Particle physics, Comic Sans and an arrogant design culture that misses the point

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 4 July 2012
“Bitching that scientists can’t design slides is like complaining designers don’t split atoms”

I’ve been laughing today at the Twitter hysteria surrounding the design of the slides that announced that CERN might just have made the most astonishing physics discovery for decades. Hey, forget what they’ve just achieved, let’s mock the scientists’ failure to pick a hipster theme in Keynote and choosing to use Comic Sans instead. I don’t suppose anybody complained about Newton’s hand-writing when he discovered gravity.

Engineering professor Deb Chachra said to me on Twitter: “A key cultural point—scientists distrust ‘overly-slick’ presentations, b/c they should be made by the scientist.”

I was reminded of a conversation long ago with Matt Jones of Berg, regarding Colin Powell’s infamous WMD presentation to the UN. Matt conjured up a brilliant mental image of some poor Mac monkey in the Pentagon somewhere, with Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Powell leaning over their shoulder, saying things like “Can you make the icons more menacing?” and “Can you use a scarier typeface?” in the presentation they were producing.

But forget all that for a moment...just how exciting is this? I think it is absolutely brilliant that media are focusing on particle physics. In an era where all mountains have been climbed, and the moon has been reached, how fascinating and inspiring to see a discovery at the absolute brink of human knowledge about how the universe works.

And I’m sorry, all those of you saying there was no excuse for a poorly designed info pack, but frankly, choosing Helvetica Neue would not have helped me understand quantum physics.

This did though. Here is a video of Ian Sample explaining “What is the Higgs boson?

And if that is too tricky, here is a clip of Professor Brian Cox explaining it all for the audience of CBBC’s Newsround. There’s no shame in watching that...

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