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Aidan Randle-Conde | Université Libre de Bruxelles | Belgium

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Tweeting the Higgs

Back in July two seminars took place that discussed searches for the Higgs boson at the Tevatron and the LHC. After nearly 50 years of waiting an announcement of a \(5\sigma\) signal, enough to claim discovery, was made and all of a sudden the twitter world went crazy. New Scientist presented an analysis of the tweets by Domenico et al. relating to the Higgs in their Short Sharp Scient article Twitter reveals how Higgs gossip reached fever pitch. I don’t want to repeat what is written in the article, so please take a few minutes to read it and watch the video featured in the article.

The distribution of tweets around the July 2nd and July 4th announcements (note the log scale)

The distribution of tweets around the July 2nd and July 4th announcements (note the log scale)

Instead of focusing on the impressive number of tweets and how many people were interested in the news I think it’s more useful for me as a blogger to focus on how this gossip was shared with the world. The Higgs discovery was certainly not the only exciting physics news to come out of 2012, and the main reason for this is the jargon that was used. People were already familiar with acronyms such as CERN and LHC. The name “Higgs” was easy to remember (for some reason many struggled with “boson”, calling it “bosun”, or worse) and, much to physicists’ chagrin, “God particle” made quite a few appearances too. It seems that the public awareness was primed and ready to receive the message. There were many fellow bloggers who chose to write live blogs and live tweet the event (I like to think that I started bit of a trend there, with the OPERA faster than light neutrinos result, but that’s probably just wishful thinking!) Following the experiences of December 2011, when the webcast failed to broadcast properly for many users had twitter on standby, with tweets already composed, hungry for numbers. The hashtags were decided in advance and after a little jostling for the top spot it was clear which ones were going to be the most popular. Despite all the preparation we still saw huge numbers of #comicsans tweets. Ah well, we can’t win them all!

The point is that while the world learned about the Higgs results I think it’s just as important that we (the physicists) learn about the world and how to communicate effectively. This time we got it right, and I’m glad to see that it got out of our control as well. Our tweets went out, some questions were asked and points clarified and the news spread. I’m not particularly fond of the phrase “God particle” , but I’m very happy that it made a huge impact, carrying the message further and reaching more people than the less sensational phrase “Higgs boson”. Everyone knows who God is, but who is Higgs? I think that this was a triumph in public communication, something we should be building on. Social media technologies are changing more quickly each year, so we need to keep up.

A map of retweets on July 4th, showing the global spread.

A map of retweets on July 4th, showing the global spread.

I’m glad to see more physicists using Twitter and youtube and other sites to spread the word because that’s where we can build audiences faster. (Incidentally if you want to see why we should be creating new audiences rather than addressing existing ones then see this video by Vihart.) It takes more work and it’s more experimental, but it’s worth the effort. Why did I make an advent calendar? Why tell physics jokes on Twitter? Just to see what works and what doesn’t. I’m not the first person to do these things, and I’m certainly not going to be the last. All I can hope to do is try new ideas out and give other people ideas. I don’t know the people I inspire and those I am inspired by, but that’s also part of the experiment. A lot of my ideas come from people who leave comments or send E-mails or tweets. Occasionally it gets heated and controversial, but if it’s not worth fighting for then it’s not worth saying in the first place. Many comments come from other bloggers too, and we can learn from each other. When I first started to blog someone sent me a few paragraphs of advice and I forgot most of it except one part “Ignore other people’s expectations. Some people will want you to always write about physics, some people will hate that. Write what matters to you.” When I combine that with what Vihart says (essentially “If your content is worth attention then people will pay attention to it.”) then rest is easy. Well, not easy, but less stressful.

But moving back to the main point, the Higgs tweets went global and viral because they were well prepared and the names were simple. Other news included things like the search for the \(B_s\) meson decaying to two muons and the limits that places on SUSY, but how does one make a hashtag for that? I would not want to put the hashtag #bs on my life’s work. It’s always more exciting to announce a discovery than an exclusion too. The measurement of \(\theta_{13}\) was just as exciting in my opinion, but that also suffered the same problem. How is the general public supposed to interpret a Greek character and two numbers? I should probably point out that this is all to do with finding the right jargon for the public, and not about the public’s capacity to understand abstract concepts (a capacity which is frequently underestimated.) Understanding how \(\theta_{13}\) fits in the PMNS mixing matrix is no more difficult than understanding the Higgs mechanism (in fact it’s easier!) It’s just that there’s no nice nomenclature to help spread the news, and that’s something that we need to fix as soon as possible.

As a side note, \(\theta_{13}\) is important because it tells us about how the neutrinos mix. Neutrino mixing is beyond the Standard Model physics, so we should be getting more excited about it! If \(\theta_{13}\) is non-zero then that means that we can put another term into the matrix and this fourth term is what gives us matter-antimatter asymmetry in the lepton sector, helping to explain why we still have matter hanging around in the universe, why we have solid things instead of just heat and light. Put like that is sounds more interesting and newsworthy, but that can’t be squeezed into a tweet, let alone a hashtag. It’s a shame that result didn’t get more attention.

It’s great fun and a fine challenge to be part of this whole process. We are co-creators, exploring the new media together. Nobody knows what will work in the near future, but we can look back what has already worked, and see how people passed on the news. Making news no longer stops once I hit “Publish”, it echoes around the world, through your tweets, and reblogs, and we can see its journey. If we’re lucky it gets passed on enough to go viral, and then it’s out of our control. It’s this kind of interactivity that it so rewarding and engaging.

You can read the New Scientist article or the original paper on the arXiV.

Thanks for reading!


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  • Ken Bloom

    Hi Aidan,

    I just skimmed this very interesting story. Do you know how the tweets are associated with points on the map? On the day of the reveal, I was tweeting plenty from Melbourne, but Twitter probably thinks that Lincoln is my home. If the tweets are associated with their actual point of origin, then Melbourne should be lit up big time. Best wishes.


  • Xezlec

    Ooh! or #mattermatters

    Regarding “God Particle”, for those of us who consider ourselves rank-and-file soldiers fighting ignorance on the battlefields of Yahoo Answers and the like, that phrase really did us no favors at all. It gets harder, not easier, to talk about science to a red-stater after he hears a wacky phrase that, in his mind, all but confirms that those scientists are up to no good in their laboratories trying to “replace God” or something. Really, it takes a lot of work to talk them off of that ledge and back to “something real happened, it’s not lies, and you should be interested in the details”. Quite often, they’ve stopped listening by that point.

    Maybe we’re coming at this from different angles. I’m more concerned about the growth of hardened anti-science ideology and how to stop or soften it, while you’re more concerned with just overcoming apathy. Difference between an American’s and an Englishman’s concerns, I guess.

  • Hi Ken, thanks for the comment! I looked up the information on the Twitter help pages and here is what they say: “All geolocation information begins as a location (latitude and longitude), sent from your browser or device.” So it sounds like Twitter is intelligent enough to know you were “roaming” the outback at the time. It’s weird that Melbourne isn’t very well lit. Maybe it would be it would have been interesting to show tweets per capita so that the very large population densities of Europe and the US coasts vs the low population density of Australia could be taken into account. Perhaps one of the reasons for fewer Melbourne tweets is that people at Melbourne would have been very unlikely to retweet the news from their friends across the ocean, whereas people in the rest of the world were already excited to hear it second hand and wanted to pass it on. There are different kinds of psychology associated with sharing news and passing on someone else’s news. The time of day may have made a difference too, since Europe and then the US and Canada had all day to share the news, whereas it was already toward the end of the day in Melbourne so presumably it was literally yesterday’s news for a lot of people in Australia.

    For the Twitter location info see this page: https://support.twitter.com/articles/78525-faqs-about-tweet-location
    To see a map of the tweets in realtime (showing the effect of timezones and a daylight “pulse”) see the video on http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2013/01/twitter-higgs-gossip.html

    Happy blogging!

  • Hi Ken and Aidan,

    I am one of authors of the article.

    We used the information specified in the “location” field that you inserted when you registered in Twitter. Actually, it is possible to retrieve a location associated to each profile and (potentially) to each tweet. For example, if you are posting from your phone (and the feature is enabled in your Twitter client), a GPS location is associated to each single tweet. Usually, if you are posting from your desktop or laptop, the information about your location is not associated to each tweet. Therefore, at least at the moment, very few tweets contain this precise GPS location, so we decided to use the location of the user, i.e., the information specified in their profile.