AsianScientist (July 21, 2017) – Scientists waited more than 50 years to catch a glimpse of the elusive Higgs boson—the particle that gives objects mass. So imagine their frustration when they finally announced its discovery in 2012 only to be met by collective head-scratching from a public that struggled to understand the significance of their finding.
Described in the mainstream media as the ‘God particle,’ the Higgs boson left many a journalist struggling to lift the shroud of mystery surrounding its exotic properties.
Then a video entitled The Higgs Boson Explained surfaced on YouTube, created by roboticist-turned-cartoonist Dr. Jorge Cham at the request of Professor Daniel Whiteson, an experimental physicist at the Department of Physics & Astronomy of University of California, Irvine. The clarity and simplicity of their explanation captivated the world.
“But more importantly,” he added, “I thought it was pretty cool that the clearest and easiest-to-understand explanation of the Higgs boson didn’t come from the New York Times or TV news, but it came from a scientist who took the initiative to work with a cartoonist to better communicate science to the public.”
When art and science collide
Successfully communicating something as complex as the Higgs boson through a comic strip might have seemed improbable, but Cham and Whiteson went ahead and did it anyway. Cham, of course, was already well known for creating PHD Comics—a cartoon about the vagaries of life in academia. He was no stranger to using art to convey complex ideas in an accessible manner, but when Whiteson first approached him to draw the comic about the Higgs boson, Cham was incredulous.
“I remember thinking: ‘What? You want to pay me to draw a comic?’,” Cham said to the winners and guests at the awards ceremony. “Sure!”
The collaborative endeavor between the pair took off from there and has since resulted in a tongue-in-cheek book that is humbly titled, We Have No Idea.
“It’s about all the things we don’t know about the universe,” Cham informed eager fans at an afternoon meet-and-greet session at the Asian Scientist Publishing headquarters on July 7,2017. “Most science books are about all the things we do know, but nobody’s ever written a book about the things we don’t know.”
As enjoyable as putting together such a book was, Cham admitted that some chapters in the book were more difficult to write than others, lamenting that the chapter on ‘time’ took the longest to write. On the other hand, the chapter on ‘space’ went beyond its allocated length and had to be trimmed down—oh, the irony!
A clash of perspectives
With a viral video and a book to his name, Cham was clearly doing something right with his unique style of science communications. But every artist has his or her share of critics, and one of Cham’s harshest critics came in the form of Professor Eilam Gross of the Weizmann Institute of Science. Gross was one of the researchers who had helped discover the now-famous particle.
During the science communications masterclass held at the Singapore Management University on July 8, 2017, Cham recounted meeting Gross on a bus as they crossed the border between Jordan and Israel.
“Oh I’ve seen this video that you made,” Gross said to Cham. “But there’s one thing I have to tell you about that video—it’s all wrong!”
Thankfully, by ‘wrong’, Gross actually meant that Cham had focused mainly on the experimental side of the physics behind the Higgs boson, and had not given due regard to the theoretical aspects of the matter. Cham thus agreed to listen to Gross’ perspective in a conversation that lasted the entire bus ride. Based on that three hour-long conversation, Cham later produced another comic entitled The Higgs Boson Re-explained, which also became very popular on the internet.
Surprisingly, Cham shared with the rapt audience at the masterclass, Gross struggled to give an explanation for inertia that “a grandmother or child might understand.” But as Cham persisted in asking for a simpler explanation, Gross began to change the way he thought about physical concepts and pieced together a better answer.
“I think a very important lesson is that science communication is a two-way conversation,” said Cham. “It’s not just important for the public to understand the science, but it’s also beneficial for scientists to talk to the public because then they can get new ideas to look at problems in different ways.”
Reeling from the impact
Beyond promoting mutual understanding between scientists and the public, science communications can help reduce fear in the world, Cham said. “People fear what they don’t understand,” he added. Hence, scientists and science communicators have a duty to educate the public on science and technology issues, thus helping laypeople to embrace science rather than be afraid of it.
Cham also highlighted how science can be a force for unity, citing the example of SESAME—the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. The research at SESAME is undertaken by scientists from countries that are sometimes politically at odds with each other: Palestine, Israel, Turkey, Iran and Egypt.
“Science is a common language that can bring people together,” Cham explained. “In politics or religion you can have a lot of disagreements, but in science you can’t really argue with an equation!”
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
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