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Former CERN public relations director tells physicists how to get their work in the news

When Neil Calder was director of public relations at CERN , the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Tim Berners-Lee walked into his office one day.

Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, Berners-Lee talked for a while in "incomprehensible computer-speak," recalled Calder, who gave a physics colloquium last Thursday in Room 1-250 on "How to Get the Press Your Science Deserves."

After listening in complete bafflement, Calder said he thanked Berners-Lee and told him to keep him informed of future developments. Only much later did Calder realize that Berners-Lee, now senior research scientist in the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT, was announcing the creation of the World Wide Web.

"That was one of the biggest opportunities I let slip by," said Calder, who is now director of communications of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). SLAC, in Menlo Park, Calif., is one of the world's leading research laboratories.

While at CERN, the world's largest particle physics center, Calder succeeded in translating basic research into a successful media relations program. Although CERN had its share of good and bad publicity, Calder managed to keep most players happy--including the many member nations that contributed funding to the facility.

"They want to buy our stuff," Calder said of science journalists, "If we can give it to them in a form they can use. We tend to forget how far away our experience of research is from the way people experience the world."

NASA, which relies on powerful images to get its story across, is one of the biggest science news success stories. "Get good pictures and put people in them. No big lumps of equipment," Calder urged the 50 or so researchers and graduate students in the audience. "Good pictures are worth their weight in gold. No matter how great your research, you won't get it on TV unless you have images."

Calder also talked about the necessity for researchers to think about and be able to talk about their work in layperson's terms. He relayed a story about the time an eager young BBC television reporter came to CERN to interview a particle physicist. By the end of 12 takes, both researcher and reporter were in tears because the researcher could not talk about his work in easily understandable language.

When science journalists get the facts wrong, "It's usually the researcher's fault," Calder said, because the work was not explained clearly. "They are trying their hardest to do a good job."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 6, 2002.

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