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Rene Bellwied | USLHC | USA

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The public and physics – why can’t we get along ?

Last night I was catching up on some of my favorite TV shows via the web and I came across this ‘Bones’ episode called ’The Science in the Physicist’ which caught my eye. It aired two weeks ago so it’s quite recent, and based on the title this was supposed to be fun. And, oh yeah, it was !!

The dead woman had worked in an elusive secretive high level physics lab on the discovery of the God particle, i.e. the Higgs, using the Large Hadron Collider. Hmm. In addition she was the editor of one of the major journal publications in science. The lab was headed by a blind, good-looking dude working on super-conductivity, and the other main characters worked on garnering energy from earth quakes and cutting edge radioactive dating techniques. So this apparently was your run-of-the-mill typical physics lab. Hmm. All the people were young and extremely good looking and swapped sexual favors at leisure. Exactly how I would describe the LHC or Brookhaven ;-). The whole thing wouldn’t probably be worth mentioning if it weren’t for the extremely inventive ways how physicists kill each other. So she was working on destroying the earth via black hole generation, but that didn’t kill her. What did was that she refused to speed up the publication of an article in her journal. So the young and ambitious scientist decided to kill her by implanting highly radio-active material in her office chair. Hmm. That got things started, she developed a tumor at the right place in her body, but she didn’t die fast enough, and the publication date of the competition was looming. So he decided to kill her by ramming a pen in her throat (not very inventive), but in order to dispose of her body he freeze-dried her in liquid nitrogen and then blew her to bits and pieces by exposing the body in a high pressure vibration chamber (very inventive). The several thousand pieces of her body could then be neatly recycled in two standard garbage bags and only her engagement ring, made out of a piece of a meteorite that her physicist fiancee had discovered, gave away her identity. Hmm.

Oh my, that was quite a whirlwind tour through science, from the heavy metal geek students to the conspiracy loving black hole fanatic over LHC, Higgs, superconductivity, seismic oscillations, vibrations and radioactive dating. And all that in 60 minutes. Was it entertaining ? You bet ya ! But it also left that old feeling of consternation that for the general public there is actually no difference between a physics laboratory and a UFO convention. All these clichees were rolled up into this common approach of: we don’t understand what you’re doing, it might be cool, but we don’t care, and in the end you’re a bunch of freaks anyway. I always liked ‘Bones’ because it shows the nice dynamic interplay between science and a more hands-on societal approach, which is displayed in the interactions of the two main protagonists, she a scientist, he an FBI agent.  But this time they drove the ‘otherness’ of science to the breaking point and in my view made a little bit too much of a mockery out of serious science. 

I had a similar experience last week, right after the Quark Matter conference in Knoxville. Apparently the local TV station had sent over a camera team to catch the purpose and vibe of the meeting. Here is the clip, decide for yourself.

There is certainly an element of self-deprecating humor in our field. You won’t understand what we do, so we don’t even try and rather make fun of ourselves. On the other hand the reporter didn’t even try, and although ending the piece with a free-form rap from the wait stuff is funny and entertaining, they should have probably tried out our LHC rap instead.

In addition the LHC apparently  also made it into ‘South Park’ this week, when one of the parents stole a piece of the LHC to build a propulsion engine for a school race with toy cars. By accident he discovered a warp drive and was scolded by a bunch of aliens for it. Well, that’s funny, although I haven’t seen it yet.

With all this exposure some good might come out of our pop culture popularity, but we have to be careful and aware. And quite frankly I am not sure whether I should look forward to ‘Angels & Demons’ or not. We’ll see. Until then, nanu nanu.

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3 Responses to “The public and physics – why can’t we get along ?”

  1. Peter Martel says:

    Wow, now there’s action. However, physicists do not kill each other with mean methods.
    They try to annihilate each other with words, often found in referees’ reports on their work.
    The criticism can be quite severe; but at least it’s “in petto”.

    Physicists are a secretive bunch.

    Peter Martel

  2. Bilal Malek says:

    Found this to be quite interesting Dr. Bellwied. Ran into this blog while trying to find your e-mail address. The video is very interesting (surely not as interesting as what really went down at the conference) and I hope no one was insulted by us laymen and our lack of understanding.

    Must be a good feeling to know that something you work on has made its way into the world of popular culture.

    Take care Dr.!

  3. brad kelli says:

    i saw that South Park episode.. it was hilarious :)

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