Cultural Backwash

Sometimes I think that the public’s reaction to a scientific theory or discovery is more interesting that the science itself. It’s around these times that I start to wonder whether I ought to be getting a degree in studying that instead.

Specifically, I am most interested in what I call the “early morning twilight” stage of scientific discovery. This is that wonderful point after which a discovery has become well-known to specialists in the field, and is only then in the process of entering the public consciousness by way of Interested Laypeople, who may or may not fully understand what they are speaking about.  At this stage, the discovery (at least as seen by the public) seems pregnant with a whole new range of extraordinary possibilities which have not yet crystalized into facts. Indeed, by way of analogy, at this stage the public knows approximately as much about the newly-discovered field as the average late-mediaeval European knew about China; he has perhaps heard a handful of second-, or third-hand travellers’ tales, all of them wildly exaggerated, many of them contradictory, and all of them general enough (and tinged with just enough truth) that he can let his imagination run wild (it’s not a coincidence that this is the stage during which the most wild, and least accurate, soft science fiction gets written*).

It’s only natural that the public will speculate as to what this new frontier will hold, and their speculations will be reflections of the cultural zeitgeist in which they are immersed. Thus, they will project their ideals (for example, the Utopian visions of societies in the Americas as conjectured by Enlightenment-era thinkers, or notions of ‘universal consciousness’ in relation to quantum physics in the 1970s), their fears (especially with regard to new technological frontiers) and perhaps above all, there own cultural conceptions of the freakish or the strange. I might remind the reader of the anthology science fiction series The Outer Limits, in which every science-induced departure from the comfortable normalcy of day-to-day life somehow came in the form of a “monster-of-the-week.”

But of course, there’s a very interesting back-andforth relationship going on here: scientific ideas will gain prominence if they seem to reflect the cultural zeitgeist (and here, once again, I direct you to the example of quantum physics, which had been around since the turn of century, but only really gained currency in the popular press after it was contorted into supporting a “Hippie” ideology in the 1970s). But, at the same time, once an idea has spread far and wide enough (and once it has had the most blatant bits of ‘bullshit’ filtered out), it may in turn go on to influence that zeitgeist in and of itself.

What’s more, scientists have learned that if they give an idea the proper ‘packaging,’ they can give an idea instant prominence without even needing to wait for the zeitgeist to catch-up. Case in point (as it very much seems to be this week), the Higgs Boson. I’ve already written quite a bit about this damn particle, and this in spite of the fact that it is not even my field of study (I love Noether’s Theorem, but can never seem to wrap my head around Group Theory, and so I am ill-suited to particle physics). But it is the largest physics story to break in the popular media since that claim about the faster-than-light neutrinos (and the biggest probably-legitimate physics story to break since…well…some point before I was born, probably, although I remember some fuss arrising from the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating back in the 1990s), so it is a good study for what I’m talking about. Here, for example, is a lengthy, unintentionally-hilarious list of tweets from interested laypeople in various states of (over)reaction to the fact that the Higs has been dubbed the “God Particle.” To give a wholly-representative sampling:

  • of course the God particle helps us understand mass, all matter was created by OUR LORD AND SAVIOR. why can’t #atheists understand? 😉
  • How Ironic that some Obama-loving #atheists found the Higgs Bosen or the “God Particle”!!! Hope they find Jesus soon #tcot

Now, understand, I’m not quoting these tweets in order to mock them; rather, I’m quoting them in order to point out the brilliance of packaging your discovery as “the God Particle” in the thoroughly religion-saturated United States of America. The point is not what is being said on twitter, but the fact that millions of people who otherwise would not give the smallest ghost-of-a-fuck about subatomic particles are talking about a new discovery in glowing terms, as if it confirmed their ideological preconceptions. If your field, like particle physics, needs tens of billions of dollars in funding to perform cutting-edge research, this is the kind of publicity that you dream about.


*To cite an example right off the top of my head, I recall all of that amusing trash about the Internet and (especially) Virtual Reality that appeared on television during the 1990s.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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4 Responses to Cultural Backwash

  1. zinemin says:

    Good for you that you can take these tweets positively…. they make me want to hit my head against the wall.
    I think calling it the ‘God particle’ has been an extremely stupid move and totally shortsighted.
    What do they want to call the next discovery they will be looking for?
    ‘The baby-Jesus-and-Mary field’?

  2. Pingback: Sunday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion « Clarissa's Blog

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