This week, the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle which is, according to the standard model, responsible for mass, was finally observed at CERN. The world rejoiced (okay, I’m allowed a little emphasis) at this feat of modern science; yet for the most part (me included), we do not understand why it is important. Indeed, as far as my understanding of the matter goes, this is no groundbreaking revolution of the world of science. It was merely an empirical confirmation of what was already thought to be true; and yes, that’s important, just not very exciting to me. And there’s plenty of lessons in the human side of the discovery and reaction to the Higgs boson. But what came up a few times in my social feed and elsewhere was this:

Respectable scientists used Comic Sans!

Image: modified from Christopher Hilton’s original photograph, under CC license.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at uni, it’s that you should never, EVER, use Comic Sans. It makes hipsters cry. And definitely does not look serious. So you’d expect scientists, who spend their time in places of such refined learning, to not use Comic Sans. So why did they do it? Here’s a few possibilities:

1. Their computers only had Wingdings, Papyrus and Comic Sans installed. For the sake of your own sanity, do not visualise a presentation in Papyrus.
Unlikely, though.

2. Comic Sans is actually a really good font. (link contains crude language, but is quite amusing).
Regardless of personal preference, though, Comic Sans does convey some level of light-heartedness which hardly seems appropriate in a scientific presentation. I once went to a church where the stained glass had Comic Sans (with bad kerning on top of that) – it felt out of place. And that’s what I ended up focusing on for a while. There is something to be said about choosing the right style for the right message and the right audience.

3. They were trolling.
If so, hats off to a very successfully performed troll with a massive audience.

4. They misjudged their audience. (a.k.a. Didn’t they think of all the poor hipsters?)
It is also possible they used Comic Sans in an attempt to make “hard science” more appealing – forgetting Comic Sans stopped being cool in the last millennium. By trying too hard to be trendy, hip, they ended up diluting their message and looking fairly ridiculous to part of the scientific community. But that’s assuming all the audience is thinking in the same way as us. It’s assuming that the presentation was for us. It is very easy to be critical of work which is actually aimed at other people too. A few years back, I would look at sermons which looked very shallow with some distaste, and would hold it against the church. Not all the sermons are just for us as individuals, and it’d be a mistake to dismiss a whole community on that basis alone.

5. They knew their aim and their audience
Subatomic physics is hard stuff. But with so much effort poured into the detecting of the Higgs boson, there was a need to share those findings with a wider audience than scientists. If the aim of the presentation was to present results to general reporters, and not to give a quick run-down of what was actually achieved, Comic Sans is an effective signpost to say “this is not the full detail.”

In any case (except #1), the use of Comic Sans was not innocent. It betrays something we all need to think about before sharing our work: what is my aim in sharing this? And who am I sharing it with? Knowing your audience is key to not broadcasting in a vacuum.