My So-Called Quark

Have you heard the latest sexy Higgs Boson joke? 

Me neither.

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.

10 comments about "My So-Called Quark".
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  1. Rick Hurlbut from Pride Enterprises Ltd., July 5, 2012 at 7:50 p.m.

    The Higgs Boson walks into a church. The priest says, "We don't allow Higgs Bosons in here." The Higgs Boson says, "But without me how can you have mass?"

  2. Jonathan Hutter from EMHS (Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems), July 5, 2012 at 9:54 p.m.

    I would compare the Higgs Boson particle discovery, and in fact the entire scientific method, to the standards ad campaigns are held to today. Especially with online, people expect results to be predetermined because of the availability of all kinds of data and campaign metrics. A large part of the scientific method involves trial and error. Keep doing it, redoing, trying something new, until we eliminate possibilities and get to the result. Look at the margin of error in their work. Nothing in modern market research comes close. Yet people expect (or falsely promise) guaranteed results in ad campaigns. In fact, we use instinct, experience, insights, and good old trial and error. How will we know this campaign will work? We won't, until we try it.

  3. Art Salisch from Hearst TV, July 6, 2012 at 9:09 a.m.

    and I thought the ad was the E-Trade baby... but that is "frowned upon in this establishment..."

  4. Jack a. Silverman from Bolin Marketing, July 6, 2012 at 10:14 a.m.

    My mother always said that if you can't say something good about something don't say it at all-enough said.

  5. Barbara Lippert from, July 6, 2012 at 1:43 p.m.

    Rick-- yes! I saw that on twitter. Jonathan-- exactly what I was thinking. Art--there's something about how the baby talks that just hit a nerve. and Jack, I welcome any and all comments.

  6. AC Peoples from Consultant , July 8, 2012 at 3:39 a.m.

    Another milestone occurred with the decision to stream live via +CERN & +CMS Experiment on g+ , I returned from a night of binge drinking & fireworks to find my g+ timeline flooded with physics nerd humor and event invitations, what's next, reality physics TV. Too far, maybe not, if you can find a link between Higgs & Old Spice then anything is possible. :)

  7. Steve Schildwachter from BrightStar Care, July 9, 2012 at 11:46 a.m.

    "Scientists are mostly atheists." Really?

  8. Barbara Lippert from, July 9, 2012 at 1:46 p.m.

    Steve-- you are right! that's an overgeneralization.
    Many scientists are atheists-- at least a greater number than the general population?

  9. Steve Schildwachter from BrightStar Care, July 9, 2012 at 2 p.m.

    Barbara, now you're making me curious! My comment was mostly about journalism. (When I was a reporter I checked it out when my mother said she loved me.) Beyond that, I do recall conversations with scientists who said, based on their research, they were more convinced than ever that God or some supreme being must exist. That said, you're making me wonder: Are scientists more or less likely to believe in God?

    A quick Internet search reveals a range of discussion: It seems that fewer than 50% of scientists are atheists, but the percentage is generally higher than the general population, varying by type of science. Physicists have the highest percentage of atheism at 40%.

    Thanks! Good to see you publishing on a regular basis, by the way!

    Steve S.

  10. George Parker from Parker Consultants, July 9, 2012 at 6:24 p.m.

    Hundreds of Higgs Boson ad agencies are bought by the world's biggest and dumbest Large Hadron Holding Company. They are made to run around generating increasingly facile advertising disguised as "social media." In the process, they collide with each other whilst generating ever decreasing amounts of dollars. When the "dollar energy" finally runs out, they become Higgs Boson Ad Agency "Black Holes," which are hidden away in Y&R's broom closet. The Large Hadron Holding Company then starts the process all over, claiming to have created the Higgs Boson Ad Agency of the Future!
    Cheers/George "AdScam" Parker

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