Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 25  |  Friday, March 29, 2002  |  Number 6
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Communicating particle physics in the 21st century

by Judy Jackson

The Path and Goals of Particle Physics

Join the dialogue on physics communication. This week’s questions for discussion:

1. How would you express the highest-level goals of particle physics at the start of the 21st century?

2. In your best hopes and dreams, what advances will particle physics achieve in the next 30 years?

3. Work in progress: This diagram, adapted from the recently released Long-Range Plan for the Future of U.S. High-Energy Physics, attempts to illustrate the true sweep and significance of the field of particle physics. How effective is the diagram? Ideas for improvement? Share your views online at, www.fnal.gov/pub/ferminews/interactions/index.html.

It’s a moment familiar to anyone from a particle physics laboratory. The person next to you on the plane or at the party turns to you and says, “So what do you do?”

“Particle physics.”


Then what?

What to say, in the few moments conventionally allotted for such a response, to convey to the hapless person beside you the sheer joy and excitement of working in a field of science that is at this very moment on the verge of discoveries that promise to revolutionize the way human beings understand the fundamental nature of the universe, using international research tools of an unprecedented scale and complexity that push the frontiers of advancing technology, whose discoveries will have profound— but profoundly unpredictable—consequences for society at some unspecified time in the future, in an unseen realm that is at the same time almost unimaginably small and as large as the universe itself, which, by the way, may have many more dimensions than heretofore dreamed of?

“I work on the precise determination of the width of the W boson.” will not cut it. Neither will “I am attempting to unify quantum mechanics and the theory of general relativity.”

A sound bite we’re not.

The science of particle physics has embarked on an extraordinary voyage of discovery that truly does promise to revolutionize the way we understand the universe. In the metaphor of Stanford Linear Accelerator Center’s Communication Director Neil Calder, we can see the coconuts and the tree trunks floating on the waves, we can smell the spices—we’ve almost reached the unknown shore.

And yet, at this moment in the voyage the wind appears to be slackening.

Physicist John Marburger, former director of Brookhaven National Laboratory and now director of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, had this to say in an address on U.S. science policy to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science last month.

The bottom line: Federal support for high-energy physics continues to drop

“Today,” Marburger said, “the frontiers of the large and the small—of astronomy and particle physics—remain unconquered. But they have receded so far from the world of human action that the details of their phenomena are no longer very relevant to practical affairs. Not by accident, the instrumentation required to explore them has become expensive. Because we can no longer expect that society will benefit materially from the phenomena we discover in these remote hinterlands, the justification for funding these fields rests entirely on the usefulness of the technology needed for the quest, and on the joy we experience in simply knowing how nature works. (A joy, I am afraid, that is shared fully by a rapidly declining fraction of the population.)”

“Remote hinterlands?”

Remember, these words come from a friend of particle physics. Somehow, the excitement and the promise of particle physics are not getting through where it counts.

Part of the problem, physicists and policy makers agree, is that we in high-energy physics have trouble articulating the goals of our science in terms that are compelling to those beyond our field. Pinning another chloroformed particle to the Standard Model board does not get us where we want to go. The prospect of capturing one more boson, however fat and juicy, does not generate the level of interest that biomedicine and genetics, for example, have inspired in recent years.

The ability to communicate the essence of 21st century particle physics might not matter so much were it not for the ineluctable fact of the “f” word—funding. For better or worse, particle physicists have chosen a field of research that requires very expensive tools. If accelerators and detectors were not so extraordinarily costly, particle physicists might retire to commune with the quarks and the bosons and with one another. Perhaps they might prefer it that way. But as a practical fact, particle physicists have no choice but to interact with the rest of the world, because they depend on the rest of the world to provide the tools of their trade.

The results of that interaction between physics and society have not, at least not recently, translated into a high level of support for the field.

Realizing the promise of the 21st century voyage of discovery will require a new kind of strategic communication for particle physics.

“Communication as usual” is unlikely to generate the kind of change that is needed. Forthcoming issues of FermiNews will examine the issues and opportunities facing particle physics communication at a moment that many regard as decisive for the course of this field of science not only in the United States but throughout the world.

As the series unfolds, FermiNews readers are invited to join the dialogue, either by email to ferminews@fnal.gov or at a special Physics Communication web page at www.fnal.gov/pub/ ferminews/interactions/index.html.

last modified 3/29/2002   email Fermilab