Monday, June 25, 2012

LftW: 25th June

Sorry about the relative lack of posting, this will be rectified soon. Here are some of the things I noticed last week.

Physics links:
  • As you will no doubt already have heard from elsewhere, there is a press conference scheduled at CERN for the 4th of July, in which updates on the status of the searches for the Higgs boson at the ATLAS and CMS detectors will be provided. You've probably also heard the rumours that the results will feature higher statistical significance than the previous results from last December, and possibly even an official announcement of "discovery".

    I believe these rumours originated from Peter Woit's blog (see here and here), and they have caused a bit of a kerfuffle in the blogosphere. Matt Strassler rather bad-temperedly complained about "non-particle-physicist bloggers" spreading rumours, and Jon Butterworth also seemed a little upset, claiming spoilers would be "bad for science". Personally, I don't see how that argument works. Sure, I understand any scientist only wants to make an official statement in a professional capacity when they're sure they've got the analysis correct. And a large collaboration has to have rules to govern behaviour of individuals, so they're well within their rights to want to avoid leaks. But I don't see how, if the leak is made, publishing a blog post clearly marked as "rumours" is bad for science. If anything, it simply ensures that more people tune in to the press conference to check whether the rumours are actually true. (I suppose this makes it slightly more likely that the servers providing live streams from CERN will fail.)
  • Still on the topic of the Higgs, Matt Strassler also got rather annoyed with a New York Times article on the topic: here and followed up here. Again, it's not something that bothered me too much, but at least in this case I do recognise the feeling of seeing some arcane aspect of your field slightly misrepresented in a summary in the popular press and getting worked up about it. (If the rumours above turn out to be true then this principled objection will be even less relevant!)
Other links:
  • In the UK, the Education Secretary Michael Gove apparently wants to do away with GCSE qualifications for 14-16 year-old students and go back to the old O-level exams. I don't have any sensible comments to make about the advisability or otherwise of such a plan, but I did see Peter Coles had posted a link to a GCSE Science paper from 2006. It is absolutely astonishing. Question 3 is a particular classic.
  • I recently learned about the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Solimões river (which later becomes the Amazon) in Brazil, where the waters of the two rivers, which are very different colours, flow side-by-side for nearly 6 kilometres without mixing (because they are at different temperatures, and flow at different speeds). This makes for nice dramatic photographs, and I couldn't resist including one here:
Confluence of Rio Negro and the Amazon: the waters of the rivers don't mix for nearly 6 km!
Confluence of Rio Negro and the Solimoes.


  1. I have to admit that I also didn't empathise either of Strassler's frustrations.

    His point about this not being the final chance for "The Higgs Boson" seemed a little too pedantic to be worth the level of frustration he was exhibiting.

    And I don't understand people's rants about the leaked rumours being bad for science. Is it bad for the LHC and CERN? Perhaps. Is it bad for science? (I like your italics) I can't see how. It isn't the blogger who should be being told off for this, but the leaker. It is their collaboration that has (potentially) suffered. Though, as you point out, this has arguably increased the attention the seminar next week will get, not diminished it.

    1. Empathise *with*... why won't blogger allow editing!?!

  2. I also found Jon Butterworth's point about one team's search being potentially biased by rumours of sightings by the other team utterly unconvincing. Both CMS and ATLAS already know that they each saw roughly $3\sigma$ evidence for a Higgs back in December. Presumably this doesn't bias their current search in a way that undermines the science, so it's hard to believe that some rumours on a website somewhere will do so.

    I couldn't see how his story about H1 and ZEUS helped his argument either.

    1. I know, precisely! If these two experiments have that little faith in their ability to look at their data in an unbiased way then that is a little terrifying.

      In reality, I'm sure they do have faith in themselves.

      It is still kind of dick-ish to betray the wishes of one's peers and leak the rumour, but that is what the issue is, not whether this is good for science, public understanding of science, etc, etc...