Discussing some motivations behind a particle physics FAQ

First, there is information. From information, people distill knowledge, and from knowledge, wisdom. Information is available on a lot of topics and in varying levels of detail. Knowledge on topics is harder to find – and even more hard is wisdom. This is because knowledge and wisdom require work (to fact-check and interpret) on information and knowledge, respectively. And people can be selective on what they choose to work on. One popular consequence of such choices is that most people are more aware of business information, business knowledge and business wisdom than they are of scientific information, scientific knowledge and scientific wisdom. This graduated topical awareness reflects in how we produce and consume the news.


News articles written on business issues rarely see fit to delve into historical motivations or explainer-style elucidations because the audience is understood to be better aware of what business is about. Business information and knowledge are widespread and so is, to some extent, business wisdom, and articles can take advantage of conclusions made in each sphere, jumping between them to tease out more information, knowledge and wisdom. On the other hand, articles written on some topics of science – such as particle physics – have to start from the informational level before wisdom can be presented. This places strong limits on how the article can be structured or even styled.

There are numerous reasons for why this is so, especially for topics like particle physics, which I regularly (try to) write on. I’m drawn toward three of them in particular: legacy, complexity and pacing. Legacy is the size of the body of work that is directly related to the latest developments in that work. So, the legacy of the LHC stretches back to include the invention of the cyclotron in 1932 – and the legacy of the Higgs boson stretches back to 1961. Complexity is just that but becomes more meaningful in the context of pacing.

A consequence of business developments being reported on fervently is that there is at least some (understandable) information in the public domain about all stages of the epistemological evolution. In other words, the news reports are apace of new information, new knowledge, new wisdom. With particle physics, they aren’t – they can’t be. The reports are separated by some time, according to when the bigger developments occurred, and in the intervening span of time, new information/knowledge/wisdom would’ve arisen that the reports will have to accommodate. And how much has to be accommodated can be exacerbated by the complexity of what has come before.


But there is a catch here – at least as far as particle physics is concerned because it is in a quandary these days. The field is wide open because physicists have realised two things: first, that their theoretical understanding of physics is far, far ahead of what their experiments are capable of (since the 1970s and 1980s); second, that there are inconsistencies within the theories themselves (since the late 1990s). Resolving these issues is going to take a bit of time – a decade or so at least (although we’re likely in the middle of such a decade) – and presents a fortunate upside to communicators: it’s a break. Let’s use it to catch up on all that we’ve missed.

The break (or a rupture?) can also be utilised for what it signifies: a gap in information/knowledge. All the information/knowledge/wisdom that has come before is abruptly discontinued at this point, allowing communicators to collect them in one place, compose them and disseminate them in preparation for whatever particle physics will unearth next. And this is exactly what motivated me to write a ‘particle physics FAQ’, published on The Wire, as something anyone who’s graduated from high-school can understand. I can’t say if it will equip them to read scientific papers – but it will definitely (and hopefully) set them on the road to asking more questions on the topic.