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Zachary Marshall | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Hurry Up!!

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).

It's not quite that fast...

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…

Good luck!!

Note: I’ll try to follow this with a blog about what happens when we’re wrong…


11 Responses to “Hurry Up!!”

  1. Harbles says:

    I would think there are better ways to do this task of disseminating new discoveries.
    A Theoretical physicist that I follow, Bee, has blogged repeatedly on the topic.
    It appears some evolution of the process is due in the digital age.

  2. Paolo says:

    is this blog post a tricky way of saying that You, over there, have found something?! but no one is about to take responsibility, heh?
    ok, let me announce that, but give me the details.

  3. Anne says:

    Truly frustrating! I work in scientific publishing and I realize that time that goes into the peer review process and coming to a final manuscript that is “publication approved,” but still. The world is waiting! :-)

  4. Why says:

    Why not release the data in real-time? Then anyone can analyse it and we can discover new science more quickly. Also anyone can check your work too to make sure it is accurate. Someone might even see something that you’ve missed. That would seem the best way to go for scientific progress. Why do you think the data is yours anyway? Isn’t the LHC publicly funded, so shouldn’t the data be public?

  5. Alikar says:

    Yes, the data will most likely eventually be public, but they also don’t need to release the data the instance its taken. Really they already have enough network headaches I’m sure. Allow public access to that data at the same time would be crazy.

    Also I’m pretty sure that most of the people in the world that can actually understand the data have access to it. I’m sure eventually it will be released in some form to the public. Right now I’m sure they are much more into their “discovery” or whatever has been hinted at.

    I’m hoping for chocolate flavored black holes personally, or an inter-dimensional gateway, what ever is easier. :)

  6. Zachary Marshall says:

    The LEP data is public, and very few people actually access it outside those who worked on LEP. Their entire dataset (simulation included) was 10 TB. ATLAS’s data from the last week alone is a lot more than that. The distribution of that data is hard enough for the 2900 of us, no less for the rest of the world!!

    The confirmation issue is important, which is why we have four experiments at the LHC, each one of which works independently.

    The hardest part, of course, is that if we released our data, no one but us would understand it! When we say, “I see an electron,” there are a lot of cuts, cleaning, etc that go into claiming that, and it’s hard enough for a physicist working on the experiment full time to keep up with the right tricks. More likely than a member of the public finding something, they would *think* they’d found something, and we would have to spend a load of time showing them why they hadn’t!

    Better to leave this one to us for a few years, until we’re more confident about how the data and the detector look. Then we can talk about sharing with the rest of the world!

  7. Ted says:

    I love your comment: “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.” If only similar nurturing was applied to all disciplines.

    On the techinical side . . .
    The LHC is equipped to collide protons or lead nuclei (Pb+82), right? Is it better to smash Pb+82 for some experiments and smash protons for others? (One website cite mentions Pb+82 in the context of the ALICE experiments and looking for “quark-gluon plasma.”)

    Must one use a particular isotope of lead for these collisions? It seems as though one would want to know exactly what goes into a collision to do a proper mass/energy balance. If a particluar isotope is used, which one and why?

    Practically, does the LHC need to be “cleaned out” when switching from Pb+82? How do you do that? (I realize that the lead isn’t bouncing or scraping along the walls as it loops but there’s bound to be a small amount of depositions, especially at the turns or the injection point, no?)

    Does the present limit of 3.5 Tev per beam limit the Pb+82 experiments, if they are scheduled while the limit is imposed?



  8. Kent Dorsey says:

    “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!”

    Interesting comment. Who is the “someone else” that the discovered would be competing with that findings must be kept “secret”? Other LHC collaborators? No one else has access to a similar experiment, so the statement seems odd. What is the justification for secrecy when the LHC is supposed to be a world-wide collaboration of 2900 researchers?

  9. Zachary Marshall says:

    Hi Ted! Good questions, all.

    ATLAS, CMS, and LHCb are set up best for proton-proton collisions and ALICE is set up best for lead collisions, but at least ATLAS and CMS have programs to study the lead collisions and ALICE has a program to study the proton-proton collisions (I’m not sure about LHCb – sorry!). In fact, ALICE put out the first proton-proton collision paper! And ALICE, ATLAS, and CMS will all be looking for that quark-gluon plasma…

    We use lead 208, but I don’t know of a strong reason for using that isotope more than another (except that it is the heaviest). We need to know which isotope it is so that we know the energy well, you’re right.

    No need to clean the machine. We’ll only have 70 million lead ions in a single “bunch,” which is less than one trillionth of a gram. There just isn’t much lead left in the machine, and any radiation (e.g. neutrons) goes away naturally after a little time (few hours to a few days).

    The lead collisions will happen at the end of this run, in all likelihood, for a few weeks. Only a few thousand collisions already begin to be interesting, so it does not need to be a very long program. The energy will be limited in lead collisions as well, and they will probably reach half energy: 1.4 TeV per nucleon (it’s limited by the magnets).

    Hope that helps!

  10. Zachary Marshall says:

    Hi Kent!

    Well, ATLAS is a world-wide collaboration of 2900 researchers – and we compete with CMS, ALICE, and LHCb. I would rather we get credit for a discovery we make than one of them :-)

    Also, even though there’s no other machine like the LHC, depending on what we find, there may be some other experiment that is sensitive enough to find it as well. Even the Tevatron, if they knew right where to look, might be able to work out something. So we want to be a little careful.

    It’s not really paranoid secrecy – it’s just trying to make sure we get credit for our work, and that we don’t accidentally yell something from the hilltops that isn’t quite right…

  11. Ted says:


    Thanks for the answers. This is by far the most informative and interesting blog I frequent. One trillionth of a gram! Truly fantastic technology.


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