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Should CERN scientists be encouraged to discuss ongoing LHC analyses with the outside world?

By James Dacey

With the International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP in Melbourne just around the corner, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive over whether CERN scientists will be presenting findings that confirm last year’s initial sighting of the long-sought Higgs boson.

ICHEP will start on 4 July and will include presentations by scientists working on the two major experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that are searching for the Higgs particle: CMS and ATLAS. It is presumed that these researchers will be discussing new data that either support or destroy the bumps that appeared in the datasets of both CMS and ATLAS last December, which both corresponded to a Higgs particle with an energy of roughly 125 GeV/c2.

Speculation about the state of play in the LHC analysis has been going on via the usual suspects in the blogosphere. This includes the mathematical physicist Peter Woit, based at Colombia University in the US, who writes in this post about how he has heard from both CMS and ATLAS that they are seeing data that strengthen the bump from last year. Meanwhile, the independent physicist Philip Gibbs, located in the UK, ponders the statistical significance of the new results. He concedes that he does not know how much new data have been analysed but speculates that if both experiments have reached the gold-standard “5-sigma significance” then they will not be able to resist combining their results for the Melbourne conference. If they do indeed do this, then by the standards of particle physics they will effectively be announcing the Higgs discovery in Australia.

Interestingly, there has been little on the blogs from the LHC researchers themselves over these latest developments in the Higgs hunt. CMS physicist Tommaso Dorigo, who is never usually one to shy away from informed speculation, prefers to discuss predictions for the existence of the Higgs made in 2010. Another CMS research and blogger, Seth Zenz, actively tries to ward off speculation. He is critical of the New York Times for running a recent article with the headline, “New data on elusive particle shrouded in secrecy”. Zenz says that there is nothing to hide and he asks politely if we can all wait patiently for another couple of weeks for the ICHEP conference.

The extent to which this silence is CERN-sanctioned is unclear, but it does appear that LHC scientists have a (possibly unspoken) agreement to keep quiet about their analyses with the outside world. You could argue of course that there are very good reasons for this, not least because this is an incredibly important and busy time in their scientific careers that requires complete focus.

From a scientific communication point of view, I reckon you could argue it both ways. On the one hand it will be a lot “neater” to wait until the finding is beyond any doubt before announcing the discovery to great fanfare, embarking on the Higgs boson grand tour, scripting the Hollwood film, etc. But on the other hand, by depriving the general public of your thoughts (and by this I mean depriving anyone who is not involved with the LHC), you are depriving them of a fantastic insight into how science really works. As any researcher knows, the scientific process is messy. It’s about carefully tweaking experiments and rigorously testing statistical data. So, for CERN to remain quiet while it carefully choreographs a public discovery announcement could create a false impression of science as a series of “Eureka moments” occurring among a secret society of knowledgeable folk.

Let us know what you think in this week’s Facebook poll.

Should CERN scientists be encouraged to discuss ongoing LHC analyses with the outside world?

Yes, they should discuss the scientific process in the open
No, they should wait until conclusions are firmly established

Let us know by visiting our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your choice by posting a comment on the poll.

hands smll.jpg

In last week’s poll we asked you to place yourself in a scenario that could soon become a reality for a few certain people if the Higgs boson is confirmed. We asked you tell us what you think would be the best thing about winning a Nobel prize, by selecting one from a list of options. People responded as follows:

The recognition that my field would receive (43%)
Freedom to do the science that I want to do (30%)
Securing a place in the history of science (17%)
I wouldn’t want to win (6%)
The fame and all that comes with it (3%)

The poll also attracted some interesting comments, including some alternative benefits that could come from winning the prize. Alan Saeed wrote: “I think the most rewarding part of a Nobel prize is the inspiration that it will infuse in the young minds of the country from where the recipients came”. Robert Ley, in the UK, made the good point that: “It would be interesting to see if this poll returns the same result if the votes were made anonymously!” One commenter, who probably wouldn’t be altered by anonymity, is Alan Timme who wrote (possibly with his tongue in cheek) that the best thing about a Nobel prize would be: “Rubbing it in the face of my doubters!”.

Thank you for all your comments and we look forward to hearing from you in this week’s poll.

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