I know that I love on the BBC quite a bit, I make no bones about it being my preferred source for daily science news coverage. However, the article “LHC has two years to find Higgs” is an unfortunate departure from the BBC‘s typically stellar science coverage.
The article caught my attention because I’m already familiar with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) a particle collider operating underground along the France/Switzerland border. A particle collider takes protons (a small part of an atom), runs them around at speeds close to the speed of light, and crashes the particles into each other. Hence the name, particle (the protons) collider (the smashing them together part.)
The other part of the BBC article’s title that caught my eye was “Higgs” which refers to the Higgs Boson Particle. The Higgs is a theoretical particle – meaning that it is a particle that physicists THINK exists, but they don’t actually know for sure, it might not exist at all. In trying to understand the universe and what gives all matter mass, physicists have come up with several theories.
One of these theories is the Standard Model – which is based on the existence of the Higgs. If it exists the Higgs would explain how particles get mass. The LHC is looking for the Higgs by analyzing the teraelectronvolts (TeV – a measurement of energy) that would be emitted by the process through which particles get mass. The LHC should be able to detect the TeV of the Higgs – if it exists.
|Part of one LHC tunnel. Source: Wikimedia Commons|
I realize that the BBC’s article is clearly an update piece about ongoing research, but it just glosses over some very important explanations about the LHC and the Higgs. If I didn’t know that LHC was a particle collider or that the Higgs is a theoretical particle I would have no idea what this article is about from the title. Even as you go through the body of the article, there is no background information. To say that particle physics is complicated is an understatement. All the more reason why this article needs background information to make it understandable. As it is, this article is not appropriate for lay audiences.
The timely component of this article, or the reason why an update on the LHC is needed, is that researchers have announced that if the Higgs isn’t detected by the end of 2012 they will conclude that the particle does not exist. If the Higgs doesn’t exist then the Standard Model is not the way by which the universe is organized, meaning researchers would have to re-define their understanding of sub-atomic physics.
This is a news worthy update, however I feel like the reporter didn’t do the story justice. Even the quotes do nothing to explain what LHC is, what the Higgs is, or what the significance of its existence or non-existence would be. I have a particular problem with the paragraph:
“According to Professor Tom LeCompte of the Argonne National Laboratory, US, who works at the LHC: “The most likely place for the Higgs to be is in a very good place for us to discover it in the next two years.”
I have no idea what this quote means. “The most likely place for the Higgs to be is in a very good place…” What? My best guess is that the scientist is trying to say that research at LHC has progressed to the point that if the Higgs isn’t detected in two more years, it doesn’t exist. But obviously, that is NOT what he actually said.
This is a prime example of a quote that shouldn’t have been used. Rather than just using the confusing quote the reporter could have asked the source to clarify or say what they meant in a different way. The reporter could also have paraphrased what the researcher was trying to say. Just because an intelligent and successful scientist makes a statement, doesn’t mean that statement is gold. As a writer you have to decide what quotes add to the story, and what quotes are just confusing. You shouldn’t put in quotes just to have quotes.
I realize that this is just a short article and it isn’t trying to do an in depth analysis of the LHC, the Higgs, or particle physics, but that doesn’t mean that background information and good quotes should go out the window. This topic is particularly complex and nuanced, and I’ve struggled to provide a decent explanation here – but just because something is hard doesn’t mean you don’t have to even TRY to explain it clearly.
I think the BBC article could have been a lot better if more effort was put into trying to at least define the LHC and the Higgs for the reader. After all, the reader isn’t going to care that some particle might not exist if you don’t explain what that particle is and why it matters.
If you want to learn more about the LHC, I can’t help but recommend the following video. I still get a kick out of watching physicists try to rap and dance. You will find the explanation of the Higgs in the video far more complex than mine. Physics is out of my realm of comfortable understanding – but I gave it a shot and tried to keep it as basic as possible.