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And the winner is…

By Matin Durrani

For those of you wondering where we get all our ideas for news stories on from, well obviously we have a bulging contacts book, we scour many of the leading journals, and we keep tabs on all of the key scientific experiments, facilities and space missions.

But, like all journalists, we do rely as well on press releases, including those supplied by the Alphagalileo service, which lists many of the latest releases from institutions in Europe, and those from a similar US-based service called EurekAlert! from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Now, EurekAlert! has revealed which press releases posted on its website were looked at most by journalists during 2010.

Nine of the top 10 were in biology and the biosciences, but the winner is one related to physics.

Curiously, it has nothing to do with anything that we at would regard as all that significant – say the search for extrasolar planets or the hunt for the Higgs – and it certainly didn’t come anywhere near to making our list of the top 10 breakthroughs of 2010.

No, the top press released accessed by journalists on EurekAlert! was on a relatively obscure branch of physics. It concerned evidence, presented in the journal Science, that an unusual form of symmetry known as E8 – which a small number physicists believe underlies a theory of everything – may have been spotted in a solid material for the first time.


We wrote about the paper at the time in January last year, which you can read here.

The paper may have proved so popular because it claimed to have shown that this 8D symmetry group describes the spectrum of spin configurations that emerge when a 1D chain of spins is chilled to near absolute zero and subjected to a specific magnetic field. The finding also suggested that the idea of a “golden mean” – previously only seen in mathematics and the arts – also exists in solid matter on the nanoscale.

But – and I’m guessing here – it may actually have been because journalists remember a controversial (and unrefereed) paper on E8, entitled “An exceptionally simple theory of everything” by an obscure, independent physicist called Garret Lisi, who is a keen surfer and does not follow a conventional academic life. Those traits – and some pretty pictures associated with E8 symmetry – led to a fair amount of press coverage, and far more than many string theorists felt, and still feel, it deserves.

In their view, this latest accolade from EurekAlert! will probably only make the situation worse.

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One comment to And the winner is…

  1. Michael Duff

    Being an article most cited by scientists would indeed be an ”accolade”; being an article most accessed by journalists is not quite the same thing, Matin.
    Experimental evidence for the group E8 is certainly of interest to physicists and mathematicians. But you guess that the journalists’ motives were to fuel yet more press coverage for a story of their own creation: the supposed success of Garrett Lisi’s ”Theory of Everything”. You may well be right but, given that Lisi’s claim ”to unify all the fields of the standard model” has been proved to be mathematically false (Feedback March 2011), it is a sad reflection on the state of science journalism.
    So you are no doubt correct when you say that many string theorists feel this coverage of Lisi is undeserved. String and M-theorists may also be disappointed that the discoveries of E8 in eleven-dimensional supergravity in 1979, of E8 xE8 in string theory in 1984 and more recent (peer-reviewed) papers on E8, E9, E10, E11 go unmentioned by Physics World. They may also regret that while your blog gave Lisi yet another plug, it failed to say that the E8 effect reported by the experimentalists was first predicted in 1988 by Alexander Zamolodchikov (who is, by the way, a string theorist).
    However, I think you are underestimating your readership if you think that dissatisfaction is confined to string theorists. All who value science expect The Institute of Physics to put mathematical truth above public relations. AS IOP President Jocelyn Bell said recently ”Pay us for exploding scientific myths”.


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