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Moment that mattered: The discovery of the Higgs boson

Left to right: former CERN Director general Christopher Llewelyn-Smith, Lyn Evans (scientific Director), Herwig Schopper, Luciano Maiani and Robert Aymard wave after the presentation of results during a scientific seminar to deliver the latest update in the search for the Higgs boson at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, July 4, 2012.The head of the world's biggest atom smasher is claiming discovery of a new particle that he says is consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson known popularly as the "God particle." Rolf Heuer, director of the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, says "we have a discovery" of a new subatomic particle, a boson, that is "consistent with a Higgs boson." He spoke after two independent teams at CERN said they have both "observed" a new boson that looks just like the one believed to give all matter in the universe size and shape. (AP Photo//Denis Balibouse,Pool)

The day of the Higgs boson announcement at Cern was the first time since I’d left The Times, where I’d been science editor for 11 years, that a huge science story had broken. I felt that little pang and thought, ‘It’d be nice to be in Geneva today’.  It was a story I’d been following for a long time.

It was good to see most of the anglophone media approach the announcement in the spirit of curiosity. No one suggested that the discovery of the Higgs boson is going to be useful in terms of generating new technologies, it was just accepted that this is knowledge for its own sake and that it is just plain interesting to know about the fundamental building blocks of the universe. There was a real attempt to help people understand the science, even though it’s far from intuitive.

It helps that there’s a story that’s easy for the media to tell: the building of a gigantic, international project with a huge budget and absolutely vast machines and so on, all to detect something incredibly tiny, which we don’t even know exists. It’s a story of human endeavour, about the human drive to explore. Another reason the media latched onto the story is that phrase, “the God particle”. It has helped create a compelling narrative: this is a search for where we come from, the secret of the universe. But I don’t like that phrase and prefer not to use it. Peter Higgs, who’s an atheist, thinks it’s insulting to people with belief and won’t use it himself.

News coverage of science in the UK isn’t too bad, and science correspondents tend to be very good. But there aren’t a lot of senior people in the media with a science background, and scientists are very low-visibility when it comes to wider questions about society. For example, Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips has been on ‘Question Time’ twice as often as all scientists put together over the last 18 months. There is still this feeling of “Why would science have a view on that, why would you put a scientist on a current affairs discussion programme?” But scientists have often got very interesting views to contribute about ways of looking at policies in every area and updating them in light of better knowledge and understanding.

There is a school of thought among some scientists that engaging with the public, whether it’s directly, through the media, or making TV programmes, is not a proper pursuit for an academic scientist. And those who do it well are sneered at, perhaps out of jealousy but also because they’re seen as performers rather than real scientists – and I think that’s destructive. We need to start recognising that being a great explainer of science is a really valuable quality and that if you produce one paper less than a colleague each year because you’re really good at public engagement, then that’s a price worth paying.

In UK politics there’s a sort of indifference, a lack of engagement and a lack of real understanding of what science is and how it works. Politicians don’t think there are votes in having a better science policy so it’s bottom of the pile. That can change, though, and the public response to the Large Hadron Collider shows that a lot of people care about science. We just need to start being counted as a constituency.

Mark Henderson’s ‘The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters’ is published by Bantam Press.

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