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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

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Making particle physics mainstream

Last week, I was in Mumbai as an invited speaker at the annual meeting of the Association of Business Communicators of India (ABCI), who wanted to find out what CERN had done to make particle physics mainstream. It was my first visit to India, and one that will remain long in my memory for all the right reasons. The event included the ABCI’s annual awards night, a Bollywoodesque affair from which I emerged with a handsome crystal trophy in recognition of CERN’s communications. Honoured though I am to receive this, and it now takes pride of place on my desk at CERN, the real significance of the award is that it shows just how well known the CERN brand has become since we took the decision back in 2003 to do our science in public, and leverage the unique communications opportunity of the LHC to further the cause of science.

I have always been optimistic about the opportunity that the LHC gives particle physics to move science up the popular agenda, where it needs to be in a science and technology dominated age, but I never imagined just how mainstream our field would become. Over the years, people have told me, “you’ll know you’ve made it when you start to see yourself in newspaper cartoons”. Since then, we’ve laughed at dozens of them. Then someone suggested that the real barometer of success was being featured by the Muppets. We’ve been there too. I even had a call from our Director General in Berlin on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall to tell me that CERN was on the cover of the newspapers there, on that of all days. All this is good for science, and for society, but more significant is the way that people are developing a thirst for science and the way science is done. Media channels are taking the time to explain why we need five-sigma to announce a discovery, and ordinary people are tuning into our scientific seminars – close to half a million of them on 4 July for the latest update in the quest for the Higgs particle.

We’ve still got a long way to go, however. There’s no doubt that CERN has become established as a global brand. We have brand recognition and a strong reputation, but our brand identity remains a work in progress. Everyone in particle physics knows what we do and why it matters, but in the world at large when you really ask people what it is we do, they’re not really sure. As Time magazine said of the 4 July seminar: “Despite our fleeting attention span, we stopped for a moment to contemplate something far, far bigger than ourselves”. The challenge we still face, both scientists and those who communicate on their behalf, is to turn that fleeting moment into everyday conversation.

The Mumbai conference, ComFest 12, was a feast for a communications professional, giving me the chance to listen and learn from people representing organizations as diverse as several Tata companies and Coca Cola India. I’m honoured that the industry I’ve made my home recognises all our achievements, but what really matters is that science is on the agenda, helping people with their everyday lives and equipping society to make the right decisions on the complex political/scientific issues of the day. Let’s keep it that way.

James Gillies

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2 Responses to “Making particle physics mainstream”

  1. Alec G Hester says:

    Congratulations!
    Things have really moved since I left CERN and it’s really good to be asked “what’s the latest” instead of “what’s that”!
    Keep it up.
    Alec

  2. I think this is good publicity in times of sequestration cuts being threatened in both the US and Europe. You might have heard of a petition that has been proposed by Nobel Prize winners and Fields Medalists to fight these cuts in Europe (http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/10/nobel-fields-medal-winners-launch-campaign-against-eu-research-austerity.html).
    This petition is very welcome, in that it asks the public to express its support. However in order for the public to be appreciative of science it has to be aware first and this can only be achieved if the public is engaged in a two-way conversation.
    My recipe for tackling this problem at its roots is in a paper titled “Who cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society”, which is available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.0082. I hope you will find it interesting and worth sharing as we have to fight this battle all together: it’s everyone’s future here at stake, not just the scientists’.

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