Being open about the way science is done leads to more sophisticated public understanding, says James Gillies, Head of the Communication Group at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research).
Science is often seen as a series of discrete events, just one damn thing after another. Which is a pity, because much of the really interesting stuff happens in between.
At CERN, ten years ago, we decided to tell our story of what happens in between. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has it all. It is at the forefront of humankind’s quest to understand the universe. It has glamour, it has drama, it involves the whole planet, and it’s big. It’s impressively big, particularly when you consider that it is there for no other reason than to further the cause of human knowledge. Of course that’s not all it does – LHC technologies are applied in areas as diverse as solar energy and medical imaging, and CERN-trained scientists and engineers can be found in all walks of life. But the LHC’s main product is knowledge.
Drama of LHC
In 2003, CERN started systematically to tell the story of the LHC, inviting the world to see this amazing facility before it started up, when access would be difficult. No one left uninspired. Then in 2008, the lab invited the world’s media in to witness the first attempt to circulate a beam around the LHC. These machines are always built at the absolute limit of technology, so each is its own prototype, and they never work first time. But that is part of the adventure, and CERN chose to share it with the world. An estimated broadcast audience of around a billion people joined in all the highs and lows of that day, and shared the emotion of seeing the LHC’s first beam of protons making a single lap.
Little over a week later, a faulty solder joint – one of around 10,000 – failed, leading to a year of work before the LHC research programme could begin. This was a little more drama than we’d hoped for, but it’s all part of the unfolding narrative of research. In 2009, the LHC was back, and in 2010, research got underway in earnest. In 2011 we saw the first hints of the discovery of a particle like the Higgs boson, the final missing ingredient in the Standard Model of particle physics, which would explain how matter has mass. In 2012 it was confirmed. All these major events were done in public, with media invited, live blogs and chat rooms for anyone to follow the scientific seminars – as some half a million people did on 4 July 2012 when the discovery was announced.
More sophisticated understanding
Despite the incredible levels of media, social media and public engagement with the 4 July announcement, perhaps the most remarkable thing about that day is the way the CERN community took all the attention in its stride. Doing our science in public has become the accepted norm. Instead of the communications team nervously suggesting that it might be a good idea, the scientists are now knocking on our door. It’s a very healthy place to be.
Today, we’re back to the stuff in between. People are more sophisticated in their understanding of the scientific process, with media organizations like the BBC running sidebars on the subtleties of the statistics of discovery. The painstaking process of analysis to fully understand the discovery is underway, and people are eagerly awaiting the next instalment.
CERN has done this because curiosity about nature is part of what makes us human, and it’s incumbent on organizations like CERN to satisfy that need.
So what of that next instalment? There may be news at the winter particle physics conferences in March, but it’s likely to take longer to fully understand the discovery of the Higgs.