Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 24  |  Friday, March 30, 2001  |  Number 6
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Why is A Sammy Sosa Home Run Like a Higgs Boson?

by Judy Jackson

Sammy Sosa hits a homerun Everyone agrees that scientists need to do a better job of communicating what they do and why it matters. It is the rare science policy speech that fails to exhort scientists to communicate more and better. A recent quote from Congressman Vern Ehlers, member of the House Science Committee and one of two physicists in Congress, captures the prevailing tone.

"The scientists have done very badly,"Ehlers said, "in terms of communicating with Congress and keeping Congress and the public informed--in an explainable way--what they're doing and why it is important.Ó

While all scientists are tarred with the bad-communication brush, it often appears that physicists are tarred the blackest. Physicists above all others, say those both outside and within the field, are failing to get their message across. The clear implication is that the physical sciences would not be experiencing their current funding troubles if they would simply improve at explaining what they're up to. As a case in point, many cite the Superconducting Super Collider. Never mind the gazillion-dollar cost overruns, this line of thinking goes, if physicists had only done a better job of talking up the SSC, we would be smashing protons under Waxahachie today.

It is true that it is critical to communicate from the science community to the rest of the world, not only for reasons of funding. It's also true that if it were easy, we would have done it already. And is it just me, or is it especially hard for physicists?

Think about it. Biology is easy to sell. Putting aside the benefits of medical research, it seems obvious that it's a good idea to study living things: we're alive, aren't we? Cosmology and astrophysics have a similar advantage: perhaps it's in human genes, a relic of our nomadic days of gazing heavenward for guidance while we wandered in the wilds, but for some reason, everybody loves to look at the stars. The geologists have dinosaurs, one of the branding success stories of all time. True, chemistry's image has a certain down side (Does the term "Bhopal"mean anything to you?), but the chemists surely have one of the classic tag lines of the ages. "Better living through quantum mechanics"just doesn't have the same ring.

Physics, by contrast, is a hard sell. Why? Because, from the point of view of general comprehension, when physics left the realm of the visible at the end

of the 19th century, it entered the world of the abstract. For all practical purposes, to those outside its own rarefied precincts, physics left reality behind and became an abstraction.

Of course, quantum mechanics and relativity have as much to do with the solid reality around us as does the structure of DNA or the fossil of a dinosaur. Maybe more. And true, quarks are every bit as real as viruses or stars. Nevertheless, to the average bystander they don't seem as real. They seem less like things you can touch and see and more like÷..math. And, as anyone who has tried will tell you, if science is a tough sell, math is impossible.

So physicists did what they had to do when faced with the problem of communicating the abstract to a math-challenged world: they turned to metaphor. From the football-field-with-the-nuclear-pea-at-the-50-yard-line-and-the-electrons-in-the-stands atom to the bowling-ball top quark and Campbell's Cream of Primordial Soup, the search was on for the metaphors that would bring physics back from incomprehensible equations to understandableůand fundableůlife.

It's a never-ending search, the metaphor hunt. A recent spate of news stories prompted by the CERN-Fermilab rivalry for discovery of the Higgs boson turned up many old metaphorical friends, as well as some interesting new entries. Predictably, a particle accelerator, or "atom smasher,"is compared to "a giant racetrack," or "the world's largest microscope"or a "time machine"reproducing the Big Bang (which itself began life as a metaphor but has by now crossed over into existence as a more or less scientific term for a real phenomenon). The Higgs, again predictably, is "molasses-like goo"or "cold molasses"or "subatomic molasses."Peter Higgs, the physicist who started all this, is "Atlas, a

mythical figure with the weight of the world on his shoulders,"which weight will only be removed with the discovery of the Higgs, to help shoulder the load.

Particle detectors look like "space ships"or "rockets on their sides"or "cathedrals"or, in one case, "a shopping mall."(There's more to that concept than meets the eye.) Particle collisions produce a "spray like shrapnel"yielding a "zoo of particles,"or a "smashed watch"that physicists must reassemble from the scrambled springs and gears.

So far, so familiar. However, a recent Chicago Tribune story by Ron Kotulak yielded this home-grown image of how physicists detect what comes out of a high-energy particle collision: "It's like standing on the corner of Waveland Avenue and watching a Sammy Sosa home-run ball come sailing out of Wrigley Field."The particles then "fall back into their low-energy state and become invisible again, just as Sosa's ball is quickly whisked away by a souvenir hunter.Ó

Like Sosa, that description of particle detection is hard to beat for local color.

One story compared physicists to wild geese, migrating to the high-energy physics lab with the highest energy. Another evoked CERN scientists as hungry souls with their noses pressed to the restaurant window while Fermilab experimenters sit down to dinner inside, presumably to a feast of roast boson under glass.

"A basic prejudice of the universe"for matter over antimatter perhaps does as good a job as any of explaining that peskily difficult concept, CP violation. And I know that I for one have a much clearer idea of how to produce quark-gluon plasma now that I understand that the interaction regions of Brookhaven's RHIC accelerator are "75-ton rings of steel, looming like giant handcuffs."

Hey, some metaphors work better than others.

In fact, feelings run high on the subject of just which metaphors work best for conveying the essence of frontier (now there's a metaphor that should be receiving overtime pay) physics. Among particle physicists, sharply different views, verging on dogma, have emerged about how best to describe high-energy physics. The partisans of the accelerator-as-giant-microscope school froth at the mere mention of accelerator-as-recreator- of-Big-Bang; while Big Bang adherents glare at the microscopists. At times, it can feel like metaphor warfare. Maybe it's a physicist's need to reduce the complex world to a set of simple laws that makes it hard to accept that both of these metaphors work sometimes, neither works every time, and occasionally they even work together.

When Mrs. Bartlett taught my ninth-grade English class about figures of speech, she used an example of metaphor that has stuck with me for 40 years, although its source eludes me: "The truth is a hard deer to hunt."

The truth is a hard deer to hunt. Physics is all about the hard hunt for truth. The search for words and images to communicate the excitement of the chase and why it matters to us and to society is almost as hard. We're never going to find the single perfect image to explain it. But with a grab-bag mix of metaphors--stars, home runs, microscopes, shopping malls, handcuffs, whatever--we'll all die trying. Metaphorically.


last modified 3/16/2001 by C. Hebert   email Fermilab