represents the “drag” of a particle through a crowded field of Higgs bosons. Second, some particles are more susceptible to this drag than others; hence, the proton and neutron are more “famous” or heavy than, say, the electron. For another shot at this curiosity, British physicist John Ellis compared the Higgs ocean to a snow field; some particles are wearing boots and must trudge heavily through the snow while others are endowed with snowshoes or even skis that allow them to glide effortlessly over the snow.

The particle-as-famous-person analogy has been around for a while in various incarnations. A bastardization of it shows up in a Times article from July 2007 by Dennis Overbye, who likens the Higgs process to “the way a V.I.P. acquires an entourage pushing through a cocktail party.” In addition to omitting the fact that the process works differently for different particles, Overbye fails to understand what anyone who’s seen an episode of Entourage knows: that the VIP arrives to the party with his crew intact—precisely the old model of mass that the Higgs explanation replaces.

Journalists might fairly counter that they lack the space for nuts-and-bolts quantum mechanics, which is better left to books. (And the books certainly cover it. In a review of Leonard Susskind’s The Black Hole War for the Times, George Johnson complained that before he got to the meat of the book’s argument, he “had to get through a 66-page crash course on relativity and quantum mechanics. Every book about contemporary physics seems to begin this way, which can be frustrating to anyone who reads more than one.”) Fair enough. At the very least, then, the mainstream press might aim for a more modest goal: to convey a sense of the larger themes at work in a given set of experiments. In this case, scientists are exploring important ideas about symmetry and simplicity in the laws of the universe.

On the whole, the best writing about physics for a general audience seems to come from physicists, not journalists. This isn’t due to the fact that physicists understand the subject matter better—if anything, people who spend all day in the lab are often the worst at explaining the big picture. Rather, they’re better at writing about physics because they don’t try so hard to make you care. They don’t believe their readers must be seduced with colorful wordplay or end-of-the-world melodramas. Journalists writing popular treatments of subatomic physics could take a lesson from the scientists: Tell it straight and have a little faith that the subject matter itself—a major advance in our understanding of the cosmos—can generate its own wonder and excitement.