Friday, 19 September 2008

How I became a physics groupie

Clock this: September 2008 – the moment that particle physics became sexy. And no-one was more surprised than me. To put it mildly, I am not known for my enthusiasm for this branch of research. In fact, to the horror of some of my colleagues, I have long argued that it's not even really Science Media Centre territory. After all, the obscure controversies that preoccupy physicists – from string theory to dark matter – are not the ones we were set up to deal with. OK, about twice a year they make it onto the five to nine slot on the Today programme, but usually the only thing we learn is that even John Humphrys can sound utterly bewildered. No… the SMC was set up to deal with the controversial science stories that impinge on real people's lives, like whether MMR causes autism, could GM crops kill and so on. Let us leave particle physics in the capable hands of the clever press officers at the Institute of Physics.

That was until last week when the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN made me feel that nothing can be as important as finding out what the universe is and how it began.

So why the religious-type conversion? I think there are a number of reasons, but foremost among them is quite simply the things physicists have said in the mass media over the past 2 weeks and the way that they've said them. They have of course done a sterling job of explaining the science – to the extent that even I have been able to answer some (though not all) of my 9-year-old's probing and incessant questions.

But what has been more compelling is the passion with which an array of media-friendly physicists made the case for curiosity-driven research. "Surely the reason we are put on this earth is to ask the really big questions like what is the Universe really made of?" said one physicist on the Today programme. Another, Professor Ted Wilson, told journalists, "In a world run by accountants looking for short term gains from any research, LHC stands out as an unusual example of mankind prepared to spend resources on pure knowledge for its own sake." And far from being even slightly defensive about the lack of any obvious life-saving applications for their work, many of the physicists have emphasized that they have no idea what they will find. When asked if he was excited by the thought of the switch-on, Professor Antonio Ereditato replied, "Yes of course. This is like opening a window on an unknown view: you expect to see mountains but maybe you see a sea shore." This sentiment was echoed by Jim al-Khalili, whose reaction to those who worry that physicists will be disappointed if they fail to find the Higgs particle was to say, "On the contrary – that will be even more exciting because it will mean that we have new mysteries to solve. No matter what we find, we will be unlocking the secrets of the Universe".

In the face of this infectious passion and enthusiasm for blue skies research, those protesting that the money could be better spent on curing cancer or tackling climate change somehow seemed churlish. I am a huge fan of David King, but his call for scientists at CERN to design their experiments with climate change in mind hit a bum note, as anyone who watched him sparring with Brian Cox on Newsnight will testify. Cox, like so many other physicists on the airwaves recently, argued that those brave enough to ask the really big questions may well be rewarded with the cures for cancer and solutions to climate change that have so far eluded a more instrumentalist approach to science. And my favourite comment of all came from my hero Mary Warnock, whose concern with the applications of human genetics has clearly not blinded her to the need for more basic research: "To say that the money would be better spent on the health service or the transport system is like saying that the only point of universities is so that students can contribute to the economy. It is philistinism attempting to murder the imagination."

The other reason I've enjoyed the CERN thing is just the sheer joy of seeing particle physics as headline news. Just think of all those tortured discussions physics press officers have had for years about how on earth you persuade the arts graduate editors that physics is sexy. Well this time they did and not just in the posh papers. All the tabloids went big on the story, with the Sun running two double page spreads in the week of the switch-on. And I'd love to know who at BBC Radio 4 made the decision months and months ago to run a live broadcast from CERN on switch-on day and dedicate the whole day to the story. In these days of dumbing down, the person who trusted any audience to understand and enjoy something as impenetrable and complex deserves an ABSW award now!

Of course some may argue that the only reason LHC ended up on the front pages was the associated scare story about the possibility of the world ending, and I know a couple of seasoned science writers who feel that the price paid for physics in the headlines was too high. Now I realize that the Science Media Centre commending a good 'scare story' is a dangerous line to take, but I shall take my life in my hands and do it anyway. I have long harboured a sneaking suspicion that it's not the scare story but the way the scientific community and media react that really matters, and this case has made me braver about saying this out loud. With the exception of Martin Rees, who referred us to the CERN safety reports, most scientists seemed to seize on the media's questions about black holes swallowing us up as just a further opportunity to engage the public about the wonder of their project. Phil Dooley, from the University of Sydney, said "No, the world won't end as LHC turns on. Instead a new world of discoveries will open up as we explore further and further into space." Brian Cox's more colloquial response, that "anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat" earned him a place in the Times diary: "At last particle physics has its own Liam Gallagher."

Actually, the media didn't treat this as a normal scare story either. When the Daily Mail runs a headline like 'Are we on the eve of destruction?' on page 10 you suspect something is different, and when the sub-headline reads 'Man-made hole could swallow the earth (or then again not)' you can really relax. The Sun's coverage of LHC was superb – great science, great graphics, great quotes but as ever excelling all others in their choice of headlines. 'End of the World in Nine Days….Don't panic, there's time to try out every possible position in the Kama Sutra', followed by another double page spread the day before switch-on under the headline 'More Big Bang news on Thursday …hopefully.' As well as getting to write 'twat' in the Telegraph just weeks before his departure, Roger Highfield also had fun with the story for the day of switch-on: 'If it's 8:31 and you're still reading this', read the front page headline, 'then Professor Hawking must be right', and the Today programme presenters were having such fun with the black hole scare that they were forced to read out listeners' emails reprimanding them for taking it all too lightly. The doom-mongers' scary predictions on CERN merely offered yet another platform from which physicists could work their magic.

I know almost all my blogs include a little homage to the UK's science writers, but that's because so many of the scientists I meet still view 'the media' as an amorphous thing that's out to get them. Stories like LHC should remind us that we have some of the best science journalists in the world and it is undoubtedly because of them that we have ever more editors prepared to take a punt on putting complex and difficult science onto the front page. I have seen, read and heard some fantastic journalism over the past few weeks from our science hacks, and I think that as with the media's coverage of human-animal embryos, it is often the combination of great scientists with the best of science journalism that creates the magic. Anyone who has listened to Tom Feilden's many, many reports on Today will know what I mean, and here is just one short excerpt from Mark Henderson's coverage in the Times: "It is fitting that it is housed in caverns so large that they could hold the naves of great churches like Westminster abbey. These are cathedrals of a different kind, which celebrate the glory of knowledge and discovery."

And of course as a press officer I am well aware that none of this would have happened without the unsung and sterling efforts of press officers behind the scenes. Press officers at CERN, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Institute of Physics have been fantastic and seized on every aspect of this historic event to promote the wonder of science and showcase their specialism in the best possible way. I have absolutely no doubt that many of the world's future scientists will cite this moment as the spur to pursue a career in science. Tara Shears, a particle physicist at Liverpool who will be analyzing the data, was yet another scientist who seemed to be able to articulate beautifully what the switch- on means for her generation of young scientists: "Everything is ready. We are now going headlong into this journey into the unknown. It really is a bit like a moon landing for us." OK – so I still don't understand particle physics – but I have shared this kind of excitement and, more importantly, it seems so did the entire media and the public.


David Bradley said...

I doubt there'll be quite the same media enthusiasm when the scientists actually start doing proper experiments with the LHC, although that will be when the real interest for science arises.

MK said...

A sceptic of the "Large Hardon Collider," as the New York Times put it, I have to agree with the idea that "many of the world's future scientists will cite this moment as the spur to pursue a career in science". This is, though, pretty well the only good thing that we can expect to emanate from this expensive hole in the ground.

It will be down to others to persuade these would-be particle smashers that particle physics is a peripheral pursuit, best funded out of culture budgets, leaving science money to do something useful.

Someone else will also have to dispel the silly notion that you "throw the switch" on something as complex as the LHC. Science doesn't work like that.

A better candidate for true value and scientific challenge will be ITER, if it ever gets off the drawing board. Great science. Huge potential payoff. No possibility that it will wipe out the Universe.

ITER shares one thing with the LHC. It isn't in the hands of the US, which has a track record of pulling the plug on "international" ventures after the rest of the world has shelled out enough to reduce national science budgets. Anyone else here old enough to remember Spacelab?