A few commenters have complained that I’m too hard on science journalists, who have a tough job; it’s hard to explain difficult concepts in a few words. To paraphrase them: “if it’s so easy, you do it! Rather than merely complain about the erroneous TIME magazine paragraph on the Higgs boson, write your own explanation of the Higgs particle for readers of TIME magazine.”
Well, first of all, I have never once suggested science journalism is easy; far from it! A big part of the challenge is to find ways to explain complex ideas that are simple, compelling and accurate (and not two out of three.)
Second, I have written an article suitable for non-expert readers; it’s just over a page long, and is called Why the Higgs Particle Matters. It’s gotten about 30,000 hits; some people seem to really like it, so try it out on your friends.
And third, for those who point out that the above-mentioned article is much longer than a paragraph, and that I shouldn’t be so critical of the TIME journalist who had to fit so much into a such a small space, here is my version of the TIME paragraph: six sentences rather than five, but scarcely longer. I have borrowed the style and the feel of the TIME journalist’s writing, and I have removed some inaccurate content and replaced it with different accurate content.
- Take a moment to thank the Higgs field for all the work it does, because without it, you’d explode. This field pervades the universe and supplies electrons (and many other particles) with their mass, thus preventing ordinary matter from disintegrating into a ghastly vapor. It was in the 1960s that British physicist Peter Higgs (and a few others) first posited the existence of this field. But it was not until last summer that two huge teams of researchers at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider at last sealed the deal by discovering a new particle — the Higgs boson — which confirms the Higgs field exists. You see, the particle is a consequence of the field wiggling a bit; and just as sound, a ripple in the air, can’t be heard unless there’s air in the room, there wouldn’t be Higgs particles to discover unless Higgs and friends were right all along about their famous field. Now the Higgs — as most particles do — decays in an instant to other particles, so it wouldn’t be able to attend the award ceremony; however, the scientists would surely be happy to appear in its stead.
Although not everything I’ve written here is 100% accurate — that would indeed be impossible in a paragraph for a wide readership — I believe none of it is fundamentally wrong (but my colleagues should feel free to complain!) Yes, science journalism is difficult; but is it really inevitable that profound errors concerning the science must appear in articles for the public?