Dr. Dawg

Mass marketing: the Higgs boson

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Hands up all those who know what a boson is. Well, it’s one of two kinds of subatomic particle, the other being a fermion. It obeys Einstein-Bose statistics and can produce Bose-Einstein condensates; it is a mediator of the electroweak force, and it has integer spin.

Thank goodness for the Internet, eh?

I write this not to mock theoretical physics in philistine fashion, but to raise a question about what seems to me, at least, to be an inordinate amount of public attention being paid to something that ordinary folks don’t have a clue how to evaluate, and would usually cause excitement only among a tiny specialist audience.

The idea that scientists may have found the last piece of a puzzle that “explains everything”—the Higgs boson—may have something to do with it: even in this postmodern world, most folks think there is one whole, “out there,” waiting to be discovered. And this is no ordinary particle, as though any of them are: it theoretically accounts for mass. Without it, so the theory known as the Standard Model goes, the universe would consist only of a soup of other particles travelling at lightspeed.

Then there was the God factor. The elusive Higgs boson was actually supposed to be called the Goddamn Particle instead of the God Particle:

According to [Nobel Prizewinner] Leon [Lederman], he wanted to call the book The Goddamn Particle because nobody could find the thing. However, his editor discouraged him from the title, suggesting that The God Particle would sell many more copies.

“Would sell many more copies.” And that may indeed be a more important clue to all of the current public interest. The floating signifier “God”, en passant, has managed to become affixed to the Standard Model. In the US, where only 40% or so accept the theory of evolution, and about the same number think that Christ will return to earth before 2050, this marketing ploy seems to have worked rather well. It’s part of Branding 101, after all:

The stronger your brand, the greater your customer loyalty. The world’s strongest brands have not just customers or fans, but evangelists. Brand evangelists champion their favorite brands, not just by buying that brand’s products, but by enthusiastically recommending them to other potential customers. Word of mouth is one of the most important factors in influencing a buyer’s decision; brand evangelists build buzz for your brand out of intense loyalty, giving your company free advertising and testimonials. [emphasis in original]

A brand is much more than a concept or a word, of course, but connecting connotative signifiers to what you are trying to sell will help to produce that saleable gut-feel. Coca-Cola isn’t merely a fizzy drink, but “the pause that refreshes”; and who among us wouldn’t prefer our laundry to have a “downy softness?” Now here is an abstruse scientific model with “God” attached by the scientists themselves. And to top it off, its likely detection was announced on that holiest of American days, July 4. Pure public relations gold.

Quantum physics already employs words and concepts that sound as mysterious as any of those employed by theologians: flavoured quarks, quantum entanglement, etc., rival in opaqueness the notions of Mystery, the Trinity and transubstantiation. To conflate the two realms was a stroke of marketing genius.

Les hommes moyen sensuels are no wiser about the arcane mysteries of quantum physics than they were before. But with God added, the folks in the white labcoats pulled themselves a huge audience. Dare I suggest that this will not hurt when bigger and better hadron colliders, and their ongoing maintenance, are the subject of fresh new multi-billion-dollar grant requests?

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on July 4, 2012 4:39 PM.

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