When Physics Thrilled Us With a Particle We Didn't Understand

That afternoon in July 2012 I began to applaud in front of a screen and for a long time I only interrupted my applause to wipe away my tears. The scene would not have been strange at all —I cry with movies, concerts and with the end-of-year party at nursery school—, if it weren't for the fact that I was working on the newsroom of my medium, sitting in front of the computer screen with headphones posts. I realized that the people who passed by me were looking at me sideways with that expression of "it's wrong, the poor thing". My friend G. came over and asked me what was wrong. I, without taking my eyes off the monitor, replied: "Well, man, the Higgs boson, are you not seeing it?", and continued working. We had historical coverage ahead of us.

Seconds before, the then director of CERN, the particle physics laboratory on the Franco-Swiss border that was looking for the boson, had just put the perfect climax to the presentation of results. Rolf Dieter-Heuer was a great figure in the higgs announcement, great as a leader and also because of his presence; his appearance of a wizard with a white beard, of a connoisseur of the mysteries of matter, was imposing. When the spokespersons of the two teams involved (ATLAS and CMS) finished exposing their achievements, the German addressed the audience with the magic words: "I think we have it, do you agree?". That sentence, pronounced without frills, in a serious and confident voice, resonated in the crowded auditorium of professional colleagues and released the suppressed emotion of the thousands of people who saw it live. They had found the Higgs boson. At last.

That the physicists from CERN present there were going crazy with joy made all the sense in the world. They awaited this moment with uncertainty. Thousands of researchers were involved in finding the most desired and elusive piece, the one that completed the puzzle of the standard model - which is nothing more or less than the framework in which we describe the behavior of the most elementary particles that make up everything that exists-.

It also made sense that my hair would grow like spikes and I would even shed a few tears, because I am a science journalist and had been covering the Higgs hunt for years, added to the fact that I studied Theoretical Physics when I was young and, furthermore, I like a drama. What no longer made perfect sense in the world, or at least didn't fit intuition, was the excitement that the discovery caused in the rest of the people. It was extraordinary that the front pages of all the newspapers opened the next day with an elemental particle and that 5,000 television news reports echoed a milestone that, in reality, only a handful of people were understanding. Because let's face it, as much as we are interested in science, the higgs does not affect the daily life of the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Earth at all. Not even mine, beyond the work and the intellectual pleasure it gives me.

Actually, it was not the only time that all the media opened with a spectacular achievement of science and technology. It happened, for example, when in 1969 Apollo 11 reached the Moon and for the first time in the history of humanity a person planted his foot on a land that is foreign to our planet; but that was seen with the eyes and was understood with common sense, that of classical physics, which is what we build from birth through our relationship with macroscopic objects.

No, this was something else. We were talking about physics that escapes our senses and theories that no one needs to know to be a functional adult who pays their taxes and walks through life without jumping traffic lights. Who the hell could care so much about an elemental particle? What happened for it to become a news bombshell?

Millions of pages have been written about the "God particle" —expression born from a book by the Nobel Prize in Physics Leon Lederman—, not only in popular works and journalistic pieces; but also in academic research on communication of science and its social perception. The staging was as simple as it was effective. Following the announcement, the elderly Peter Higgs stood there, moved to hear that his boson really existed, receiving applause from generations of young physicists at CERN. "I find it incredible that this happened while I'm still alive," he said tearfully. He became the literary character of the late hero. Fifty years had passed since he —and others, because science is not done alone— predicted the existence of that key particle and finally in 2012, thanks to international collaboration in one of the most pharaonic facilities ever built in name of knowledge, his hypothesis was confirmed. And most importantly, he was there to enjoy it. Tell me who can resist an 83-year-old man who cries, sheltered by his community, knowing that his dream has come true. I do not.

I would say that those responsible for communication at CERN made magic with a raw material that is as extremely important as it is incomprehensible; but in reality what they did was an exceptional job with a clear strategy: generate the maximum possible expectation and excite the public.

Thus they created a precedent in the profession that others have tried to imitate. Two years later, a team of American cosmologists announced another backfire: the BICEP2 experiment would have detected gravitational waves from the first echoes of the Big Bang. If confirmed, physicists would brush their fingers against the dream of a unified theory that they have been pursuing since the first half of the 20th century. In that case, the cosmologist who pioneered the theory, Andréi Linde, was at his home in Stanford with his wife when a young researcher knocked on his door, told him of the discovery, Linde cried, his wife cried, and the three of them toasted with champagne while the entire scene was recorded on video. Does it ring a bell? Linde's sentence in a tracksuit, a little disoriented by the news, was lapidary: "I hope it's not a hoax. I've always lived with this feeling. What if I'm kidding myself? What if I believe in this just because it's beautiful? ". It stuck with me and I was sad when months later it was proven that the detection had been a mistake, that they had not found anything that was announced. There we realized that emotion is fine, but it's not nice to bother white-haired physicists to turn their emotion into a show, especially before the fish is sold.

On July 4, 2012 we knew that we were witnessing an exceptional announcement, what we did not calculate was the narrative lesson that we would draw from that experience. The success of the boson was a media feat reinforced by resources such as emotion, expectation, the epic of discovery and metaphors. By the way, you might remember all those popular articles with headlines like "something really hard explained to your grandma." From that arose a reflection that permeated over the years: we can turn that page and stop using the figure of older ladies as a reference to ignorance. In fact, to report on science it does not work well to treat people as ignorant, because we are all ignorant until we need to know about something, either for pleasure or for survival. Or were people talking in bars about PCR, antigens, antibodies, and the efficacy of vaccines before the pandemic?

For me, the best thing about higgs, apart from the adrenaline rush of those days at work, was realizing that in order for the public to value and enjoy science, it is not necessary to make them understand every last detail. It's okay if you don't know particle physics. What is essential, and that is what our challenge as journalists consists of, is to convey that science generates useful and exciting knowledge; that both its processes and its results are part of human culture; and that it must be financed, although sometimes we do not know what it will be used for in the future.

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