Michael Bywater: Scientists - at last some people who really are worth turning into celebrities

The problem is that science is hard. It’s not like the humanities where anyone can have a go


In 1989, the Higgs boson had a brief flurry of public attention. It was the 25th anniversary of Peter Higgs's original paper in Physical Review Letters, and anniversaries are things people like and understand, as opposed to things like particle physics which people tend to hate and feel suspicious and peculiar when they're made to think about them.

I remember it well because the late Douglas Adams and I spent a happy day pottering around Avignon pretending that the Higgs bosons were actually a winsome subatomic family. We thought we would write up their adventures and get Peter Blake to illustrate them. The Higgs-Bosons Go Shopping, we thought; The Higgs-Bosons Go to the Seaside; and, once we'd established the series, more ambitious tales like The Higgs-Boson Family Give Mass to Vector Gauge Particles by Spontaneous Symmetry-Breaking Thus Circumventing the Zero-Mass Problem Inherent in Goldstone's Theorem. A snappy title, you'll agree, and just the thing for one of those toilet books they used to have around Christmas, by the till in bookshops, when there were still bookshops and tills.

I'd like to say we were stopped in our tracks by the realisation of our near-total ignorance of particle physics except for what we'd read on Wikipedia, but there was no Wikipedia in 1989, either, so we had no real idea how fathomless our ignorance was. We bandied around words like quark and baryon and weak interaction and exotic meson and felt ourselves to be polymaths, men of rare understanding.

Actually, we were nothing of the sort. What we were, I suppose, was excitable men, and what we got excited about were ideas, and particularly scientific ideas.

The problem is that science is hard. It's not like the humanities where anyone can learn the lingo and have a go. What geeks do – the oddities with hair growing out of their ears or stutters or their shirts on inside out – is beyond most of us. It's all very well saying "The Higgs boson is the particle which is required to give mass to everything else" but scratch the surface of that understanding and all you find is, lo!, more surface. "The reason is that the necessary symmetry of the Standard Model requires zero-mass particles so where do they get their mass from?" Well. Um. The best you and I can hope for is a glimpse of a particular sort of wonder rather like that which people of earlier times found in the idea of God. Except that science produces explanations which are true in a way that God never can be.

Perhaps this is why we dismiss scientists. We can't understand what they do. We can't understand why it matters. We can't understand why they do it, when it's so hard and there's so damn little material gain to be had by it.

We resent the geeks for not buying into the worldview of the rest of us. We are mystified by their jargon, their dress sense, their lack of social skills. Only when we meet the odd one who comes across as vaguely normal do we really countenance them. Think of Einstein and we think of the photo of him poking his tongue out. Think of Werner Heisenberg or Wolfgang Pauli and, unless we're physicists, nothing comes to mind at all.

We're happiest when the geeks are put to one side, nicely hidden from view in the Stinks Lab or down underground where the Large Hadrons whirl around in their vast magnetic carousels. Their grooming sucks. They won't do sound-bites. Their friends – for example, Peter Higgs's friend – had to provide them with girlfriends for joint trips round France. They prefer physics to their wives. They begin sentences by saying: "On the other hand..." In a consumerist, visual, celebrity culture, they are refuseniks who need nothing more than a sharpened pencil, a pad of paper and their brain.

But sometimes the geeks – the geeks who built, and largely run, the modern world – break through. This week's provisional announcement from the Large Hadron Collider team that it may have isolated a new particle in the 125 GeV range which may fit the role of the Higgs boson is a perfect example of this process. It's been on the front pages and all over the web. General amazement has been expressed at Peter Higgs's wiping-away of a tear, for all the world as if he were actually human, like a Spanish footballer.

That, it seems, is the story. Scientist Is Human. It's the scientific equivalent of Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent except that the moment, and the emotion surrounding it, wasn't carefully staged and manipulated.

For a brief moment, the geeks at the Large Hadron Collider – all those hundreds of frighteningly clever people running the Atlas and CMS experiments on this vast machine – were seen as human: as having "won", not a talent show, but a sort of Manichean contest between humankind and Nature, a sort of Fifty Shades of Quark fantasy, starring the homely Higgs as Ultra-Dom who has overcome virginal Nature's attempts at modesty and seen her naked and submissive whimpering "give it to me, Big Brain". No wonder we're excited.

There is, as always, some truth behind the news splashes. Scientists on the whole don't do the sort of gurning overenthusiasm we expect from celebrities. They are cautious and meticulous, qualities which our current culture, where all human endeavour is measured by the yardstick of showbiz, doesn't value. In a wired world where the prime currency is attention (and we shouldn't forget that the basis of the web was thought up at the home of the Large Hadron Collider, Cern, in Geneva), gnoming away in a lab, even an international collaborative one, neither seeks nor gets much attention.

Yet there's Peter Higgs, on the front pages. He has no PR man. He probably doesn't know who Max Clifford is. Simon Cowell is not required to judge his work and We, the Audience, have no vote and no entitlement to Have Our Say. Even the snappy name given to this boson – "The God Particle" – is widely regretted, not just by scientists in general, but by Higgs in particular, who has also said that really it should be called the Brout-Englert-Higgs-Guralnik-Hagen-Kibble boson, after all the authors of the three papers on the subject published in 1964.

That six men were working on a very similar idea at the same time is an example of how science operates. That we should pick one of them as the star shows how we operate. We go for the quick fix. We expect to understand talent and believe everyone is entitled to his own opinion. In science, we can't and aren't.

We also expect beauty to be instantly accessible. Scientists –"geeks" – work differently. They look long, hard and deep; and there, in the complex depths of things, is where they find beauty. The tentative identification of that strange particle is a moment at which that beauty is revealed to all of us. Such moments don't come often. We should marvel at it, and at the men and women who have shown it to us, even if we no more understand it than we understand beauty of any sort. It's the pure beauty of the thing in itself, and for that alone it's worth it.

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