I’ve been thinking about it since this yesterday, and I’ve finally decided to take the plunge: I’m going to say a few words about the blogosphere debate on the CDF “ghost muon” paper. I know that, by the demanding standards of the Internet, this is old news; the posts that started the mess were an eternity ago, last week. In my defense, I have been traveling for the entire time, to Berlin and a few cities in Poland, in what now seems a confused blur of night trains and buses. And in any case, I think my comments are universal enough that they’re worth making even if the debate is starting to die down.
I have relatively little to say about the paper itself, which was submitted last week but is not yet published. Very briefly, the paper discusses a series of particle collisions seen by the CDF detector at the Tevatron Collider at Fermilab that appear to possibly contain muons which decayed from a very long-lived unknown particle — or maybe there’s a less dramatic explanation, and nobody’s figured it out yet exactly. If you haven’t heard about this at all, I strongly recommend you go to Cosmic Variance for a more substantial summary. One very big debate on the paper is whether it ought to have been submitted for publication in its present form; many experts who I know personally say that CDF should have been more careful in investigating the possible sources of the signal before publishing, and much of the CDF collaboration (including my colleagues at Berkeley) chose to take their names off of the paper’s author list. The counter-argument, which won the day in the collaboration’s final decision, is that everything that could be done had been done, and that it was time to send the work out to the wider particle physics community to see if the signal could be understood and duplicated by other experiments.
A second “debate” is much more disturbing, centering on speculation that a group of theorists had written a new theory based on inside information from the paper before it was published. When the group denied this, Tommaso Dorigo (who works on CDF and CMS) accused them point-blank of lying. The exchange, originally in blog comments, is summarized here by Dr. Dorigo. Although he qualifies his accusation a bit, he seems to stand by it and even reiterates it in the process of apologizing.
This kind of in-your-face accusation goes beyond the appropriate boundaries of professional discourse. It seems to stem the bizarrely-prevalent idea that being really obnoxious in public is normal, as long as it’s on the Internet. Would you, dear reader, put up a poster calling your boss an idiot, or give a newspaper interview in which you speculate that one of your coworkers is a liar? No, you wouldn’t! And nothing changes because our job happens to be physics, or the venue happens to be the World Wide Web. Of course we all have the right to free speech, but what we choose to say has consequences; others have the right to choose whether or not to collaborate with me, whether at the personal level or the level of a large-scale experiment, and one thing they can and will think about is whether I’m going to publicly insult them.
One of the theory paper authors, Professor Nima Arkani-Hamed, wrote a several part response to these accusations, but one part of his comment really struck me. It was about the physics blogosphere as a whole: he called it “brown muck” and said that he has “a very dim view of the physics blogosphere, and avoid[s] interacting with it.” Upon reflection, this is a fair comment. Many — though by no means all — of the physics blogs seem to spend a disturbing amount of time on personal “clashes” between “epic” personalities. The ultimate example of this is found in the insults exchanged between Peter Woit and Lubos Motl, each of whom command large opposing followings (at least on the Internet) in the so-called “String Wars.” The problem is that their extreme viewpoints and aggressive tactics don’t reflect what most physicists think about the issues; their drama, like these latest accusations about the ghost muons, is largely manufactured for consumption by the blogosphere.
I would like to think that the US/LHC Blogs offer a different vision, one that falls outside of Dr. Arkani-Hamed’s criticism. We are, first and foremost, an outreach site. We seek to explain the excitement of our work — the wonder of the Laws of Nature we’re trying to investigate, and the fantastic machines that we use for that investigation. Of course we tell you about our lives in the process, to give you an understanding of what our work really involves. We want to explain what our work means to you and why it’s worth your tax dollars, and we want to get young people excited about learning and maybe getting into careers in science. Of course we also have interpersonal conflicts, nasty suspicions, and hallway rumors — just like anybody does — but in my opinion we’re not here to tell you about that stuff for two reasons: first, because all that nonsense is not what’s essential or exciting about our work, and second, because we owe our colleagues (and potential colleagues) the courtesy of not being rude to them in public.
I hope those of you who read our blog are looking for the stories that we think are important to tell; if not, sadly, it appears that you have a wealth of alternatives to choose from. But I have been wondering about something, and in the words of Tommaso Dorigo, “I should like to open a poll for those heroic readers who came to the bottom of this post.” Do you think all this infighting is valuable to know about? Does it help the overall cause of expanding interest in, and knowledge about, our work? (In fairness, Dorigo, Motl, and Woit are also known for writing very informative posts about subjects within their expertise.) Or does the partisan warfare and discourtesy simply serve to distract readers seeking real knowledge?
You know my opinion on those questions, but I’d like to hear yours. Until then, I’ll leave you with the words of Nima Arkani-Hamed: “I’m sure you’ll agree that there is more critical physics to do than there are hours in the day to do it, and I for one would like to get back to work.”