Preface: the folks over at the ATLAS control room blog are doing a great job too, so don’t miss their posts if you want more up-to-the-minute LHC news!
A lot of people ask me when we’ll start announcing discoveries of new physics (or exclusions of new physics). It could take a while. Even I don’t like the idea of waiting long before the really interesting new physics at the LHC gets published. So why does it take so long?? Well, for fun, let’s say ATLAS has found a new particle. And let’s say that you are the one who gets to say when the result is made public (in reality, that responsibility is shared among several people).
We have to write a paper about the discovery!! This is our chance to explain, clearly and carefully, what makes us think we have found something new. When the entire collaboration is happy with the paper, we send it off to a journal. The article we’ve written is then reviewed and, we hope, accepted in the journal. Finally, if all went well, the journal publishes the paper. If everything went perfectly, the review would all take a couple of months. No problem!
But it rarely goes perfectly. Usually, we find problems along the way, and those problems have to be corrected. And because it takes so long, the results are often presented in some “preliminary” form at a conference before they have been published. That’s one of the reasons we like going to conferences so much (and we get to go to some pretty sweet places). All those results get marked “PRELIMINARY” in big bold capital letters, because they aren’t published yet. There might still be some problems that shake out in the review of the work.
So now comes your job…
- How long before work is ready to be published do you allow it to be seen outside the collaboration? If you wait too long, someone else might announce the discovery before you do! But if you move to quickly, then you might announce the discovery of a particle that doesn’t exist!! Both have happened a few times. It’s also hard to keep secrets (physicists like to gossip!!), so you may tip off someone else on where to look before you’re ready to announce your findings!
- Who makes the announcement? Is it the person who did the analysis, and so knows the details best? Often that’s a graduate student or post-doc, and we like to protect them from the fallout if it turns out the announcement is wrong. Does the spokesperson make the announcement? Does the “physics coordinator”? The coordinator of the physics group that included the work?
- In what journal do you publish the work? One of the most famous in physics is Physical Review Letters, but articles are not allowed to be more than four pages long. You could publish in a less well-known journal so that the page limit goes away – but do you need to publish a long article first?
- The result might be more interesting if you can present it in terms of some particular theory. But do you want to share the information with a person outside of the collaboration? The information might get out – and long before you are ready for it to! (Of course, in ATLAS, we have quite a few experts in various theories, so this may not be an issue…).
In the past, there was some added pressure to publish first so that you could be recognized with a Nobel Prize. In many previous experiments, there was some person taking the lead who could be recognized (though in some cases that is debatable – or even resulted in picking the wrong person). Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t know of any obvious experimentalist to get it for a discovery at the LHC. How can you leave out the people who designed and built the machine? Or the people who designed and built the detector? Or the people who did the analysis? And no more than three people may receive the prize!! So the Nobel Committee will have its work cut out for them…
Note: I’ll try to follow this with a blog about what happens when we’re wrong…