Higgs Rumors Are the Price of Success

In which celebrity culture comes to particle physics.


It's been about six months since we had a big flurry of Higgs Boson stories, and as enjoyable as the relative quiet has been, it means we're due for another run. And, predictably enough, the usual suspects are stoking speculation about what, exactly, will be officially revealed in a few weeks at the summer particle physics meetings. This spilled over into the rest of the social media universe, with the joke hashtag #HiggsRumors becoming a trending topic on Twitter for a little while last night.

As is also sadly predictable, the buzz has been accompanied by particle physicists huffily taking offense at the buzz, as you can see in the comments to the blog posts linked above, or in these Twitter exchanges, with one person declaring that while Twitter rumors are all well and good for sports teams, they're bad for physics, and another saying that it's unethical to spread this buzz.

My reaction to this is, basically, "Dude, this means you've won."

I mean, it's not an accident that there's a lot of excitement about the maybe-sorta-kinda discovery of the Higgs. This is the product of years of relentless hype from the particle physics community. They've been talking about this goddamn particle for longer than I've been running this blog, and it's finally percolated out into the general public consciousness enough that buzz about it can trend on Twitter. Complaining that your persistent effort to get people to care about particle physics esoterica has led to people being excited about particle physics esoterica seems more than a little churlish.

So, lighten up. Revel in the success of your hype machine. God knows, if there were a Twitter trending topic about Bose-Einstein Condensation or anything else in atomic physics, I'd do the Happy Dance all the way down the hall. You've worked hard to make your elusive particle a celebrity, now reap the rewards.

If you really can't stand the buzz you've created then, I don't know, check into the Betty Ford clinic, or lay low at L'Hermitage, or whatever it is that celebrities do to escape the spotlight. Or, better yet, hunker down in the lab and nail this discovery down so we don't have to go through this dingbat kabuki routine every six months.

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Amen, brother. You can believe that if and when they make an official announcement, we will hear it shouted from the rooftops of the high energy physics press machine. The one downside of a Higgs discovery will be that some (small) fraction of high energy theorists will become completely insufferable. I predict it will also be a media mess, with most media outlets completely unable to parse that this is not a confirmation of string theory, the multiverse, or supersymmetry.

By Douglas Natelson (not verified) on 21 Jun 2012 #permalink

I'm a chemist whose never had any particular interest in particle physics, and I first remember hearing hype about the Higgs around the time of the demise of the SSC; that was when I was an undergrad, and I've had a PhD for 11 years now.

Also, "Dingbat Kabuki" is the name of Scalzi's next band.

By Nicholas Condon (not verified) on 21 Jun 2012 #permalink

Mostly just one particle physicist with a colorful personality, really....

Credit where it's due: the phrase "dingbat kabuki" I got from Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. It may have been this 2004 post, or there may have been an earlier use that I didn't turn up.

Oh praytell oh child of no faith at all. God did menton information about wat you call dark matter in the book of Enoch, where gods angel gave him the hidden secrets of thunder and lightning. Enoch's uses of the word thunder is our modern word red sprite. He said that the treasury of the thunders (red sprites) and lightning are like sand (real matter). The same heleium isotope 3 space dust that we also get from the sun. Also check out his chapter on snow, youwont figure that out either.

By charles schirmer (not verified) on 21 Jun 2012 #permalink

Very Well Said, but it's doubtful it will make any of the HEP community LESS churlish, unfortunately.

If I may put out some relevant "sendup" humor (I can only hope I was first with this notion):

Dirty Higgsy says:

I know what you’re thinking: "Did we find five sigma, or only four?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is the LHC, the most powerful collider in the world, and would blow your mind clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well do ya, punk?

By Neil Bates (not verified) on 21 Jun 2012 #permalink

Nicely put Chad. I think CERN is undoing the hard work of lots of physicists, who have over the years succeeded in making the scientific process more accessible to the public. CERN's policy reinforces the misconception that a scientific discovery is a step-change in knowledge sanctioned by an elite group of scientists -- rather than a messy human project that goes wrong many times before the best path is found. We are running a poll about this on our Facebook page and it would be great if your readers could tell us their opinion.


By Hamish Johnston (not verified) on 22 Jun 2012 #permalink

Neil - I can't find any previous use of it, so the provisional claim is yours. Damn funny too!

I think the main point of that exchange was that blind analysis is not so blind if the results are made public bedore they ae analyzed. But, hype machine, churlish physicists, and other clever phrases are much more exciting.

I'm not convinced that the rumors are in any sense damaging to a blind analysis-- they're not terribly specific, and are just the sort of thing you would expect to hear. At least, I haven't heard anything more than "Anonymous sources say that they're seeing a bump very much like the one reported in December."

Even if this sort of vague gossip is unprofessional, though, that doesn't justify getting huffily offended about a joke hashtag becoming a trending topic on Twitter. Which is what I'm mostly talking about here.

Extremely well put. Blind analysis is neither here nor there - everyone in ATLAS (CMS) doing any analysis howsoever blind, has more detailed rumors than this about CMS (ATLAS, and *complete* information about all the other analyses in his experiment.

By posting anon (not verified) on 22 Jun 2012 #permalink

Also, blind analysis itself is a bit of a joke in situations like this when there are tens of universities participating in each high-profile analysis, and in principle they all have access to data. The suggestion that they all (every single one of several hundred people) scrupulously keep from peeking into their blind regions, biasing themselves and indirectly everyone else, is kind of unlikely.

By posting anon (not verified) on 22 Jun 2012 #permalink

There's an argument to be made that releasing rumors has at least the potential to be damaging to the science, which is the only point I can take seriously in all of this. I also got tired a while ago by the constant meta-buzz, but it is easy enough to ignore. The thing I guess we don't share is the "evil hype machine"-speak. Not sure when and why this sort of stuff became acceptable to express in the public domain, but I find that a bit, well, churlish. Not a big deal.

I don't find the hype machine all that evil-- I wish we had something like it in my corner of physics. Sadly, there are structural factors having to do with the way AMO physics is done that make it nearly impossible to do the same concerted PR push that high-energy physics is capable of.

I just find it kind of galling when after years of Higgs, Higgs, Higgs all the time, all of a sudden, people are worried about the pernicious effects of too much media attention. I wouldn't've mentioned it at all had it not been for that.

Not sure the people who are doing the complaining are the same people responsible for the PR push, but that's not a productive discussion. On the bright side, this is very likely the last news cycle devoted to this story (and this time there probably is actually a story).