How the God Particle slipped through America's fingers...
In 1993, a communication failure led to the biggest own goal in the history of American science
A few miles outside the sleepy town of Waxahachie Texas lies the dejected remnants of one of America’s most stupendous scientific undertakings. At nearly 27 kilometers long it was to be the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a subterranean behemoth designed by American physicists to isolate something called the Higgs boson particle. According to Ainissa Ramirez, a materials scientist at Yale University, the Higgs boson is “the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st Century. Period”. It holds the keys to understanding the origins of the Universe, to explaining how matter got its mass and to describing the nature of “dark matter” that constitutes nearly 90% of the cosmos. Little wonder the Higgs boson is often referred to as the “God Particle”.
The plans for the supercollider were astonishing: Trevor Quirk, a science writer for Texas Monthly, reports that the completed tunnel was to measure over 80 kilometers in length. It would comprise 4728 magnets, most 17 meters long and with a combined weight of more than four Eiffel towers. In true Texas fashion, it would dwarf anything physicists had ever dreamt of. From Congressional approval in 1987, the project spanned three presidencies before it was finally killed in October 1993 during the early days of the Clinton administration. By that stage, the initial budget of $2bn had been significantly eclipsed though the work was just 20% complete.
But it was not the end of the quest for a Higgs boson. On 4 July 2012, (a day that will live in infamy for American physicists), a team of scientists at a much smaller (and cheaper) collider outside Geneva observed the God Particle for the first time. Had Team America persevered, there is little doubt it would have won the race. How on earth had American ingenuity so lost its way?
No one reason fully explains the cancellation. Budget overkill was clearly an issue. So was the fact that nearly a billion dollars in foreign pledges failed to materialise on time. But In 2012, Ken Makovsky of Forbes Magazine described the shelved project as a “failure to communicate”.
Firstly, compared to things like space shuttle missions and moonwalks, the project was hardly photogenic. “You can see images from a space station and see a rocket propelled from the Earth. You cannot see a beam of protons collide, nor the particles which that collision reveals”, wrote Trevor Quirk of Texas Monthly.
Secondly, stakeholder influencing was reduced to a rubble of arcane scientific data and jargon. “The project was unexplainable to both the politician and the man in the street”, says Roy Schwitters, a former director of the SSC. Nor was there any discernible effort to cast an inspiring vision of the possible benefits. Imagine for a moment how it could have been sold: If the discovery of the electron in 1894 soon led to the discovery of electricity, surely the discovery of a Higgs boson could herald new forms of energy? What of the implications for national security and American prestige abroad?
Thirdly, it would seem that scientists held their most important stakeholders in a sort of low-grade contempt. According to Joginder Bhore, an Indian engineer commissioned to build the tunnel, the SSC scientists were “a bit too arrogant” toward Congress. “They treated them as if they didn’t understand what the physicists were trying to do, a sort of why-are-you-standing-in-my-way attitude. You don’t insult people whose money you are begging for.”
Not surprisingly, history and current affairs are replete with parallels to the SSC debacle. Here are just two that spring to mind:
At the consecration of Gettysburg Cemetery in 1863, chief dignitary Edward Everett waffled on for just over 90 minutes. Few care what he said or that he was even there that day. Using just 266 words, (more than 70% of which were made up of 5 letters or less), it was Abraham Lincoln who would make history. As US Congressman James Symington said over 200 years later, “it was a speech for everyone, for all time. It subsumed the entire war and all in it. It showed compassion for everyone, his love for his people”.
More recently and closer to home, management of an affluent Gauteng housing estate recently pre-briefed residents about the upcoming vote on a proposed housing development along the estate’s southern perimeter. By means of a 90-minute video, management muddled its way through an explanation as to why the plan was in everyone’s best interests. When the votes were tallied, the majority had polled against the development
What can we learn from all of this?
Beware the “curse of knowledge” When you are deeply familiar with something you find it hard to remember what it feels like not to know about it. The “curse of knowledge” is a cognitive bias that occurs when you assume others have the background to follow and understand your explanation. What makes the curse so deadly is that mere awareness of the bias is no failsafe. You have to go to unusual lengths to counteract it.
Beware the “assault on the mind” As Johnnie Cochran famously said, “you say ten things, you don’t say anything”. Too much information leads to uncertainty which, at best, paralyses decision making, at worst, leads to decisions that aren’t in everyone’s best interests.
It’s about your audience, not you In any influencing scenario, the most important person(s) in the room is not the influencer – it’s the audience. The influencer is not there to blind his listeners with his special brand of light – he is there to lead them into the light. Are you grappling with your equivalent of the "God Particle" comms challenge? Give us a call, we'd love to help... References: Forbes: The Higgs Boson: Why You Should Care About the God Particle. And, Sadly, Why You Don't Forbes: The Higgs Boson: A failure to communicate Scientific American: The Supercollider that never was