Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Headlines in Science: Higgs Nobel Prize Edition

It's time to award the prize for best headline about the awarded of the prize for best physics by the Nobel committee. And by "best", I mean in the can't-look-away-from-the-train-wreck sense.

Background: as you may have heard, the Nobel Prize for Physics was announced, and surprising no one, it honoured the discovery of the Higgs boson (just the theorists though--no love for the experimentalists who, you know, actually found the thing).

Anyway, there were obviously lots of headlines on this issue, but I hearby award the following one from The Register, a British technology news website, for the honour of best headline, (by which I mean worst headline):

"Brit boson boffin Higgs bags Nobel with eponymous deiton"

I don't even know where to begin.

Scratch that, I'll begin with the words. "Boffin" seems to be some sort of British word for expert. That's fine, but the headline implies that Higgs is an expert on "bosons". Bosons, for those who don't know, are one class of particles; the other class is Fermions. Every single particle or collection of particles (which includes, well, everything) can be classed as either a boson or a fermion. Higgs isn't really a boson specialist, though--the category is so wide it's hard to know what that would even mean. Rather he used quantum field theory to predict a new particle, which happened to be a boson.

"Deiton" appears to be a new word coined by the good people at the Register. No explanation is given but it would seem to refer to the fact that the Higgs boson has sometimes been called the "God particle".

"Eponymous" seems like a strange choice for a context in which clarity is presumably important, especially when paired with the made-up "deiton".

Beyond the actual words, though, there's a bigger issue here, and it's conceptual. The issue is whether a headline exists to inform, to set context, and to draw in interested viewers; or to show off the cleverness of the headline writer. It seems like the Register opts for the latter.

So, an open letter to the Register (because they totally read this blog...):

Dear Register,

Please be aware that a truly clever headline is one that sets up the reader for what is to come in an accurate, concise, and clear way.

Also, as a rule of thumb, headlines should probably not contain words you just made up. Just saying.

Everyone who cares about science communication

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