Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 23  |  Friday, December 1, 2000  |  Number 20
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Talk of the Lab

The Mom Test

This fall, FermiNews lost one of its most devoted readers. My mom. Until she died on September 19, she read every word of every issue.

My mother loved physics. To her, the idea that the grandeur of the universe could be understood in terms of physics was profoundly satisfyingóeven thrilling. And Fermilab, where she often visited, was Physics Central.

There's a sort of unofficial test, "the Mom Test," that scientists and science writers often use to gauge the clarity of their explanations to the public: Would my mom understand what I am saying? Have I explained neutrino masses and mixing so simply that my mother would understand neutrino oscillation? Can I lay out electroweak symmetry breaking in such lucid terms that Mom will know the Higgs boson when she sees it?

I don't think I passed the Mom Test with my mom. I think she understood hardly anything I ever wrote or explained about physics. Not that I didn't try. But Mom didn't really want to get into what she regarded as the details. To be honest, I don't think she knew F=ma from a ham sandwich, but she didn't care. She thought physics was wonderful just the same.

Mom looked on physics in a more or less mystical way, as a sort of spiritual undertaking. Her bookshelf held every book of popular physics and cosmology published in the last 30 years. She read Leon Lederman's The God Particle the way mothers of other persuasions read Holy Scripture; and no biblical prophet ever enjoyed greater veneration than my mother felt for its author. She loved Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe; she was nuts about string theory. And let's not forget Saint Stephen Hawking.

I once suggested that, since Mom found physics so exciting, she might like to sign up for Physics 101 at the local community college.

"Oh no," she said, "I don't want to understand it. I just want to know what it means."

For a long time, Mom's mystical approach to physics annoyed me. It seemed to me she loved physics for something it wasn't, and not for what it is.

"It doesn't mean anything," I told Mom. "It's all about understanding. Physics isn't religion, it's science."

"I know, dear," she said, "but remember that Einstein showed us that all truth is relative."

See what I mean?

But Mom was an evangelizer. She spread the gospel of physics throughout the southern Vermont community where she lived. She put all her friends and acquaintances on the FermiNews mailing list. Thanks to my mom, Windham County, Vermont is a bastion of hard-core support for Fermilab physics. Since Fermilab physics can use all the friends it can get, I began to take a more lenient view of Mom's approach to the subject. It doesn't do to be too picky.

We held my mother's memorial service on October 12. It would have been her 80th birthday. The church was packed with those who had known her, many of whom rose to speak about her.

Toward the end of the service, a man stood up to talk about Mom's pride in her children.

"She talked about them all the time," he said. "She was especially proud of her daughter in Illinois who discovered the Higgs boson."

Aw shucks, it was nothing.

As I said, Mom loved FermiNews. She read all the stories, but she liked mine best. I know, because she told me so.

by Judy Jackson


last modified 12/1/2000   email Fermilab