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What use metaphor?

Sun Jul 8, 2012

389 Words
Posted In: science-communication, higgs, bosons, metaphor

I watched a little of the q&a at CERN this week. One question stood out. A journalist, who didn’t want to be named, asked the panel a question along the following lines: “what were the panel’s favourite and least favourite metaphor for the Higgs boson, and what were their thoughts on the god-particle expression.” He pointed out that given such a complex story many who will b e explaining it to the general public will need to reach for metaphor, and when it comes to the god particle term, as much as some may not like it, it has to be recognised that it has entered public consciousness.

The panel uniformly refused to give a metaphor, saying only that they really didn’t hve one. One of them made a good point about the particle being deeply connected to the states of the universe, as it is so closely released to symmetry breaking, which leads the current universe to be configured as it is.

Later another journalist asked how they could justify the spend on something like the LHC in the current economic climate. The director general Rolf Heuer was happy to whip out a metaphor, and he talked about the hungry man who has one sack of corn. If he eats it all, or if he plants it all, he will surely starve, he must eat some and plant some for the future. The eaten corn, we were led to think of as being applied science, and the planted corn as entirely pure science.

I think it’s likely that the interrelationship between financial instruments, global geopolitics, emerging markets and how research and development budgets get allocated is no less complex than the mathematics behind the Higgs boson. The money that goes into financial markets and military spending dwarfs that going in to the LHC.

Where he felt he needed to make a case to the public for support Rolf Heuer was happy to reach for a metaphor. When it came to describing the result at hand be was not at all happy to do so.

Perhaps being so close to the details of a thing makes it hard to step back and be willing to lose precision for the sake of apparent simplicity. I would have loved to have heard their barmaid explanations, I think the boson deserves one.