Sunday, September 28, 2008

writing about the LHC

chris wilson at slate wrote a great article called: atomic prose - Why can't science journalists just tell it like it is when it comes to particle physics? he eloquently describes the challenges faced by journalists while covering the workings of the large hadron collider (LHC), and ultimately, how they have failed.

some excerpts i particularly enjoyed:
No one ever said writing about particle physics was easy—the field of quantum mechanics shares a kind of proverbial inscrutability with rocket science, and nonscientists are understandably reluctant to dig in. But the best way to meet that challenge is to address it head-on, with clear analogies and straightforward language. The puzzles of the subatomic world—and specifically, the quest for the Higgs boson, a particle theorized to endow all others with mass—are interesting and entertaining in their own right; dressing them up in florid language only adds another layer of confusion between the author and the reader.


On the whole, the best writing about physics for a general audience seems to come from physicists, not journalists. This isn't due to the fact that physicists understand the subject matter better—if anything, people who spend all day in the lab are often the worst at explaining the big picture. Rather, they're better at writing about physics because they don't try so hard to make you care. They don't believe their readers must be seduced with colorful wordplay or end-of-the-world melodramas. Journalists writing popular treatments of subatomic physics could take a lesson from the scientists: Tell it straight and have a little faith that the subject matter itself—a major advance in our understanding of the cosmos—can generate its own wonder and excitement.

he also shares yet another gem from richard feynman's impeccable ability to describe complicated phenomena...
Feynman was fond of comparing the process of exploring the atom to smashing two pocket watches together and then trying to figure out how they worked by examining the debris—an analogy that neatly captures how particle physics is a distinctly forensic exercise.

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