Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Particle Fever

The video above is a trailer of an upcoming documentary about CERN and the discovery of the Higgs particle. This documentary looks wonderful and important. CERN has triumphed again at outreach and is simply leagues ahead of basically everyone else in science when it comes to this sort of thing. If anyone is surprised or wonders how CERN is able to get such a relatively large sum of science funding (though only relative to other science funding) then don't be. This sort of thing matters and makes a difference. People care about CERN because they know about CERN and they know about CERN because documentaries like this are made, made well, marketed well and received well.

The documentary itself will be released March 5, in New York, and hopefully will be viewable in most major locations, eventually, after that.

My only gripe is that it is coming 18 months after the Higgs discovery. I know that part of the motivation for this is that people want to make sure the science is definitely true before disseminating it, otherwise things can become confusing for the less engaged viewer. However, in July 2012 those guys were reasonably sure that they'd found something. This research is owned as much by the public as it is by the researchers. CERN did do a great job on that day by holding press releases, announcing the discovery live, with live web-streams, and with public level discussions, at the moment, of what the implications were. And, of course, this is all great, and I love CERN for it. But maybe it can be done even better.

Here's (potentially) how...

This documentary will probably be reasonably widely viewed. It looks like it is potentially headed for some major awards and it is being reviewed very favourably by a bunch of major newspapers and film critics.

Imagine if the film had been released, and widely viewed, immediately prior to the discovery's announcement, and the climax of the film was all the researchers, scientists, students, engineers, and everyone involved in this experiment waiting, full of anticipation, not knowing the result. The viewer now has a reasonable understanding of what the researchers were looking for and how they were hoping to find it. Now everyone is waiting, full of anticipation, not knowing the result. Then, we cut to the actual, live, not even the majority of the scientists know the result, announcement of the detection. The general viewer will now share in this discovery, that their taxes paid for (and who's future taxes will pay for future experiments) in the moment.

That's not just great for science outreach, it is genuinely good theatre for everyone involved (even if there isn't a detection). But most importantly it allows this sharing of not just the result, but the acquisition of the result. The public feels like they were there, like they took part, like it is also their discovery. And, to bring back the bottom line, when funding is next being decided, they want to be able to contribute to, and participate in, more discoveries like this.

Instead, people could tune in to the discovery, and see the researchers and scientists, etc, and their excitement, without being able to share in it.

Having said all of that, 18 months isn't that long. So, when the documentary is released, go watch it, and remember that this stuff happened less than two years ago. This is the present.

Twitter: @just_shaun

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