I have tried to avoid all the negative press about this week’s LHC start-up. For month’s I have watched as the press latched onto all the wackos who were crying foul. It seemed that the American media at least has not printed one positive word about the LHC without giving greater time to those who have, shall we say, fewer active brain cells than the LHC itself. As a physics teacher, I was the person who, it seemed, everyone I knew came to when they heard the world was coming to an end. At first I kinda liked the attention. I had a rapt audience each time as I explained that the possibility of the world coming to an end because of the LHC was equal to the chance of Sarah Palin french kissing Hillary at the MTV video awards. It was cool that people cared about my favorite subject – until their eyes glazed over at the mere mention of the Higgs Boson.
So here I was living the good life in the limelight of popular science in the high school. Students and adults all begging for more info. No one really taking all the doom talk seriously, when along comes good ol’ Charlie Gibson on Tuesday’s ABC news. He actually ended his broadcast by saying. (This is as good as i can remember – I could not find the video on the net. If you find the actual video please email me the link)”This may be our final broadcast. Really, because tomorrow physicists are starting up a machine that some say will end the world” I was so mad that he said the line so seriously(yeah it could have been meant to be funny) that I jumped up and starting yelling. My wife came running into the room and i had to sheepishly admit to yelling at my TV. The next day, while talking to my students I looked up ABC news online and the headline read “Apocalypse Averted” when the LHC came online. While my students laughed with me, it was a nervous laughter. Honest questions came up abut the science they did not understand (it was, after all, only the third day of physics class and I had not touched on modern physics, the Standard Model, and the Higgs Boson – that was next week) and we had a serious discussion about scientists and ethics.
I felt that I had done a good thing for my students and helped them understand that the media was purposely playing with their lack of knowledge. The media was laughing at people’s ignorance of science. They knew that the average person would not know what the heck they were talking about, so they chose to make up a story that would be talked about at the water cooler – at the expense of scientists and science teachers everywhere.
It would be nice if media companies could actually try to do a little bit of teaching while presenting science. I would actually prefer that they leave science out of the news totally instead of doing a hack job and ruining my chance to actually interest students in the subject I find so dear. If you really want to understand what the LHC does watch the following video that has Brian Cox narrating. It is a nice example of what can be done with science and the media.