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.

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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.

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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]. 

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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 … Read more

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

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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” … Read more

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.

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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 … Read more

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