Like steam, ping-pong balls, and Omar Sharif

The media has an entertaining struggle trying to explain the Higgs boson

On Wednesday, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which runs the world’s largest particle accelerator and collider (or “atom smasher”) announced that they’d discovered strong evidence of the Higgs boson. The Higgs, scientists believe, gives all other matter its mass, and the discovery represents the last missing piece of the Standard Model of physics, which describes all the particles and forces of the universe and how they interact with one another.

It’s pretty arcane stuff, and journalists are doing their best to explain what the Higgs is and why the discovery is important, resulting in a variety of entertaining similes and explanations:

*“Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’” Dennis Overbye wrote in The New York Times, “the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view.”

*Tom Siegfried, editor in chief of Science News, compared the Higgs field to a huge container full of steam from which different liquids and solids can condense.

*The Guardian posted an explanatory video with science editor Ian Sample using ping-pong balls, sugar, and a food tray to explain the science behind the discovery

*A video by PhD Comics includes an awesome explanation of the 12 other fundamental particles found so far (something most news accounts don’t even mention)

*And at The Atlantic, Robert Wright forgoes trying to understand anything and admits he still has no idea what the Higgs is (and that nobody else does either):

Let me explain to you what the Higgs boson is.

Just kidding! Nobody can explain to you what the Higgs boson is, because if they try they’ll say things like: The Higgs boson is the particle that imparts mass to the other particles. And if you’re thinking clearly you’ll say: Wait, what does that mean?

It’ll be up to the media, lucky dogs, to keep trying to answer that.

The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review. Tags: