~ Posted by Samantha Weinberg, July 5th 2012
Yesterday was a red-letter day for science. On the BBC News, Professor Brian Cox was hailing "one of the biggest scientific discoveries of all time". But the discovery of the Higgs boson (pronounced "Boze-on") at CERN was leaving some newscasters slightly baffled by the news they were broadcasting.
The BBC’s science correspondent, Jonathan Amos, provided the most down-to-earth guide. He sat next to one newscaster in the studio and produced a tea tray and two bags of sugar, which he had borrowed from the BBC cafeteria, and a dozen ping pong balls. First he showed the ping pong balls—which were labelled photons, electrons, and so on—moving freely around the tray. Then he poured a bag of sugar over the tray and the ping pong balls moved more slowly, and the deeper he pushed the balls into the sugar, the more slowly they moved. Very simply, the sugar was acting like the Higgs mechanism. You could almost hear newscasters and viewers sighing with relief: that's what it does.
Also yesterday, at the Royal Society in London, the British scientific establishment had gathered in Carlton House Terrace to celebrate the opening of the annual Summer Science Exhibition. The invitation stipulated a dress code of "black tie and decorations", which did not mean tinsel as one wag suggested, but medals: Nobels, Faradays, DBEs, and KBEs, which glistened in the light as their bearers toured the 16 stalls spread across two floors.
Each stall displayed an area of scientific research, presented in a surprisingly easy and eye-catching manner. There was a game, a toy or—in the case of UCL’s neuroscience department—a live stand-up comedy show, designed to lure the passer-by into a subject that might otherwise have seemed off-puttingly complex. Ranking the sound of popping bubbles, for instance (the bigger the bubble the deeper the pop), led to an explanation of how microbubbles are being used to find tumours. A wind-up toy squid demonstrated how mini-motors can be designed to propel cells through plasma.
All good fun, but with a deeper purpose. Engage with the ideas now, the theory goes, and you’ll be more likely to follow the progress of these ideas as they move towards their fruition. If, over the last few years, more physics teachers had taken sugar, tea trays and ping pong balls into the classroom, there wouldn't have been so many newscasters scratching their heads.
The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition is open until July 8