[ASC-list] earlier history of science in the media RE: Beating up the Higgs

Nancy Longnecker nancy.longnecker at uwa.edu.au
Mon Jul 16 04:09:15 UTC 2012

Hello Niall,

Media coverage depends on the era. Didn't the first edition of Origin of the Species sell out immediately on its release?

Here's some text from a chapter I wrote for an upcoming book to mark UWA's Centenary (which explains inward focus on UWA):

...a party of twenty-five scientists and their staff, including [Professor Alexander] Ross and UWA’s D. W. Everson (physics technician), set out on an expedition to the north-west coast of Western Australia to view a solar eclipse on 21 September 1922.
        The aim of the expedition was to make precise measurements of the bending of light as it passed by the sun in order to test Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Einstein had published his General Theory of Relativity in 1916, with an English translation of Relativity published in 1920. He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics and so was already a science celebrity which must have added to the fascination of the Wallal expedition. Calculations by astronomers around the world determined that the best place on earth to make these measurements was, as John Robins writes, '…a spot on Eighty Mile Beach on the northern coast of Western Australia. There was nothing there but a telegraph station and a cattle station called Wallal Downs...'

The level of public interest in the Wallal expedition demonstrates that the community valued scientific work organised through the university. The Wallal Expedition was a resounding success from both a scientific and popular perspective. Both the lead-up to the expedition and the results were well reported in the local press with at least ninety-seven articles capturing the excitement of the event.

The Daily News reported that
'Learned professors, sage scientists, and busy cinematographers, together with a large crowd of interested sightseers, formed an animated spectacle at the side of the steamer ‘Charon’ yesterday morning. Those who were going up to the Nor’West to read the story of the heavens at Wallal had plenty to do…'

Interest was sustained into the following year and another thirty articles appeared in both local and national newspapers. In September 1923 there was also a screening at the Palladium Theatre about the activities of this scientific expedition.  Coverage on that scale might make the current university media office green with envy. Even news of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren’s 2005 Nobel Prize received a scant few column inches in the West Australian, albeit on the front page.

Cheers, Nancy

Assoc Prof Nancy Longnecker

Science Communication
School of Animal Biology, M092
The University of Western Australia
35 Stirling Highway
Crawley, WA   6009

CRICOS Provider 0126G

ph: 61 8 6488 3926
email: nancy.longnecker at uwa.edu.au
skype: nancylongnecker

“Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience.” Rachel Carson (1952)
From: asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au [asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au] On Behalf Of Niall Byrne [niall at scienceinpublic.com.au]
Sent: Friday, 13 July 2012 3:30 PM
To: ASC list (asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au)
Subject: [ASC-list] Beating up the Higgs

Dear all,

A few observations.

The consensus of leading physicists is that we have discovered a new subatomic particle that,  if it isn't The Higgs, is certainly a Higgs-like boson. But most seem to think that it will be the Higgs or a Higgs boson, perhaps the first of several.

“I think we have it,” said Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general of CERN.

Peter Higgs says in New Scientist, "Yes, well, it's nice to be right sometimes." http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22033-peter-higgs-boson-discovery-like-being-hit-by-a-wave.html

It will be interesting to see if the Nobel committee agree with Stephen Hawking's suggestion that Peter Higgs should get the Nobel Prize this year (and if so, with whom).

I think the coverage was wonderful - 'high science' on the front pages in Australia (Aus, Age, SMH) and across the world. But then I would say that.

Susannah Eliott and I were asked for our thoughts by Crikey last Thursday. Here's what we said. My comments are a bit tabloid...we'd had a good day, I was a bit pleased with myself.

3. You don't have to understand the Higgs boson to love it

Crikey intern Karla Ranby writes:<http://www.crikey.com.au/author/crikeyintern/>

AUSTRALIAN SCIENCE MEDIA CENTRE<http://www.crikey.com.au/topic/australian-science-media-centre/>, GOD PARTICLE<http://www.crikey.com.au/topic/god-particle/>, HIGG'S BOSON<http://www.crikey.com.au/topic/higgs-boson/>, SCIENCE JOURNALISM<http://www.crikey.com.au/topic/science-journalism/>

"This is the physics version of the discovery of DNA" -- Sir Peter Knight, President of the Institute of Physics.

It doesn't really matter if you don’t understand the science of the Higgs boson discovery; science educators say the most important thing is that it's in our consciousness. It's on the front pages of the world's newspapers and it's the first question at the water cooler today: what the hell is the Higgs boson? Is it really the God particle?

Indeed, if you're not a science nut, this morning's media coverage might have had you baffled as to what all of the commotion was about. While there were calls all around for Nobel prizes, you might have been left scratching your head. Crikey asked leading science communicators if we were any closer to understanding the significance of this discovery.

Dr Susannah Eliott, CEO of the Australian Science Media Centre, chaired yesterday's media briefing where journalists were given the low-down on the Higgs boson discovery. She says journalists and readers alike can often have difficulty getting their heads around scientific lingo.

"Yesterday they tried to explain the experiments but I think it probably went over most people's heads," she said. "I think the media has probably done as good a job as can be expected given the difficulty journalists will have had getting their heads around the topic."

But Eliott says the most important thing is that it's captured the nation's attention and is a welcome escape from the same-old news cycle.

"At least they will have picked up some of the excitement of this finding, and perhaps even the bigger picture of our small lives and the minute specks that we are in the universe. It’s nice to get away from the day to day muckracking of petty politics and the daily grind," she said.

Niall Byrne, creative director at Science in Public and media director for the High Energy Physics Conference, also believes having such a cutting edge discovery as a leading story is the real win -- whether people understand it or not.

"It's really exciting that fundamental science is on the front page of the world’s newspapers. Normally I’d say that we have to make a special effort to make science research accessible ... but we should be excited about this and recognise that it's fundamental without really getting it," he said.

"The Herald Sun gave it half a page. Okay it was after the Hoddle St murderer but it was half a page in a paper with the largest circulation in the country. So I’m very happy."

While it was the leading story most media outlets around the world ran with today, Byrne points out that perhaps the most fascinating part of the discovery is the discussion it has created on social media.

"Because physicists are very engaged with social media, we can track through the hash tag for the conference (#ichep2012) that it's reached nearly 1.8 million Twitter accounts. Now, the press coverage would have reached perhaps a billion people -- certainly 500 million or so. But this new media has directly reached 1.8 million," he said.

Byrne reminds us that it's a relative contrast to the reporting of significant discoveries made years ago. "Back in the day -- back in 1953 -- when Watson and Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA they didn’t get press attention for weeks or months, and it took years before most people recognised its significance," he said.

While confusion abounds, Byrne explains that there are two ways of reporting a story like this. Firstly, "try to make it relevant" -- to give people a sense of what it means today. We might not know what it means today, but neither did the discoverers of radio waves imagine the smart phone, or the inventors of the wheel conceive a Formula 1 car.

Secondly, "make it all about the geek moment" -- recognising that no one knows what it’s done but we still need to give it its moment.

And what a moment it has had.

Send your tips to boss at crikey.com.au<mailto:boss at crikey.com.au> or submit them anonymously here<http://www.crikey.com.au/tipoff/>.

Niall Byrne

Creative Director

Science in Public

82 Hudsons Road, Spotswood  Vic  3015

PO Box 2076 Spotswood VIC 3015

03 9398 1416, 0417 131 977

niall at scienceinpublic.com.au

Twitter @scienceinpublic

Full contact details at www.scienceinpublic.com.au

-----Original Message-----
From: asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au [mailto:asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au] On Behalf Of Helen.Sim at csiro.au
Sent: Thursday, 12 July 2012 6:42 PM
To: david at davidellyard.com
Cc: asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au; charlesw at cse.unsw.EDU.AU
Subject: Re: [ASC-list] After Higgs ... XKCD!


Nice to see you posting. But I disagree with you on several points (while agreeing with you on others).

You say that "we must not forget that all scientific knowledge is fragmentary and ephemeral, constantly open to well-founded challenge". Open to challenge, yes, but fragmentary? Surely the power of scientific explanations lies precisely in being as general and wide-ranging as possible, rather than ad-hoc and particular. And I'm inclined to agree with Stephen Weinberg that "the effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy".

But (as you suggest) there's nothing wrong with being interested in the more glamourous fields of knowledge, provided we pay sufficient attention to the areas that actually sustain us. Which we don't.




Helen Sim

Media Liaison and Public Relations

CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science


Australian Astronomical Observatory

T: +61 2 9372 4251

M: +61 419 635 905

On 12/07/2012, at 6:20 PM, David Ellyard wrote:

> Scicommers


> I accept that Charles is being humorous, but there has really been too

> much fuss about the "Higgs" (and I am a physicist at heart!!). To a

> great extent we are to blame.  No one has really done a good job in

> explaining what, if anything, has been "found" and how it was done,

> other than by quoting the

> mind- bending statistics about the Large Hadron Collider (it is a very

> impressive machine of course and well worth our acclaim for that alone).


> I think it is even-handed to say that we have not "found" the Higgs boson.

> We have rather a number of observations which can be explained by

> hypothesising that that a particle similar to that proposed by Peter

> Higgs

> 50 years ago "exists".  But that  only one explanation  and other

> explanations are possible, and it is not yet clear (it is very early

> days after all) that the hypothesised origin of these observation

> matched what Higgs envisaged.


> It is clear that that these recent events are being used to boost the

> profile of science, to get space in the papers and time on the

> airwaves, even though our best communicators struggle to explain what

> the discovery tells us , and more profoundly, what it will mean for

> our daily lives. The answer to the latter is, most likely, nothing.


> It is like making a big noise over finding that the universe is flat,

> or that maybe a particle can travel faster than light (it proved not so of

> course). Or what might happen a trillion years into the future,   in the

> hope of drawing  in the scientifically-illiterate populace. It

> reinforces the image that science (particularly physical science)  is

> arcane and generally incomprehensible, yet still somehow "important".


> Along the way we have allowed the mixing of the scientific and the

> theological, by having the media quote the "God particle" moniker

> without serious challenge. We also read that this discovery has been

> equated with the greatest achievements of Newton and Einstein (being

> the two physicists who come most readily to mind). I might ask who has

> made such comparisons; certainly no-one with  any  realistic overview of the progress of science.


> I do not dispute the quality of the work done at CERN, or the

> legitimate excitement it has generated  or the importance of seeking

> to answer the most fundamental questions. But we must not forget that

> all scientific knowledge is fragmentary and ephemeral, constantly open to well-founded challenge.

> There are no final answers. The real value of science lies  in the

> everyday, in helping us see the likely consequences of our actions. If

> the frenzy over the Higgs helps project that purpose for science, then well and good. But I

> doubt that it does.


> David Ellyard


> -----Original Message-----

> From: asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au<mailto:asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au>

> [mailto:asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au]<mailto:[mailto:asc-list-bounces at lists.asc.asn.au]> On Behalf Of Charles

> Willock

> Sent: Thursday, 12 July 2012 2:39 PM

> To: asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au<mailto:asc-list at lists.asc.asn.au>

> Cc: Charles Willock

> Subject: [ASC-list] After Higgs ... XKCD!



> The possible discovery of Higgs Ho now allows the world to start

> focussing on real-world important issues - both relativistic and quantum mechanical:

> the intergration of the Newtonian and the weak-strong,

> symmetry-breaking,

> W+Z-/W-Z+ electro-weak, strong nuclear force ... and

> W+gluon/gravitational

> interactional domains. (*)


> XKCD seems to pretty much capture the potential opportunities:


>   http://what-if.xkcd.com/1/



> :-)

> Charlesw


> (sorry, couldn't resist!)

> I'm charmed by the strangeness of it all, but if only they'd bring

> back truth and beauty!  (sigh)


> (*) apologies for the word salad.





>      "Creativity and innovation are measured not by what is done,

>           but by what could have been done ... but wasn't"


> Disclaimer: http://www.eng.unsw.edu.au/emaildis.htm

> ------------------------------------------------------------------------

> Charles Willock                                 charlesw at cse.unsw.edu.au<mailto:charlesw at cse.unsw.edu.au>

> c/- School of Computer Science and Engineering

> University of New South Wales,

> New South Wales  Australia  2052    http://www.cse.unsw.edu.au/~charlesw


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