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Science!

The dude: Richard Feynman.

The dude: Richard Feynman.

Aside from hearing my mate's cancer is in remission because he stood up and shouted "NON-HAPPENING MOTHERF---ER!" to Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the thing that thrilled me this week was news of the discovery of the Higgs-Boson or "God" particle ...

It wasn't so much the "news" of the discovery - I knew they'd find it, never had a doubt, actually won the sweep in my quantum physics reading group - as the fact the discovery made so much "news".

I've been a quantum mechanics dilletante since I stumbled upon the work of Richard Feynman and realised I could reference him in conversation with cute chicks and sound kinda smart.

I follow CERN on Twitter, damnit! I've been at this party for a while now, talking to my nerdy friends, waiting for someone with clear skin or a sun tan to show up, so it's really gratifying to watch all these hot, mainstream media types arrive on the dancefloor with six packs of Asahi.

I mean, great googily moogily ... look at what was the lead story on both Sydney Morning Herald and Age websites yestee! The day after State of Origin!!

The Hezza had it on page one of their hard copy, PM with Colvinius on ABC's 702 led with it, then backed it up with another story! Sure, it only cracked page 19 of The Daily Telegraph because there was no Lara Bingle angle, but then, the WA Today, Brissie and Canberra Times websites were also more interested in ahhh ... parochial matters.

However, it's a start, no? Or is it a continuation?

The popular press has long had a love affair with science and medicine from the days of Darwin and Freud, Einstein to Edwin Hubble, William Shockley, Jonas Salk, Alexander Fleming and, more recently, Dolly the Sheep - so it's brilliant to see and hear so many people talking about cutting-edge science yet again.

Hell, people were telling Higgs-Boson jokes on Twitter yesterday, a full-fledged academic brawl is set to erupt over which pointy head will get the Nobel Prize for the discovery and, for ten to the minus twelve seconds, particle physicists were sexy.

I guarantee there will be .467 per cent more kids doing physics in the HSC next year because of this.

Which is exciting.

Driving to my mate's place to watch Game 3 of the State of Origin on Wednesday night, some friends and I even had the following conversation.

"They [Queensland] don't have Lockyer anymore, they're f---ed"

"Yeah, but Cronk's not a bad replacement."

"He's not Lockyer."

"No-one's Lockyer. He played 36 Origins."

"How do you remember that shit?"

"It's the record. He played more games than anyone else."

"They're still f---ed. We're gonna smash them."

"So how about the Higgs-Boson?"

"Yeah, that God Particle shit."

"What?"

"So, is Taylor definitely not playing?"

"Stop here, I need to get beers."

"Can you drink piss when you're doing chemo?"

"I'm getting that fake beer."

Which may well be the first time in recorded history Darren Lockyer, David Taylor, particle physics and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma have been discussed in a Mazda driving to Maroubra but, before I can be certain, I'll need to look at more data.

Anyway, now I'm at 542 words for this post, I'll make my point - which is that it was refreshing to listen to/and read the news and feel like I was learning something.

So often nowadays, particularly when science is involved, I feel like we get one "expert" slanting the facts to suit their agenda, then another "expert" who disagrees with them is interviewed in the interests of "fairness", even when the topic discussed doesn't require balance.

If you have someone discuss why the world the is round and how this affects everything from gravity to the climate, you don't then need to hear a mouth-breathing flat-earth lunatic to "balance" the argument.

Yet this seems to be the case with many "science" stories we read and see on the news.

Yes, there is debate as to what the "discovery" of the Higgs-Boson means, and even if we have actually truly discovered "it" but, by and large the coverage was surprisingly uniform, each report compounding the facts and enlarging the understanding of the audience - rather than throwing the reader into confusion, then frustrated apathy.

That's what news should (and maybe still can) be.

Though, I'm sure if you chatted to a particle physicist about the latest coverage they'd see it a little more like this.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

28 comments so far

  • You can't understand science from reading newspapers. Very few journalists have a clue about it, and the editors just love to make glib cheesy headline out of some just-published research, the ones who say coffee or some food or other is not that bad for you after all, or is worse for health than previously thought. Then readers remember other apparently contradictory studies and think 'those damn scientists!'

    Breakthrough moments like 'the discovery of the god particle' are rare in science. Most research just adds a small amount of information to counter or support earlier information, and it may take years or decades or never before a firm conclusion can be made about some hypothesis or other. Even then, most conclusions are theories, not laws, and stand to be proven wrong or incomplete by later research.

    Commenter
    rudy
    Date and time
    July 06, 2012, 8:34AM
    • Rudy I think you lack appreciation for what it takes to be called a scientific theory.

      Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge. This is significantly different from the word "theory" in common usage, which implies that something is unproven or speculative.

      A scientific theory is "a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Scientists create scientific theories from hypotheses that have been corroborated through the scientific method, then gather evidence to test their accuracy. As with all forms of scientific knowledge, scientific theories are inductive in nature and do not make apodictic propositions; instead, they aim for predictive and explanatory force.

      The strength of a scientific theory is related to the diversity of phenomena it can explain, which is measured by its ability to make falsifiable predictions with respect to those phenomena. Theories are improved as more evidence is gathered, so that accuracy in prediction improves over time. Scientists use theories as a foundation to gain further scientific knowledge, as well as to accomplish goals such as inventing technology or curing disease.

      Commenter
      Yuri
      Date and time
      July 12, 2012, 9:50AM
  • Aaron Sorkins 'The Newsroom' will be right up your alley Sam. First 2 episodes have been amazing and talk directly to your point about 'balanced' reporting. Funnily enough the characters use the round vs. flat earth example.

    Get on it!

    Commenter
    tom
    Location
    sydney
    Date and time
    July 06, 2012, 9:26AM
    • the yank critics have absolutely panned it. is that because they don't 'get it'?

      Commenter
      far canal
      Location
      boganland
      Date and time
      July 09, 2012, 3:18PM
  • Higgs boson is a very hot topic indeed. It's getting its "mass" in mass media very rapidly.And sure, the phenomenon is likely to peter out to a case of everybody knowing about its existence but vanishingly few would know what it is for real, evidenced in your friends convo. As a default, our prefrontal cortex will banish abstruse concepts to the "too hard basket" section of the brain.

    But yeah, its interesting to note the uniform reporting on this "matter", which is made even more extraordinary when one considers, no less than eight of the Nobel prizes awarded to 20 physicists over 35 years— lifetime of work will now stand on shaky ground, with this discovery.

    Scientists, not surprisingly, are no different from other people. Some jockey for kudos while other candidates are left behind. So I am guessing that there will be some sort of challenge launched from those who have been discounted as a result.

    Commenter
    Missionary Man
    Date and time
    July 06, 2012, 9:37AM
    • If only it happened more!
      Science gets dumbed down so much... admittedly it's hard to put in lay terms some of the intricate meanings that come out of research, but I agree. The way it's reported can be so average it almost seems to be out of pure laziness :\

      The phdcomic says it all really

      Commenter
      Ben
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 06, 2012, 11:23AM
      • The courage of science is the courage to be uncertain, the courage to say "I think this is true but I don't know". It is courage because we have a deep human need to know, to be certain, to stand on solid ground.

        I put the popularity of religions and shock jocks down to this need. They give us a definite truth, a thing that we can know and we feel more secure for it. Sure, the shock jock's truth has an impermanence about it but it sure has verisimilitude.

        On balance in reports, will there always be a possibility that a scientific discovery is wrong? Yes, there will be. At least sicence has the courage to admit that mistakes are made and has a system to correct them.

        Does that mean that we shouldn't listen to scientists or act on their findings, particularly when our lives and the planet are at stake? No, it doesn not.

        Could the vast majority of climate scientists be wrong? It's a possibility. Is there an alternative viewpoint? There is but not many scientists accept it based on the evidence they have in front of them.

        There will always be doubt an uncertainty, that's one of the curses of the human condition. Science embraces those things and factors them into its methods. Do we, as people, wait until we're completely sure before acting? No, we can't afford to. I can't wait until I'm sure my son's about to be hit by a car before getting him off the road, I move sooner than that.

        Listen to scientists! Not always right but they are a lot more right in their areas of expertise than anyone else. They spend a lot more time gathering and testing data than anyone else. They are a good bet.

        Commenter
        Chris
        Date and time
        July 06, 2012, 11:25AM
        • Agree :)

          The only thing I'd add is that while it great to listen to scientists its better still to question them. That is after all what good scientists do - constantly question.

          Commenter
          Nyd
          Date and time
          July 06, 2012, 12:44PM
        • 'the courage to say "I think this is true but I don't know".' Not so much courage as reality 99% of the time. In scientific research, pretending you know when you don't will be discovered.

          Commenter
          alto
          Date and time
          July 06, 2012, 4:25PM
      • I went on a tour of CERN last year. Fascinating.

        However, this is not the first time CERN has claimed to being close to proving the existence of the (currently) theoretical Higgs-Boson particle. I suspect its a bit like NASA's periodic claims of being close to finding life on Mars- all about generating some interest to secure future funding.

        I hope I'm wrong.

        Commenter
        Skankrat
        Date and time
        July 06, 2012, 12:17PM

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