There was lots of excitement this week surrounding what appears to be the discovery of the long-theorized Higgs boson. Some in the scientific community lined up overnight to be present in the auditorium when Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director-general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), trembling with excitement, announced the “observation of a new particle consistent with Higgs boson.”
It was like sleepover night at the Ontario Science Centre writ sky-high.
I suspect that what I fully understand about the Higgs boson could fit inside a Higgs boson (and I’m not even really sure about that), but I stayed up to watch. Dr. Heuer reminded me of myself when I first got my rather expensive KitchenAid pasta maker when, also at about 2 a.m., I stood beside it and announced, “I’m pretty sure it’s tortellini!”
Not to be outdone announcement-wise, this week the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – a U.S. federal agency that has traditionally concerned itself with reporting on fish stocks – took an official position on mermaids. It reported on its website: “No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.”
This unusual move seems to have been made in response to a small amount of public concern for the well-being of mermaids sparked in recent months by the Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet program Mermaids: The Body Found.
The special used a documentary format to explore “evolutionary possibility grounded in a radical scientific theory” in order to make “a strong case for the existence of the mermaid.”
It appears to have managed to create enough mermaid conservationists to get NOAA’s attention. Somewhere right now, a member of Greenpeace is trying to glue a wig to a whale.
In fact, NOAA was cleverly cashing in on Animal Planet’s “Monster Week.” The lighthearted post on its website looks at the myth of mermaids in different cultures. Someone, however, should put up posters for Animal Planet, as it has clearly lost its way.
Much as I’d like to think that deep down in the ocean some adorable mermaid publicist is yelling into her cellphone – periodically clasping it to her sea-shelled breasts and rolling her eyes at her mer-assistant, demanding to know who messed up and how all of her networking with the Discovery people could have gone so wrong – I suspect that Animal Planet has merely run out of animals they think will amuse us.
It’s a pity. There are giant squids in the ocean that are not a “radical scientific theory” like the long-discredited “aquatic ape” theory. They’re both giant and squids, and that’s impressive enough without being mythological.
It amazes me that while the publishing world was quick to realize that several generations of teaching process in schools has created a hunger for fact in the form of non-fiction, television has been largely unresponsive: I suspect no one’s going to bother pitching a show called America’s Next Top Model of Particle Physics.
Various laymen’s guides to the Higgs boson bounced merrily around the Internet on Higgs Boson Eve, proving a demand for this knowledge. I’d like to think it was more than media hype or even the awesome beauty of the Large Hadron Collider that generated this curiosity.
In fact, it often seemed as if it were less the language of particle physics that confused the curious, and more the language frequently employed by the media, especially on TV, to sex up the story in the first place.
Few scientists, for example, have ever gone along with calling the Higgs the “God particle.” The press loves the term. It suggests some sort of personal epiphany will accompany the discovery, some sort of finality, when in fact – exciting as the event is – it’s not about to lower your cellphone bill or anything.
Most of us know this. Yet we still care that we are closer to understanding our universe than we have ever been before – another example of the media mostly failing to understand what makes cool things cool.