Repurposing Quack Science - InformationWeek

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11/21/2009
08:54 AM
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Repurposing Quack Science

CERN's Large Hadron Collider ("LHC") restarted this morning without a hitch, after a year of kludgy delays and nutty rumors that time travelers had sabotaged it. It's time to ratchet up the quack science.

CERN's Large Hadron Collider ("LHC") restarted this morning without a hitch, after a year of kludgy delays and nutty rumors that time travelers had sabotaged it. It's time to ratchet up the quack science.The LHC is a 17-mile circular tunnel buried between France and Switzerland, through which protons traveling near the speed of light will collide and, it is hoped, recreate a physical state somewhat reminiscent of the Big Bang. Tops on the scientists' checklist is to look for the Higgs boson that supposedly gives mass to other particles (i.e. substance to physical reality).

Detractors have complained about everything from its cost (US$10 billion, and counting) to the possibility that it could rip a tear in the fabric of spacetime and annihilate the Universe. As little electrical and design flaws kept the machine from going online over the past year, some otherwise reasonable people suggested that time travelers had visited our "now" to keep the device from wrecking their "past."

As a marketer, I'd go to town with this quack science, and put it to use supporting the real stuff.

To call the day-to-day science of particle hunting boring would be to give it more credit than it deserves. Watching paint dry is more compelling than watching big science projects get built or operated. Just think of the moments that are compelling in the manned spaceflight program...well, the one moment of launch is about it, right? The many years and zillions of hours of effort before (and after) that one event constitute 99.9% of the experience, and qualify as interesting to about 12 people on the planet.

New media can't change this fact, as NASA's latest tweet program from the Atlantis launch amply illustrated (it invited 100 'young people' to type a Twitter layer over the launch, all but affirming the fact that it can't make any other aspect of its efforts even marginally interesting). There's a tweetstream coming from @CERN and here's a post from a few hours ago: 4 step: protons are sent to SPS, the last circle before the LHC.A few turns to increase the energy up to 450GeV. Do you know how much is it?

Wow, can hardly catch your breath, right? There are 30,000 followers getting such posts. I wonder how many of them are actually conscious.

Imagine instead if there were an alternate reality game ("ARG") that presupposed some time travel plot to influence the LHC. ARG's create narrative stories in the real world, using web pages, emails, telephone calls, and even staged events to let people interact with them as if they were real. Key to the experience is a quality of "willing disbelief" that allows players to purposefully forget that the game is a game, and which requires promoters to conduct ARGs without tongues planted in cheeks.

The story could be about a conspiracy to influence or change the experiment (instead of the easy and perhaps frightening angle of ruining it). There could be an ersatz web page that appeared and disappeared, as if it were being beamed from the future via some inadequate technology. Tweets could leak details of the story and connect people to its characters: think beautiful, brainy scientist and her erstwhile assistant, along with assorted corporate connivers and government meanies. A snippet of video or audio that purported to show a futuristic visitor could be circulated. Players could be tasked to find other tidbits of evidence which had been purposefully created for the story.

There could be this running narrative that paralleled the actual science going on at the LHC, only it would be 1) a lot more entertaining, and 2) a lot more engaging for lots more people. Perhaps there'd be options in the plot to let participants "opt out" and into the real story, or to access the real science behind it. Donations could be accepted and corporate sponsorships afforded to businesses that wanted the exposure (imagine product placement in the story, so the young scientist with the web cam sneaking through hallways at CERN would wear Abercrombie & Fitch).

The point would be to use a creative story to bring to life the amazing science behind the LHC.

No press release, broadcast television segment, or tweets that the hands of a clock have moved the distance of another minute gets the LHC any closer to being interesting. Crafting a story -- plot, characters, and real-time involvement for anybody who might be interested -- could all but guarantee that the project would get far greater attention, deeper involvement from more people, and perhaps get closer to silencing the naysayers who oppose funding any science project.

It just might not convince the real time travelers to leave it alone.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, writes the Dim Bulb blog, and is the author of Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs.

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