What are the chances and the limits when communicating about particle physics with a broader public? CERN physicist Hans Peter Beck, media scientist Mike Schäfer and social psychologist Clara Kulich discussed this question at the Swiss Science Center Technorama in Winterthur. The debate was prompted by the documentary ‘Particle Fever’. The movie, directed by the US-American Mark Levison, describes the discovery of the Higgs-Boson. Its premier in German-speaking Switzerland took place in the Swiss Science Center Technorama in Winterthur on October 1st 2014.
‘Particle Fever’ recounts the history of the large particle accelerator LHC at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Meyrin, close to Geneva. Since the 1980s, this large-scale research facility had been in the planning and been under construction for years since the 1990s. The LHC was scheduled to start operating in 2008, but was then stalled by a technical defect. After repairing the damage CERN physicists finally initiated the collision of protons in the 27km long accelerator ring in March 2010 and analyzed the generated sprays of matter.
On July 4th 2012 this scientific sensation finally became evident. After having analyzed all of the data collected beforehand, the physicists announced the discovery of the Higgs-Boson, a fundamental component of matter. Its existence was predicted by the Scottish physicist Peter Higgs in 1964, but it had not been confirmed experimentally until that day.
Basic research does not care about economic profit
‘Particle Fever' tells the story of this groundbreaking discovery from the perspective of six male and female physicists who participated in finding the Higgs-Boson. David Kaplan is one of them, a theoretical physicist at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore/Maryland. In a scene of the movie the American scientist gives a speech and explains to the audience what the particle accelerator LHC is good for. “When people ask what we do with the LHC I have two answers. One is what we tell people – and the other one is the truth”, Kaplan jokes and adds: “The first answer is that with the LHC we are reproducing the conditions right after the big bang. The second answer is that we are trying to understand the basic laws of nature. When a member of the audience asks Kaplan what the discovery of the Higgs-Boson is good for, he admits: “I have no idea”. Basic researchers simply don't know what benefit their research might bring one fine day. “Radio waves were discovered before there were radios. Basic research that aims at groundbreaking results does not ask about profits and results. It asks: What don´t we know yet?”
This scene with David Kaplan contains one of ‘Particle Fever’s’ central messages. After the movie screening on October 1st 2014 in the Swiss Science Center Technorama in Winterthur some panel participants even saw Kaplan´s explanation as a key moment of the documentary. Media scientist Prof. Mike Schäfer and physicist PD Dr. Hans Peter Beck, lecturer at the University of Bern and researcher at CERN, agreed on this. “This sequence of the movie expresses what I have done for 20 years in my scientific career”, said Hans Peter Beck, one of the Swiss physicists at the ATLAS experiment that helped discover the Higgs-Boson at CERN.
Six ‘Heroes’ convey knowledge and arise sympathy
Next to Beck and Schäfer, Dr. Clara Kulich, a social psychologist from the University of Geneva, sat on the panel. The native Austrian got familiar with CERN’s work during a study on the representation of women and ethnic minorities among the institute´s staff. According to Kulich the six protagonists of Particle Fever do not present a correct picture of the scientific community at CERN. “This is an American movie, so the American scientists are very much in the center”, said Kulich. The psychologist criticized that “the movie mostly depicts women in the role of listeners whereas male physicists are given room to present themselves as ingenious scientists.” Mike Schäfer replied that two of the six protagonists are female – and therefore the quota in the movie was higher than at CERN itself, where only 20 percent of the staff is female.
Schäfer pointed to the double role of the movie´s protagonists. Director Mark Levison’s six ‘heroes’ are scientists who impart knowledge, but they also present their personal side. Showing this private side, Schäfer remarks, brings the audience closer to the scientists and makes them likable. In that way the movie’s aim is not solely to convey facts but it rather follows a “moderate communication strategy”: It also appeals to viewers that are not simply reached by rational discourse. In Schäfer´s view the movie successfully brings across the scientists’ enthusiasm and creates sympathy for them – and so ingnites in the audience the particle fever, that the movie announces.
A movie about physics filled with religious innuendoes
In several scenes of ‘Particle Fever’ the director draws analogies between the research at CERN and religion. Pictures of particle detectors are blended with images of church windows – and so the detectors are in a way elevated to sacred spaces. The Higgs-Boson is assigned an almost God-like status (creator and destructor). The breakthrough of the first particle collision at the LHC is accompanied with the famous final choral from Beethoven´s 9th Symphony (Freude schöner Götterfunken). A sculpture of the Goddess Shiva reappears as a kind of leitmotif throughout the movie as a symbol for creation and destruction. Hanna Wick, science editor at SWISS Radio SRF who facilitated the panel, felt reminded of the writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who had once attributed a pseudo-religious attitude to CERN.
Does research at CERN possess a religious character? Physicist Beck rejected this notion. He acknowledged to be moved whenever he deciphers some of nature´s secrets, but declined to name it a ‘spiritual experience’. Beck equally rejects to call the Higgs-Boson ‘God´s particle’ and denounced it as an “absurd term”. He explained the continued appearance of Shiva in the movie with the simple fact that the statue of the Goddess was given to CERN by the Indian Ministry of Science. Religion is hardly ever a topic of discussion at CERN, Beck asserted. “We want to understand the world.” He nonetheless confirmed a rumor that a Norwegian nun works at the ATLAS experiment. “I really don´t comprehend why, but in the end faith is everyone´s private matter.” In the course of a lively discussion a participant suspected that director Levinson might have inserted the religious allusions into the movie to win an audience with no connection to physics for a movie about particle physics.
Public relations for set in stone-knowledge
‘Particle Fever’ is a good way to make CERN and its fundamental research better known to a wider audience. The research facility in Geneva itself is very active in promoting its work as well. “CERN is a huge PR-machine”, facilitator Hanna Wick pointed out. In 2008 CERN included the media in a huge celebration of the activation of the first proton beam at the LHC. However, the news quickly turned into a PR disaster for only nine days later the particle accelerator had to be turned off due to a technical malfunction.
Compared to 20 to 30 years ago the public has lost its basic trust in science, said media expert Schäfer and concluded: “Physics is under immense pressure to legitimize itself outside its community.” Physicist Beck underlined the necessity to not just present spectacular results to a broad public but to explain the whole process of scientific research. He reminded the audience of the important insights that were gained at CERN. „The knowledge generated here is set in stone and will last forever.“
The audience in Winterthur included about a hundred listeners of all ages. They heard interesting details about the inner life at CERN, where several thousand physicists from all around the globe work together. One listener wanted to know if the physicists at CERN, because they share a common worldview based on the facts of physics, also interact with each other in a distinct way. “When they communicate about physics they talk the same language. But at night at a restaurant or pub you will find the same differences and misunderstandings among them as you would among other people”, answered social-psychologist Kulich.
Benedikt Vogel, published Oct. 3rd , 2014.
This link leads to the online-discussion (Google-Hangout) on ‘Particle Fever’ from September 30th, 2014 with Clara Kulich, Hans Peter Beck and Marko Kovic (President Swiss Scepticists, moderator). (Video)
The discussion in the Swiss Science Center Technorama (Winterthur) is part of a series of seven events. At each occasion a physicist and a representative of another field discuss the relevance of physics and of natural sciences for society. The series of events was initiated by the physicist PD Dr. Hans Peter Beck (University of Bern/CERN) and Professor Klaus Kirch (ETH Zürich). It is funded by the Agora program for scientific communication of the Swiss National Fonds. In order to reach an online-audience all of the panel discussions are repeated at a different time in an online format (hangout on air) with the same or slightly changed panel of participants. The screening of ‘Particle Fever’ and the equivalent hangout were co-organized by the “Association of Sceptics - Switzerland”.