Tag Archives: PublicPerception

TIME for a Little Soul-Searching

Yes, it was funny, as I hope you enjoyed in my post from Saturday; but really, when we step back and look at it, something is dreadfully wrong and quite sad.  Somehow TIME magazine, fairly reputable on the whole, in the process of reporting the nomination of a particle (the Higgs Boson; here’s my FAQ about it and here’s my layperson’s explanation of why it is important) as a Person (?) of the Year, explained the nature of this particle with a disastrous paragraph of five astoundingly erroneous sentences.   Treating this as a “teaching moment” (yes, always the professor — can’t help myself) I want to go through those sentences carefully and fix them, not to string up or further embarrass the journalist but to be useful to my readers.  So that’s coming in a moment.

But first, a lament.

Who’s at fault here, and how did this happen?  There’s plenty of blame to go around; some lies with the journalist, who would have been wise to run his prose past a science journalist buddy; some lies with the editors, who didn’t do basic fact checking, even of the non-science issues; some lies with a public that (broadly) doesn’t generally care enough about science for editors to make it a priority to have accurate reporting on the subject.  But there’s a history here.  How did it happen that we ended up a technological society, relying heavily on the discoveries of modern physics and other sciences over the last century, and yet we have a public that is at once confused by, suspicious of, bored by, and unfamiliar with science?   I think a lot of the blame also lies with scientists, who collectively over generations have failed to communicate both what we do and why it’s important — and why it’s important for journalists not to misrepresent it. Continue reading

Shock, Foreshock and Aftershock in Italy

It’s hard to know quite what to say about the verdict in Italy convicting scientists — experts on earthquakes — for having… for having… well, what, exactly did they do?  That’s the whole question.  They made pronouncements that tried to state that risks of a big quake, following a swarm of smaller earthquakes in the L’Aquila area of Central Italy, were low, although of course not zero.  But their wording and their calls for calm led to some people staying in their homes instead of remaining outdoors, and consequently losing their lives when, in fact, the big quake did take place soon after.   The issue is not whether they failed to predict the quake — no one is arguing they could have done that.  The issues are whether they did enough to make clear that there was a small risk of a big quake, and also, who is ultimately responsible — the experts, the government, or the public — for making the final cost-benefit analysis about the risks to individuals’ lives?

And of course, following the conviction, and a sentence of six years in prison for manslaughter, the next question is: even if this sentence is overturned on appeal, what scientist, or expert of any type, will dare to give advice to the Italian public in future, knowing that if the advice proves incomplete or unwise in retrospect, the result may be incarceration? Has Italy lost its wisest advisors?  (Four members of the “Great Risks Commission” have already resigned, including one of Italy’s greatest theoretical particle physicists, and I doubt they’ll return without new legal protections.) Will other countries lose theirs?

The issue at stake is clearly not Italian earthquakes; it is expert advice.  Sometimes I feel that we in modern society are forgetting how to be grown-ups and take responsibility for our own actions, and how to accept that bad things do just happen sometimes and it isn’t always someone’s fault.  When we go and get advice from anyone — whether it be medical advice,  financial advice,  advice about the weather or advice about the risks from earthquakes — we need to remember it’s provided by a human being.  Ideally that human being has access to the best information available and understands the odds, and will give us a recommendation based on the odds — on the probabilities for various things to happen.  But even when it is the best available advice, it’s based on odds… on statistics.  It’s an educated guess — yes, it’s educated, but also yes, it’s a guess.

And one thing that is dead certain, given that it is a guess based on odds, is that occasionally — rarely, perhaps, but not never — that guess will be wrong.   It’s inevitable, even if the expert is making the best possible recommendation, based on the best available information and the most accurate possible assessment of the odds.  When that bad guess happens, property may be lost, and people may die.  It’s sad, but it is inherent in the nature of odds and probabilities. Continue reading

From String Theory to the Large Hadron Collider

The huge Milner prizes for nine well-known scientists, and the controversy they generated, have motivated me to relate a story.  It happened during the theorist/experimentalist workshop that was held in early August (see also here) at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada.  And it illuminates something that many scientists, science commentators and science journalists, as well as science fans in the public, seem to be unaware of, but ought to know.

Before I start, I want to make one thing clear.  I am by no means a flag waver for the string theory community; the theory’s been spectacularly over-hyped, and the community’s political control of high-energy physics in many U.S. physics departments has negatively impacted many scientific careers, including my own.  On the other hand, I am also not going to tell you that string theory, as a theory, is somehow evil incarnate; I have done a certain amount of string theory research, and not only have I learned a great deal from it that I could not have learned any other way, doing the research had a positive effect on my career.  So I feel it is unfortunate that string theory has been a political football, with two violent teams trying to kick the ball toward their opponents’ goal posts.   From my perspective, the game is irrational and preposterous, reasonable people were long ago refusing to play it, and it is high time the ball were grabbed by the referee and placed quietly in the middle of the field where it belongs.

My story takes place on the evening of Friday, August 3rd, following the second day of the workshop, which brought together theorists and CMS experimentalists for discussions concerning research strategies at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC].  Continue reading

A Last Stand — But Whose?

Ever have the experience of feeling that no one is listening to you, and so, to make yourself heard, you yell really loudly? And then discover that one of the key people you were trying to reach is standing right behind you?

That’s a bit how I feel after my recent post about Tuesday’s article in the New York Times on the search for the Higgs particle at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC]. My readership is minuscule compared to Dennis Overbye’s, so I shouted. But Mr. Overbye, to my surprise, read the post. Clearly I could have made my points more gently, and for the unnecessary stridency of my tone, Mr. Overbye, I apologize.

I also believed the NY Times article contained an error, and said so. Mr. Overbye defended himself in a comment to my post, saying that the phrasing he chose was meant to imply the correct situation without going into too much detail. I accept this was his intent; I do understand that squeezing these complex ideas into very short articles is a huge challenge, one that he and his colleagues often do very effectively.

Still, in this case, the phrasing chosen could easily lead to an unfortunate and problematic misunderstanding in the wider public — negating the otherwise admirable features of the article. And the risk of causing this particular misunderstanding is the hot button issue on this website. I’ll explain why in a moment.

Before I go into detail, let me balance my negative comments, in the interest of fairness. As a commenter noted, Mr. Overbye carefully avoids referring to the Higgs particle (or “Higgs boson”, as most physicists call it [what’s a boson? just a particular type of particle — click here to read more]) as the “God particle”, a term invented purely to sell a book, and detested by most physicists I know. Thank you, Mr. Overbye, for setting a high standard here. And Mr. Overbye successfully evokes the current mood of extremely high excitement in the field — that 2012 is a very, very big year, in which huge questions bothering particle physicists for decades are finally coming to a head.

But what precisely are those questions? And why do I think it matters?

I do think it’s useful to look at why Mr. Overbye’s phrasing could be disturbing to some particle physicists. First off is the notion that the upcoming conference called ICHEP is “the boson’s last stand”.

In disagreeing with this statement, I am not (as some commenters thought) making a statement of theoretical prejudice. This has nothing to do with what I believe about nature, or what anyone else believes. I am making a simple logical point.

What is the “Standard Model”? It is the set of equations used by particle physicists to describe all known particles and forces at the LHC, along with the simplest possible Higgs particle. [Sometimes this is called the Minimal Standard Model.]

What the LHC experimenters are doing right now is an exhaustive search for this `simplest Higgs’. This search is nearing completion. (Caution: completion may not come at ICHEP. The limited data available so far means that ambiguities may still remain, due to statistical flukes. In that case we’ll have no choice but to wait for the end of 2012.) When the search is done, either a Higgs particle will have been found (perhaps a simple one, or perhaps a more complex one uncovered more or less by accident) or the simplest Higgs will have been ruled out.

Suppose indeed the simplest Higgs is definitively excluded by the data. Which of the following conclusions follows logically?

  • The simplest Higgs particle does not exist in nature.
  • The (Minimal) Standard Model is not a complete description of nature.
  • There is no Higgs particle in nature.

The first two conclusions are logically correct, as well as scientifically spectacular. The third would be even more spectacular, but does not follow. But in saying that ICHEP is “the boson’s last stand”, Overbye gives the strong impression that the third conclusion will follow.

What is actually having its last stand, now or soon, is the Standard Model, [or Minimal Standard Model if you prefer that name] and its simplest Higgs. Professor Higgs and the others — Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble — will be disappointed if the Higgs doesn’t show up in its simplest form, but will have no reason to give up hope.

Why is this such an important distinction? Because a non-expert reading the phrase “the boson’s last stand” might naturally conclude that if no Higgs particle discovery is announced at ICHEP, it’s all over… that we know there is no Higgs particle in nature, and the search for the Higgs is done. And the natural next question for many people will be: “ok, but then what do we need the LHC for?” And for others, “so you mean to tell me that theorists said for 50 years there’d be a Higgs particle, and we paid for this 9 billion dollar machine, and the Higgs isn’t there?!” Personally, I do not want to see the New York Times creating these sorts of very dangerous misunderstandings, at a time of severe economic crisis. (Anyone who thinks no dangers lurk here should consider the last two decades of history carefully.) And that’s why I reacted so strongly to Mr. Overbye’s article.

According to Mr. Overbye, he was trying to convey this distinction. I realize these things are very hard to do, but, with respect, I think in this case it wasn’t done clearly. And that’s partly because he added the statement that “theorists will have to go back to the drawing boards” — which implies that theorists will all be so astonished and befuddled if the Higgs doesn’t turn up at ICHEP that they’ll all have to go back to square one.

Will the demise of the (Minimal) Standard Model and its simplest Higgs send theorists back to the drawing board? No. Theorists have not been idle over the past decades. They’ve been at the drawing board the whole time; it’s their job not to be satisfied with the conventional wisdom. It’s not the drawing board but the library and the desk drawer and the computer archive to which they will turn. And in those places you will find dozens and dozens of sensible alternatives to the simplest Higgs, many of which are harder to find than the simplest one and will still be worth searching for, well beyond 2012. And you will find numerous papers, by famous and less famous scientists, showing how nature can have a Higgs field but no Higgs particle; this situation (usually omitted by science journalists, because it is admittedly very hard to explain in a few words) always comes with other scientific opportunities for the LHC. [I’ve written about this here, if you want to learn more; see section 6 — the article is out of date in its details but not in its scientific points.] [Experts: by “Higgs field” I specifically mean any effective field whose would-be Nambu-Goldstone bosons provide the longitudinal components of the W and Z particles. You may prefer a different terminology, but I hope you do not disagree with the science. The example I have in mind is technicolor, and its various cousins.]

If late this decade there’s still no Higgs particle and still nothing else unexpected in the LHC data, then you’ll find most of us at the drawing board.

I should note that a few commenters stated their opinion that if the simplest Higgs, or something like it, doesn’t show up in the current search, then they will be sure there is no Higgs particle in nature, because “nobody believes” these alternatives to the simplest Higgs. First, their opinion is one of theoretical prejudice, not logic; and if scientists’ beliefs were always right, experiments would be a lot less important than they are. And second, the point is not that anyone believes a particular alternative; I don’t “believe” in any specific one myself. The point is that there are so many, and so easy to create. It would be foolhardy to dismiss the possibility that nature might hide the Higgs from our initial searches.

Also, there is an unfortunate public perception (partly due to physicists cutting corners in public statements) that theoretical physicists said that “there is a Higgs particle in nature” and that the experimental physicists built the LHC to find it. This is too glib. As I have written in more detail elsewhere, what theorists said (collectively) is that “there is a Higgs field in nature” — a Higgs particle being likely but not a certainty. The LHC was built to help us understand the Higgs field, and was designed to handle both the cases where a Higgs particle would be found early on, and the cases where it would not be found early, or at all. In short: particle physicists have come to this point fully prepared.

And we need the news media to convey this. Having provided several billion dollars for this machine, taxpayers and politicians around the world rightly expect particle physicists to do a first-rate job with the money. We have a reputation to uphold. If the media, directly or indirectly, leads the public to view us unfairly as bewildered, stunned, unprepared, or otherwise incompetent, this would be very damaging. And so I feel that cannot sit idly by if a New York Times article, even unintentionally, could imply to many readers that not finding the Higgs by ICHEP would mean that nobody in the field would have any idea what to do next.

I myself write to explain science, mainly particle physics, to the public, and I know that science journalists everywhere have a very tough job. Mr. Overbye, in his position at the NY Times, can have huge influence on scientific understanding and science policy in the public, and consequently he has responsibilities that make his job even tougher. His contribution to public excitement about the current moment in particle physics is more than welcome. But isn’t there some way, in a few words, also to convey the decades of careful preparation by the particle physics community, not just for the conventional wisdom but also for the broad range of alternatives? And not just for this critical moment, but for the decade of LHC studies that lies ahead?

For even if we see strong evidence of a Higgs-like particle at ICHEP, the correct understanding of that particle — in particular, determining whether it is or isn’t a `simplest Higgs’ — may take many years. And we’re prepared for that.

Einstein, History and Science

On Saturday I gave a lecture, newly minted, on how Einstein is perceived in the public eye, and on how the numerous misconceptions about Einstein affect the way many non-experts believe that science is actually carried out.  Doing the research for the lecture involved, among other things, going back to some original sources I’d never read or had only read a long time ago, looking a bit at Einstein’s notebook from the period around 1912 (online here), and re-reading large portions of a wonderful biography of Einstein that I’m afraid was written by a physicist for physicists — and consequently largely unreadable without technical background, but a must-read for anyone who has that background.  I refer here to Abram Pais’s famous biography: “Subtle is the Lord…”, whose title refers to Einstein’s famous quip: “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not.”  (You can read about the origin of this quip in Pais’s book.)

I also enjoyed tracking down some videos online of various physical effects that Einstein explained, or that he predicted in advance.  These included videos (linked below) of Continue reading

The New Particle at CMS, Through the Media

CBS NEWS, today: “A never-before-seen subatomic particle has popped into existence inside the world’s largest atom smasher, bringing physicists a step closer to unraveling the mystery of how matter is put together in the universe.”

Overall, this is not a bad article — but that last bit is propaganda.  Maybe physicists made a nano-step (“nano” = one billionth).  We knew this particle — a composite object made from known particles — would be there; we just didn’t know its details.  To suggest this is a step toward a breakthrough is just silliness.  Of course all new information proves useful eventually for something, but… really!

And the first part?  Less exciting than it sounds (though a very nice bit of research!)  Here’s the link to my post about this from Friday, explaining that the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider has reported very strong evidence for a new composite object — a hadron, a member of a particular subclass called a `baryon’ —  made from a single bottom (or `beauty’ — or just `b’) quark and from other known particles.

The reporter tells the usual white lie:

Baryons are particles made of three quarks (the building blocks of the protons and neutrons that populate the nuclei of atoms). Beauty baryons are baryons that contain at least one beauty quark (also known as a bottom quark). The new specimen is a particular type of excited beauty baryon called Xi(b)*, pronounced “csai-bee-star.”

A better description of baryons (including protons) is that they are made from three quarks, many gluons, and many additional pairs of quarks and anti-quarks.  The three excess quarks are the ones being referred to in the above paragraph.  See my article on what protons are and Friday’s post on this new one, which shows a sketch that gives better intuition about what protons and Xi(b)*s look like.

[Sometimes white lies get you into a lot of trouble later.  The fact that protons have gluons and anti-quarks in them is crucial to understanding how the Large Hadron Collider does its thing.]

The reporter gets this part right:

The Xi(b)* particle had been predicted by a physics theory called quantum chromodynamics, which predicts how quarks bind together to form heavy particles, but had never before been observed.

“It was expected to be more or less where it was found,” [Vincenzo] Chiochia said. “Not all of those heavy states have been discovered, so you have to look for all those particles. It may well be that the theory is not complete. In this particular case it was expected, but we have to keep looking for things that are unexpected.”

Well.  I don’t know about that, Dr. Chiochia.  As a quantum field theorist, I would agree that “quantum chromodynamics” (which does more than what the reporter writes — it is the set of equations that describes and predicts all of the interactions of quarks, gluons and anti-quarks of all types) might indeed be turn out to be incomplete.  But if you really want to look for places where it might fail, this is an especially bad place to look!  This composite particle itself may be new, but the forces and particles required to make this object have already been very well-studied in other contexts.  (Nevertheless, congratulations on nice work!)

Oh, and by the way, Wind Farms Do Not Cause Global Warming.  They may cause some local mixing of warmer air just above the ground at night down to the surface near the wind farm itself; this does not increase the overall temperature of the planet.  Read headlines (and articles) very carefully.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/no-wind-farms-are-not-causing-global-warming/2012/04/30/gIQAMl2GsT_blog.html

A Neutrino Success Story

Almost all the news on neutrinos in the mainstream press this past few months was about the OPERA experiment, and a possible violation of Einstein’s foundational theory of relativity. That the experiment turned out to be wrong didn’t surprise experts. But one of the concerns that scientists have about how this story turned out and was reported in the press is that perhaps many non-experts may get the impression that science is so full of mistakes that you can’t trust it at all. That would be a very unhappy conclusion — not just unhappy but in fact a very dangerous conclusion, at least for anyone who would like to keep their economy strong, their planet well-treated and their nation well-defended.

So it is important to balance the OPERA mini-fiasco with another hot-off-the-presses neutrino story that illustrates why, even though mistakes in individual scientific experiments are common, collective mistakes in science are rare. A discipline such as physics has intrinsic checks and balances that significantly reduce the probability of errors going unrecognized for long. In the story I’m about to relate, one can recognize how and why scientists start to come to consensus.  Though quite suspicious of any individual experiment, scientists generally take a different view of a group of experiments that buttress one another.

The context of this story, though much less revolutionary than a violation of Einstein’s speed limit, still represents a milestone in our understanding of neutrinos, which has been advancing very rapidly over the past fifteen years or so. When I was a starting graduate student in the late 1980s, almost all we knew about neutrinos was that there were at least three types and that they were much lighter than electrons, and perhaps massless. Today we know much, much more about neutrinos and how they behave. And in just the last few months and weeks and days, one of the missing entries in the Encyclopedia Neutrinica appears to have been filled in. Continue reading

Question to Laypersons: Your Views on the Neutrino Saga

So, many of you have probably been following, to a greater or lesser degree, the story of the OPERA experiment.  This is the one that  found that neutrinos sent from the CERN lab near Geneva, Switzerland to the Gran Sasso lab in Italy (where OPERA is located)  arrived earlier than they expected.  Of course there were, from the beginning, two natural explanations:

  1. Einstein was wrong and neutrinos travel faster than light, or
  2. OPERA made a mistake, and their expectations were off.

The news media made a huge deal out of the first possibility, while the vast majority of professional physicists assumed, for various reasons we can discuss, that the second possibility was almost certainly correct.  It is now pretty clear that possibility #2 was right; first OPERA admitted it had found two mistakes which made its previous results invalid; then its competitor down the lab, ICARUS, announced it had seen neutrinos arriving just as expected from the same CERN neutrino beam; and finally OPERA itself revealed that it had managed to characterize its errors in detail and now, re-analyzing its data, finds (preliminarily) that neutrinos do in fact arrive as expected.

Now, with this backdrop, I would like to ask YOU a question or two.  And by “you”, I mean non-scientists.  I would like to know how seeing this episode unfold changed (or did not change) your view of science, or physics, or particle physics.  Or of science journalism.  What’s your perspective on all of this?  What surprised you most?  What annoyed you or turned you off or excited you?  Are you disappointed in or pleased with the scientific process as you saw it unfold?  Are you more suspicious of or less suspicious of scientists and/or of science now that you’ve seen this happen?  I think these are things that many scientists would be curious to learn.

Granted, since you’re reading this blog, you’re a member of a non-representative sample of the public.  But I still think it would be useful to hear what you have to say.  So, please.  Comment.

[p.s. As BBC reports today, the LHC now has stable data-quality proton-proton collisions at 8 TeV of energy per collision; data taking will start at slow collision rates and ramp up over the year.  Here’s a post and a following article on why 8 TeV is better than last year’s 7 TeV.  As usual, BBC says correctly that 2012 will be a crucial year for the search for the Higgs particle, but say incorrectly that this will be the year that the Higgs is found or not found; that statement is true only of the Standard Model Higgs particle, the simplest possible form of Higgs particle.  For an overview of what I mean by this, read my guest post at the Cosmic Variance blog.]