Friday, December 16, 2011

The Awesomeness of Math, Physics, and the Higgs Particle -- Professor Brian Greene Captured It Best

This past week, I received a very informative email from one of the major scientific publishers, Elsevier, that stated:

Traditional scientific coverage is slowing due to a fall in the number of professional science media working today. In 2009, Nature chronicled the situation by noting that the number of dedicated science sections in American newspapers fell from a peak of about 95 to 34 between 1989 and 2005. Accordingly, in the same survey, 26% of global journalists reported job losses, and of the remaining journalists, 59% had less time per article available.

The Nature article appeared in the same year that more than 1.5 million articles were published, a figure that is growing by 3-4% each year. Meanwhile, research is becoming more technical, inter-disciplinary and global in nature.

In other words, when we need experienced traditional science media professionals most, we have fewer of them. However, the number of freelance science journalists and bloggers is increasing. In fact, as of 2009, of the 2,000 US-based National Association of Science Writers members, only 79 were full-time staff science writers for newspapers. Further, remaining science reporters cited getting more story leads from science bloggers, which suggests science is still being covered, but by a new breed of reporter.

One scientific endeavor that has, nevertheless, been getting a tremendous amount of news coverage in both the press and on the internet is that of the 40-year search for the elusive Higgs particle, which may be nearing an end because of the physics experiments (with help from engineers and computer scientists) being conducted at the Large Hadron Collider, a 17 mile tubular underground track outside Geneva, Switzerland, that crosses the Swiss-French border and then back again. Some researchers have dedicated decades of their lives in the quest for the Higgs particle in order to understand the "basic constituents of the universe" as Professor Brian Greene of Columbia University stated so eloquently in his excellent OpEd Piece, "Waiting for the Higgs Particle," that was published in yesterday's New York Times.

The excitement and suspense of conducting scientific research is captured by Professor Greene, who is a Professor of Physics and Mathematics. He ends his OpEd piece in a truly thrilling way, that captures the awesomeness of scientific research and the beauty of math and how he got hooked on science (yes, as I have written several times, it is often a teacher as well as a parent that inspires).

His concluding paragraphs from his outstanding New York Times OpEd:

Within a year, additional data should settle the question. Perhaps the finding will be disproved. That’s the nature of cutting-edge research. But if confirmed, wow. The legions of physicists, engineers and computer scientists, whose collective efforts created the Large Hadron Collider, will have revealed the deepest layer of reality our species has ever probed.

For me, as a theorist standing outside the experimental effort, the result is no less exciting. Years ago, when I was in high school, my physics teacher gave the class a homework problem: calculating the trajectory of a ball swinging from the ceiling by a piece of chewing gum. That night, when I finished the calculation, I ran down the hallway to show my father — I was utterly and profoundly amazed that mathematical symbols scratched in pencil on a piece of paper could describe things that actually happened in the real world. That’s when I became hooked on physics. With Tuesday’s announcement, tentative though it may be, I’m awed yet again.

I had the honor and privilege of meeting Dr. Brian Greene when I was a panelist at the World Science Festival in NYC in June 2009. He and his wife, Tracy Day, are the brainchilds behind that amazing annual scientific extravaganza.

This is certainly an exciting year both in science as well as in the reporting and discussing of it!