Have you heard the latest sexy Higgs Boson joke?
But I’m thrilled that during the July 4th holiday, while Joey Chestnut and the rest of us were involved in our own competitive eating contests and watching smiley-face fireworks, international physics nerds were busy celebrating some very different pyrotechnics. They were quaffing Champagne and delighting in the findings that after 48 years of hunting for it, the Higgs Boson, the particle field that gives all the other particles in the universe weight, if not mass, has been found.
Bear with me here. Now I know why people write about the Kardashians. With science, you have to be somewhat accurate. As announced at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, “preliminary results” reveal that “a new particle consistent with the Higgs Boson was observed” that could be verified to a “five-sigma of significance.” That means that there is only a one-in-a million chance that what they saw is a statistical fluke. But it will take more research to nail it down. (Oh, those particle physicists and their maddening need for absolutes!)
But hey, props to the Large Hadron Collider, a $10 billion underground tunnel in Geneva, and the team working on the ATLAS sensor that detected subatomic particles after the collision. And the other team that has worked simultaneously on a different sensor, called the CMS.
A lot of it reminded me of the ad industry: Teams of people smashing things together, and then analyzing the mess! Also four or five people getting awards for work that literally thousands did, over decades.
But let’s just look at the thing as a media event. For starters, the announcements were captured live, on video, and while the physicists present hadn’t (yet) borrowed outfits from Armani or Chanel, the conference promoters did have the presence of mind to have Dr. Peter Higgs himself, one of six authors who first proposed his namesake mechanism in 1964, flown in to sit in the audience, Oscars-style.
During the announcement, Higgs, who seems to be a very adorable professorial Dumbledore-type, was actually caught on camera removing his glasses and brushing a tear away from his eye. That incredibly sweet and human moment will be the money shot on historical reels forever. (“Where were you when they found the Higgs Boson?”)
Of course, a more cynical person might sneer that Higgs’ tear might have come from the thought that his theory was brutalized, hijacked and coopted, if not polluted, in popular culture by being nicknamed The God Particle. That’s the work of Nobel prize winner and physicist Leon M. Lederman, who named his popular 1993 book, “The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question?” According to Wiki, where I get all my particle physics lowdown, Lederman said he called the Higgs Boson "The God Particle" because the particle is "so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive," but jokingly added that a second reason was because "the publisher wouldn't let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.”
So there’s the brief -- a prudish publisher made Higgs Boson ready for prime time. Theoretical physicists all curse the moment that the god-phrase hit pop culture, because, as with Dr. Higgs himself, scientists are mostly atheists. But it stuck because it’s obviously great -- God is so understandable, and well, brandable. Moreover, whether the phrase has been vulgarized, or not, it is applicable everywhere, and not just limited to GP hats, t-shirts, and mugs. The God Particle conveys something that has been stripped down and simplified until it’s a nub of light and true genius, amplifying every thing it touches.
Quick: can you name an ad campaign that has been touched by the God Particle?
I’d say that the Old Spice story, from Wieden, is a perfect high-energy particle parable. It created its own force field little by little.
You’d have to start way back a decade ago, when Procter & Gamble marketing and management teams decided to go to Cannes, in search of ways to make their rigorously researched work “creative.” It was there that the marketing giant hooked up with Wieden, and gave the Portland agency a project that on the surface had little appeal: revitalize an almost-dead aftershave brand.
The God Particle came in with the strategy of appealing to men and women, but mostly women, because the competition was appealing directly to the fantasies of 12-year-old boys. And seeing highly sexualized teenaged girls does not appeal to women. But casting someone like ex-football player Isaiah Mustafa, who was able to be sexy and amazingly self-deprecating at the same time, was sheer genius. (And pulling off real-time comic stunts in the background worked, too.)
The God Particle was in the details: the copy was hilarious and deft, and the combo of Mustafa’s overacting and over-enunciating while showing his six-pack in weird situations was dead-on. In the second season the writers had Mustafa connecting from his bathroom directly with fans, viewers and tweeters, in one of the most successful social media campaigns in history. They followed that up with Fabio (the only Romance cover-boy ever to be hit by a goose on a roller coaster) and then the whole thing sunk into a black hole of ridiculousness.
So it’s not as if the God Particle does not exist in advertising, but it is a rare event, requiring trillions of particle collisions, and then examining the outcome. And then getting lucky in the sifting.
What can we extrapolate from the findings? Well, call it religion, or the proper force field, but under the right circumstances, mass can come from nothing.