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Archive for June, 2012

Higgs Seminar 2012

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

This is the link to the liveblog

This year sees the International Conference on High Energy Physics, or ICHEP. Hundreds of physicists will flock to Melbourne, Australia, to get the latest news on physics results from around the world. This includes the latest searches for the Higgs boson, the final piece of the Standard Model. CERN will hold a seminar where ATLAS and CMS will present their results. I’ll be liveblogging the event, so join me on the day!

Information about the webcast

The webcast for the CERN seminar is available at http://cern.ch/webcast. If you have a CERN login you can also use http://cern.ch/webcast/cern_users/

Wednesday 4th July 2012 09:00.
(Other timezones: 00:00 PDT / 03:00 EDT / 07:00 GMT / 08:00 BST /09:00 CET / 17:00 VIC)

Meeting link: https://indico.cern.ch/conferenceDisplay.py?confId=197461
Webcast link: http://webcast.cern.ch/
Follow on twitter: @aidanatcern @sethzenz


There is this myth that scientists are unemotional, rational seekers of truth. This is typified by the quote from Bertrand Russell: But if philosophy is to attain truth, it is necessary first and foremost that philosophers should acquire the disinterested intellectual curiosity which characterises the genuine man of science (emphasis added).  But just get any scientist going on his pet theory or project, and any illusion of disinterest will vanish in a flash.  I guess most scientists are not genuine men, or women, of science. Scientists, at least successful ones, are marked more by obsession than disinterested intellectual curiosity. They are people who wake up at one in the morning and worry about factors of two or missed systematic errors in their experiments, people who convince themselves that their minor role is crucial to the great experiment, people who doggedly pursue a weakly motived theory or experiment.  In the end, most fade into oblivion, but some turn out spectacularly successful and that motivates the rest to keep slugging along. It’s a lot like trying to win the lottery.

The obsession leads to a second myth—that of the mad scientist: cold, obsessed to the point of madness, and caring only about his next result. The scientist who has both a mistress and a wife so that while the wife thinks he is with the mistress and the mistress thinks he with the wife, he is down at the laboratory getting some work done. The myth is typified by the character Dr. Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil for knowledge, Dr. Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s book, or in real life, by the likes of Josef Mengele. The mad scientist has also been a stable of movies and science fiction. But most real scientists are not that obsessed, and all successful people, regardless of their field—science, sports or business—are driven.

In terms of pettiness, Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) takes the cake. He carefully removed references to Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646 –1716) from versions of the Principia. In Newton’s defense, it can be said that the forger, William Chaloner, was the only person he had drawn and quartered.  I do not know of modern scientists taking things to that extreme, but there is a recorded case of one distinguished professor hitting another over the head with a teapot. According to the legend, the court ruled it justified. I guess it was the rational and disinterested thing to do. There is also an urban legend of a researcher urinating on his competitor’s equipment.  The surprising thing is that these reports, even if not true, are at least creditable.

In a similar vein, it has been suggested that many great scientists have suffered from autism or Asperger’s syndrome. These include Henry Cavendish (1731 – 1810), Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882), Paul Dirac (1902 – 1984), Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727), Charles Richter (1900 – 1985) and Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943).  Many of these diagnoses have been disputed, but it indicates that ruling some of the symptoms of autism were present in these scientists’ behaviour, for example, the single-mindedness with which they pursued their research.

So, are scientists disinterested, autistic, overly obsessed, and/or mad? Probably not more than any other group of people. But to be successful in any field—and especially in science—is demanding. To become a scientist requires a lot of work, dedication, and talent. Consider the years in university. Typically there are four years as an undergraduate. It is at least another four years for a Ph.D. and typically longer. Then to become an academic, you have to spend a few years as a Post-Doctoral Fellow. It is a minimum of ten years of hard work after high school to become an academic. In my case, it was thirteen years from high school to a permanent job. To become a scientist, you have to be driven. Even after you become a scientist, you have to be driven to stay at or near the top. It is not clear if scientists are driven more by a love of their field, or by paranoia. I have seen both and they are not mutually exclusive.

If scientists really were the bastions of rationality that they are sometimes portrayed to be, science would probably grind to a halt. Most successful ideas start out half-baked in some scientist’s mind. Only scientists willing to flog such half-baked ideas can become famous. To become successful, an idea must be pursued before there is any convincing evidence to support it. It is only after the work is done that there can be reason to believe it.  Those who succeed in making their ideas mainstream are made into heroes, those that fail, into crackpots. Generally, it is a bit of a crapshoot.

While individual scientists are not disinterested, nor driven by logic rather than emotion, science as an enterprise is. The error control methods of science, especially peer review and independent repetition, average the biases and foibles of individual scientists to give reliable results. No one should be particularly surprised when results that have not undergone this vetting, particularly the latter, are found to wrong[1]. However, in the final analysis, the enterprise of science reflects the personality of its ultimate judges: observation and parsimony. They are notoriously hard-hearted, disinterested, and unemotional.

To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

[1] Hence, the recently noted medical research results that were wrong.


Tomorrow I depart Nebraska for the ICHEP conference, which will start on Wednesday afternoon (Australia time) next week. It’s a long trip ahead of a very exciting week — Higgs week, as we are starting to see it called. First, on Monday there will be a seminar at Fermilab about searches for the Higgs at the Tevatron. And then on Wednesday, the seminar at Fermilab about searches for the Higgs at the LHC. Both will be webcast live, should you be awake at the appropriate hour. We still don’t know what exactly is going to be said, but everyone is very much on the edge of their seats! (And then there is the rest of ICHEP, where we’ll be hearing about new results from all across particle physics. Who knows what surprises are in store from elsewhere?)

And, if you can manage to keep yourself in your seat: I will be live-blogging here at Quantum Diaries/US LHC Blog from ICHEP during the CERN seminar. I’ll try to capture what’s going on in the room at what I suspect will be the largest gathering of physicists outside of the CERN auditorium. Please join me starting a bit before 2 AM US Central time, 9 AM CERN time and 5 PM Melbourne time on July 4!


Right now both the ATLAS and CMS experiments are working around the clock to get results ready for the upcoming International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP). What happens when we have a big conference around the corner? We try to analyze as much of the data we have, of course! With all this pressure to get as much out of the data as possible it’s tempting to move too quickly and do what we can to get a discovery, but now is not the time to rush things.

A typical Higgs-like event at CMS (CMS experiment)

A typical Higgs-like event at CMS (CMS experiment)

In order to declare a new discovery we need to have a 5 sigma excess (see this post to explain what we mean by sigma) and projecting our sensitivities using results from the 2011 data, to the data we have accumulated so far suggests that either experiment might see something close to 5 sigma at ICHEP. In this scenario there is an option to combine Higgs searches in order to increase the sensitivity of the datasets even further. This is already what each experiment does for the different final states, and since each experiment understands their detectors and the correlations between the measurements this is the best way to get the most from the datasets.

So if neither experiment gets 5 sigma, and we would like a discovery, what can be done? The next obvious step would be to combine the results from the two experiments and count the sigma. Despite being an obvious next step, this is the worst thing we could do at the moment. The Higgs field was postulated nearly 50 years ago, the LHC was proposed about 30 years ago, the experiments have been in design and development for about 20 years, and we’ve been taking data for about 18 months. Rushing to get a result a few weeks early is an act of impatience and frustration, and we should resist the temptation to get an answer now. Providing good quality physics results is more important than getting an answer we want.

The status of the ATLAS exclusion with 2011 data.  Now our focus is on the remaining space. (ATLAS experiment)

The status of the ATLAS exclusion with 2011 data. Now our focus is on the remaining space. (ATLAS experiment)

The reason we have two experiments at the LHC looking for the Higgs boson is because if one experiment makes a discovery then the other experiment can confirm or refute the discovery. This is why we have both D0 and CDF, both Belle and BaBar, both ATLAS and CMS, both UA2 and UA1 (where in the interest of fairness the orders the names are chosen at random.) Usually these pairs of experiments are neck and neck on any discovery or measurement, so when one experiment sees an effect but its counterpart doesn’t then it’s likely due to a problem with the analysis. Finding such a problem does not indicate poor scientific practice or incompetence, in fact it’s part of the scientific method to catch these little hiccups. (A good example is the dijet anomaly that CDF saw last year. In an experiment as complicated as CDF it’s not unsurprising that something subtle would get missed. Everything that the CDF hardware and software was telling the physicists was there was a bump in their distribution. The easiest way to see if this is wrong is to see what the D0 hardware and software tell us. It turns out they disagreed in this instance and we got the crosscheck we needed.)

If we combine measurements from two different experiments we end up losing the vital crosscheck. The best way to proceed is two wait a few more weeks until both experiments can produce a 5 sigma discovery and see if these results agree. If the results are consistent then we celebrate victory! So let’s resist the temptation to get too excited about combined results between experiments. If we wait a few more months the discovery will be all the sweeter. Then again we may get lucky at ICHEP!

Related articles:
What next for the Higgs?
Higgs Update CIPANP 2012
December 2011 Higgs Seminar liveblog


Vous vous demandez peut-être pourquoi il faut attendre si longtemps pour enfin voir les résultats sur la recherche du boson de Higgs au CERN basés sur les données accumulées en 2012. Bref, quand est-ce qu’on arrive? Le CERN a annoncé la semaine dernière que ces résultats seront rendus publics le 4 juillet lors d’un séminaire spécial prévu pour 9:00 heures, heure de Genève, et qui sera retransmis en direct sur le web.

La raison est simple : il nous faut gravir un pas à la fois l’immense pile de données accumulées cette année. Nous avons déjà récolté 6 fb-1 de données en moins de trois mois à comparer aux 5 fb-1 recueillis pour tout 2011. Ce n’est que lorsqu’on atteindra le sommet qu’on sera en mesure de nous prononcer.

Ce serait super si on pouvait simplement ajouter les nouvelles données et voir émerger les résultats. Mais la réalité est bien différente.

Il faut d’abord accumuler ces données. Ceci nécessite la mobilisation d’équipes sur place 24 heures sur 24 pour opérer les salles de contrôle en plus des dizaines d’experts et d’expertes prêtes à intervenir au moindre problème.

Chaque événement ressemble à un mini feu d’artifice où l’on voit les débris des particules lourdes et instables créées à partir de l’énergie des collisions de protons générées par le Grand Collisionneur de Hadrons ou LHC. Ces particules se matérialisent à partir de l’énergie produite lorsque les protons circulant dans ce gigantesque accélérateur de 27 km se frappent de plein fouet.

Notre tâche consiste à identifier chaque fragment de ces débris pour reconstruire l’objet initial d’où ils émergent avant d’être projetés dans toutes les directions.

On espère ainsi découvrir de nouvelles particules, comme le boson de Higgs qui expliquerait comment les particules acquièrent leur masse, ou encore identifier la matière noire, cette mystérieuse mais omniprésente matière qui remplit l’univers.

Les données proviennent de millions de parties différentes du détecteur, indiquant où chaque fragment a perdu son énergie ou laisser une trace. Une telle quantité d’information ne pourrait se traiter sans le Grid, un réseau de milliers d’ordinateurs. Un grand nombre de personnes décortique ensuite ces données pour s’assurer de leur bonne qualité à toutes les étapes.

Parallèlement, on simule des milliards d’évènements appelés Monte Carlo à l’identique des vraies données recueillies par les détecteurs et qui représentent soit les phénomènes bien connus, soit des particules hypothétiques comme le boson de Higgs ou des particules de matière noire. En les comparant avec les vraies données, on peut voir si tout correspond à ce que l’on connaît déjà ou si de nouvelles particules sont présentes.

Le Monte Carlo est d’abord scruté sous tous les angles pour s’assurer que tout est bien simulé. Nous vérifions chaque petit bout d’information utilisé dans les analyses. Toute déviation entre évènements simulés et véritables doit être corrigée.

Puis viennent les analyses de physique, où des centaines d’équipes différentes essaient d’isoler un type d’événements spécifique. C’est là que les simulations de Monte Carlo nous sont si précieuses. Elles nous guident pour établir les critères de sélection permettant d’isoler les signaux qui nous intéressent, tout en éliminant une grande partie du bruit de fond, soit l’ensemble des autres types d’évènements qui peuvent imiter le signal recherché.

Les critères de sélection doivent être définis uniquement à partir des simulations, sans regarder les vraies données. Ceci évite de biaiser les analyses et les vraies données ne sont traitées qu’une fois la sélection établie.

Finalement, il faut que l’ensemble de la collaboration approuve les résultats. Cette revue est longue et ardue. Personne ne veut courir le risque de publier un résultat erroné ou biaisé. Quand tout le monde est satisfait, les résultats sont alors rendus publics.

Pour nous, les physiciens et physiciennes, il y a maintenant une pression accrue venant de l’intérêt généré dans les médias. C’est à la fois stimulant et stressant. Nous espérons tous et toutes avoir de belles nouvelles à annoncer lors du séminaire spécial du 4 juillet à la veille de la plus importante conférence de physique de l’année qui se tiendra à Melbourne en Australie du 4 au 11 juillet.

Les dernières données sont encore sous analyse. Il faut donc patienter un petit peu plus avant de pouvoir se prononcer. Nous aussi retenons notre souffle.

Pauline Gagnon

Pour être averti-e lors de la parution de nouveaux blogs, suivez-moi sur Twitter: @GagnonPauline ou par e-mail en ajoutant votre nom à cette liste de distribution

Deux vidéos (en anglais seulement) pour en savoir plus :

Are we there yet? Search for the Higgs boson

The calm before the storm

Vous pouvez aussi jouer à ce jeu video dont le but est d’aider le boson de Higgs à échapper aux scientifiques… Il faut “cacher le Higgs” en plaçant une autre particule par-dessus.


You might have been wondering why one has to wait so long to see the new Higgs boson results from the 2012 data at CERN. Are we there yet? CERN announced last week that these results will be presented at special CERN seminar on July 4th at 9:00 am, Geneva time, with a live webcast.

Why does it take so long? The reason is simple. The physicists are slowly climbing over this pile of new data, one small step at a time, hoping to have some great surprises once we reach the top.

It would certainly be nice if we could simply add the new data and get the results out. But the reality is quite different.

First of all, we need to get that data. This requires having a team of people on shift 24 hours a day, and several dozen experts reachable at all times to ensure the detector in tip-top shape.

Each event looks like a mini firework. Once in a while, some heavy and unstable particle is created from the energy released when two protons collide head-on in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) where two beams of protons circulate in the 27-km long accelerator.

Our task is to identify each tiny piece from the debris and reconstruct the initial object from the pieces that flew away in all directions.

The hope is to find new particles never seen before, like the Higgs boson that could explain how particles acquire their mass, or dark matter particles, the unidentified matter that makes up most of the universe.

The data come from millions of different parts of the detector, carrying information on where the debris flew or lost energy. That’s a huge amount of information and it takes the Grid, a network of thousands of computers, to be able to tackle this task.

Other people scrutinize these data every day, making sure they are of good quality with all information available.

In parallel, we simulate billions of events called Monte Carlo events that look just like the events recorded in the detector but that are based on current knowledge or hypothesized ideas (like the Higgs bosons or dark matter particles). By comparing the Monte Carlo with the real data, we can see if all is already known or if new particles are present.

Before using the simulated data, we must check they reproduce every single aspect of the data we collect. We must check every type of information we use for the physics analysis. If the simulation differs from the real data, we correct it until all is reliable.

Then comes the physics analysis per se where hundreds of different teams design dedicated selection criteria to extract specific types of events. This is where the simulated Monte Carlo data comes in handy. We impose selection criteria based on the characteristics of the events of interest (called the signal) and designed to reject most other types of events (called the background).

All selection criteria must be defined using only simulated data such as not to bias these criteria. When all is ready, we apply the selection to the real data .

Last but not least: getting the whole collaboration’s approval for these results. The review process is painstaking and trying. Nobody wants to risk putting out a result that would be erroneous so high scrutiny is applied. When everyone is convinced, then the results can be shown publicly.

For us physicists, there is one new added twist: pressure stemming from the public and media interest. We certainly hope to deliver exciting results at the special seminar next week on the eve of the most important physics conference of the year hosted in Melbourne, Australia from 4th-11th July. 

The last data has still to be processed. Until all is finalized, patience will be required. We too are holding our breath.

Pauline Gagnon

To be alerted of new postings, follow me on Twitter: @GagnonPauline or sign-up on this mailing list to receive and e-mail notification.

Two related videos:

Are we there yet? Search for the Higgs boson.

The calm before the storm

And you can even play this game to help the Higgs boson hide from scientists!




The Myth of the Open Mind

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

The race of truly open-minded people is long extinct: To be open minded, I will suspend belief that that tawny blob over there is a leopard. Pounce, chomp, chomp. Even today, natural selection is working to remove the truly open minded from the gene pool: To be opened minded, I will remove any judgment of whether jaywalking and texting at the same time is a good or bad idea. Splat, crumple, crumple. As I said, the race of truly opened minded people is long extinct, if it ever actually existed.

You may complain that I am misrepresenting the concept of open-mindedness. That is probably true. When most people accuse someone of being closed-minded, they mean little more than that the person does not agree with them. Be that as it may, in general, the related concepts of open-mindedness and freedom from preconceived ideas are vastly overrated. But what about in science? Surely in science it is necessary to keep an open mind and eliminate preconceived ideas?  Perhaps, but here is what Henri Poincaré said on the topic:

It is often said that experiments should be made without preconceived ideas. That is impossible. Not only would it make every experiment fruitless, but even if we wished to do so, it could not be done. Every man has his own conception of the world, and this he cannot so easily lay aside. We must, for example, use language, and our language is necessarily steeped in preconceived ideas. Only, they are unconscious preconceived ideas, which are a thousand times the most dangerous of all.

Let’s look at this in a bit more detail. Consider his statement: would it make every experiment fruitless. I have served on many review panels and refereed many proposals. Not one of them was free of preconceived ideas or was truly open minded. I guess such a proposal would begin: To be open-minded to all points of view and to avoid preconceived ideas and prejudice we have used a random number generator to choose the beam species and energy. As I say, I have never seen a proposal like that, but I can easily imagine how it would be treated. Not kindly. Review committees are notoriously closed-minded. They demand that every proposal justify the work based on the current understanding in the field.  The value of an experiment depends on how it relates to the current models in the area. The experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are given meaning by the standard model of particle physics. Every experiment at TRIUMF has to be justified based on what it will tell us, how it fits into the nuclear models.

What about the acceptance of new ideas? Surely, there, we have to be open-minded. Certainly not! Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. This is not a statement of open mindedness. The idea here goes back at least to Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 – 1827): The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness. We saw this closed mindedness play out recently with respect to neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. The initial claim was roundly rejected; the proponents criticized for publishing such a preposterous idea. In this case, the closed-minded people were correct
(they frequently are) as it was subsequently found that there was an experimental error.

Even if we wanted to be, we could not be open-minded. Frederick II (1194 – 1250) is said to have carried out an experiment were he had infants raised without people talking to them to see what the natural language was. What he found was that infants treated this way died. Even independent of that experiment, we know most children are talked to and pick up language and other preconceived ideas from their caregivers. As Poincaré said, language is steeped in preconceived ideas.  A truly open mind free from preconceived ideas is an impossibility.

Continuing Poincaré’s quote: Shall we say, that if we cause others [preconceived ideas] to intervene of which we are fully conscious, that we shall only aggravate the evil? I do not think so. I am inclined to think that they will serve as ample counterpoises — I was almost going to say antidotes. They will generally disagree, they will enter into conflict one with another, and ipso facto, they will force us to look at things under different aspects. This is enough to free us. He is no longer a slave who can choose his master. If you like, we should choose our preconceived ideas and choose them wisely. Then we are in charge, not them.

Open mindedness and freedom from preconceived ideas are only positive in small doses. One has to be open-minded enough to accept the next breakthrough, but not so open-minded as to follow every will-of-the-wisp.  The real genius in science is in knowing when to be open-minded and when to be as stubborn as a mule. It is in knowing which ideas to hold onto and which one to discard.

To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


This blog post is not, not, not about the Higgs boson! Since, as Seth pointed out, there is nothing to say yet. What we do know, however, is that there will be a seminar at CERN on July 4 on the topic. The seminar is at 9 AM CERN time, which is 2 AM in Nebraska and 5 PM in Melbourne, when the ICHEP conference will be having its opening events. That’s where I’ll be that day, and I’m looking forward to watching the video stream with about six hundred of my closest friends in particle physics.

So instead of the Higgs, let’s talk about medieval literature. (Don’t run away yet!) My wife is a medievalist; she has done research on how medieval texts have been read and understood in different since then. Recently she was writing a book review on a new publication in this field, and she observed to me, “My own book is pretty heavily cited in Chapter 3.” That is, the author covered a lot of the same ground that she had already explored. But at least he knew about her work and cited it. Once, when she and I were at a conference of hers together, and one of her friends said over dinner that someone else had written his book — that is, someone else had really covered exactly the same ground, and didn’t even cite him!

This made me wonder — how exactly do we know what is already known in science? I don’t mean this in terms of knowing physical laws, but in knowing what sort of research has already taken place? Before you set out to do an experiment, how can you make sure that you are doing something that no one else has done before? If you are repeating someone else’s work (unknowingly, rather than to make an independent verification), that means that 1) the previous work didn’t get disseminated widely enough and 2) you are wasting your time, effort and money that could be directed at something more original.

I asked one of my colleagues who works in condensed matter physics about this issue, and she said that it can be a problem, but not as much as it used to be. Results in that discipline are published across a huge number of journals, some of which might be quite obscure. You would have to do an extensive literature search to make sure that you really knew what was out there, which could mean that you were very dependent on your university library to have access to all relevant information. However, this has changed thanks to improvements in information technology. Citation indexes have continued to improve, and online searches have made a huge difference in finding out what information is available.

Particle physics has actually been very far ahead of the curve on this, thanks to the hard working people in the Particle Data Group. The PDG’s history dates back to 1958, and since then they have been tracking pretty much every publication and measurement in particle physics. So as a particle physicist, I have never had to do a complicated literature search — I could always just consult the latest Review of Particle Properties (the 2012 edition has just been released) and find the current status of any measured quantity, not to mention the entire publication history behind it.

We should keep in mind that none of this comes for free — the PDG gets support from the US Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, who are also the sponsors of the US LHC blog. But why have we invested money in this data collection effort? I don’t know for sure but I will offer some speculations. I suspect that the original authors, led by Arthur Rosenfeld, didn’t know what they were getting into. At the time, there was a smaller number of particles to keep track of, but a sufficient amount that it seemed worthwhile to have their properties all written down in one place, especially since at that time there was no clear framework for their classification. As information in particle physics grew, collecting it surely became a much more daunting task, and it could not be done by a single person. But there is more to it than that — we like to believe that through successive measurements of a given physical quantity, we are making ever-better estimates of its true value. (Not that that is always so — one can find some interesting counterexamples.) The PDG also does the valuable work of making proper averages of all measurements to determine the most accurate values that can be obtained. The improved precision is needed to more throughly understand physical phenomena, and also to motivate future measurements. So I think that a lot of our rationale for a full accounting of all of the literature is related to our belief that we are really trying to get after something that is truly fundamental in our work.

Now, if there does turn out to be a Higgs boson, and if we do in fact manage to discover it shortly, then we will all be looking for the first “Higgs properties” section to appear in the PDG in 2014!


Is bad science bad for you?

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Yesterday I was flipping through Spirit magazine, the Southwest Airlines publication you find in the seatbackpocketinfrontofyou, waiting for my 6am flight to depart. One headline among the many I skimmed mindlessly woke me up: “A solar powered bikini emits 5 volts of energy.” No, I’m not in the market for a solar powered bikini, which is apparently designed to allow its wearer to charge her iGadgets on the beach. I am, however, an over-traveling, over-educated overly picky scientist who allows herself the mundane pet peeve of incorrect science in media. I wanted to grab the flight attendant and point “energy is not measured in units of volts!!” I decided against it since he had been influential in finding me a prime overhead bin spot earlier, and he probably didn’t edit their magazine. I shook my head and kept reading. An article titled “Life Science” intrigued me a few pages later, and I decided against reading it in case it contained similar errors and would ruin my day. Let me repeat that. I couldn’t find the courage in me to read an article for fear that it contains inaccurate scientific language.

I spent the rest of the flight thinking if I’m justified in my sensitivity to accuracy in the language of science, or if I’m just being arrogant. I’m afraid it’s very much the latter. I know bad science is one of the worst things in the world, not because science is sacred or anything, but because it is a dangerously effective marketing tool and scams people. (I implore everyone to read Ben Goldcare’s brilliant book and listen to his TED talk.) Every scientist and otherwise sensible citizen has the right, even duty, to oppose bad science. It’s a form of lying to the public, usually for monetary gain. It’s wrong on every level – no question about that.

But is it reasonable to take out my frustration with scammers’ using words such as “quantum” incorrectly to market nonsense on an innocent article with an honest error in wording? Am I helping anyone to learn, write and speak better science or merely reinforcing the painfully accurate Ivory Tower stereotype? Would the world be a better place if every article that has as minor a science flaw as this were never written? Would people be more informed about science and math and engineering in that world? It’s clear that most writers, unless they’re specifically trained as science writers, which fashion writers usually aren’t (and need not be!) will not get every SI unit right. So? Would incoming freshmen in your Phys 101 class have fewer misconceptions if it weren’t for the solar powered bikini article? That’s hard to believe. I would like to argue that any article on bikinis that has a connection to something scientific, even if mildly flawed in its wording, is more likely to get people interested in science than the well written science articles that people can’t access for free or can’t follow past paragraph two.

Tonight on my flight back I will read the life science article I was scared of. Maybe it will have something in it that sounds off. Maybe, since I’m not a biologist, I won’t notice this mistake and proceed to have an iota of incorrect information in my brain. I suspect it will not be the end of the world. I also hereby take a pledge to be a little more accepting and a little less judgmental. I realize that its only purpose is reinforcing my self righteousness and justifying the decade (and counting) I devoted to learning physics. It’s not the writers’ fault that I did that! 🙂

I deliberately avoided attempting to explain the difference between voltage and energy until now. I quote below the few lines from the Wikipedia article on Voltage.

Voltage, otherwise known as electrical potential difference or electric tension (denoted ∆V and measured in volts, or joules per coulomb) is the potential difference between two points — or the difference in electric potential energy per unit charge between two points.[1]

So voltage is energy per charge. That was what all the fuss was about?? I know, it sounds silly. I still want to keep teaching physics and hope that more and more people realize the seemingly subtle difference between potential difference and energy. I also know that many people won’t, and my mother will keep using heat and temperature interchangeably. Again, not the end of the world. It’s really easy communicating science to those already attuned to these subtleties. The challenge is to deliver the correct concepts, if not the correct units of every physical quantity, to everyone else. Only if we accept that challenge will we be able to break a very real communication barrier. We have to be able to speak everyone else’s language first, before we can improve it, if they even choose to improve it – it is not mandatory. It’s analogous to learning a new language. If no native English speaker spoke to me when I had difficulty with irregular verbs twenty years ago, I would have never learned to speak it better. Unintentional ‘bad science’ is not bad for science, it might even be good.


There’s an interesting New York Times article out today, titled “New Data on Elusive Particle Shrouded in Secrecy”. The headline is misleading. There’s nothing to keep secret about our Higgs boson search, because we’re simply not done.

It’s true that we looked at some of our preliminary results last Friday. Every part of the search has more to do, and some don’t have their 2012 updates in their final form at all. And we’ve allowed ourselves only two or three weeks to go from first-pass results to the final product!

The article itself actually gets this more or less right:

Right now, most of the physicists doing the work do not even know what they have. In order to avoid bias, the physicists involved avoided looking at most of the crucial data until last week, when they “unblinded” it. About 500 physicists on each team are analyzing eight different ways a Higgs boson, once produced in the collider, might decay and leave its signature.

And, as it quotes Joe Incandela, the spokesperson for my experiment:

Our final [ICHEP] results will not be even seen by the collaboration before the last day of June and then will require the usual final cosmetics for presentation.

So you’ll have to forgive us if we keep quiet for a few more weeks about our results. They’ll be shown at ICHEP in Melbourne, Australia starting on July 4. Here at CERN, we’ll be dealing with the suspense by working on the final answer almost up to the very last minute.