The trouble with… talking about physics March 9, 2007Posted by dorigo in Blogroll, internet, personal, physics, politics, science.
The New Scientist article about Higgs bumps did get me into some trouble, although not of the kind I could have predicted.
While I was away on vacation a few days ago, the article I discussed earlier this week appeared, and it caused concern among some of my collaborators. A few of them thought I had disclosed restricted CDF information to the reporter, maybe to try showing I was a more important person than I am, others found the claims unsupported and damaging to the image of our collaboration.
I did find that the article contained several inaccuracies, and I was not pleased by the misquoting of my thoughts, but I was enjoying my vacation in Mexico too much to feel concerned. However, I failed to realize that the article had hurt the feelings of those who feel that CDF plots and results, while blessed and approved for public consumption, must not be discussed privately by members of the collaboration – the more so if while doing that one embarks in speculative remarks.
Of course, I do not share that view. I believe that doing outreach, explaining physics results to non-physicists, is very important, and that is my motivation to keep running this blog. I do not think I harm CDF if I explain how they measured the top production mechanism, as I did yesterday, for instance.
At any rate, I must respect my colleagues’ views. And to be honest, I was indeed partly responsible for the rumor which ended up causing interest in New Scientist and other magazines. I could have been a bit more careful: if I had been, probably the final result would have been the same for all practical purposes, but my name would not have appeared in the article, and I would have been free from criticism of any kind from my peer.
So, I decided today I would come clean with my CDF collaborators, apologizing for what I thought was my share of guilt in the appearance of the New Scientist article. By writing an apology of sorts in the CDF internal newsgroup, I wanted to show I can accept criticism, and I feel no shame in admitting a mistake, even if I think it was a quite innocent one. All for one interest: the well-being of the CDF collaboration, one of the longest experiments ever – 25 years and counting! Indeed, Long Live CDF.
Before I go to the text I wrote in the CDF forum today, let me tell you what is the real trouble I got in, which was unexpected, as I wrote above. While I was away, my colleagues in Padova got concerned not so much by the article, but by the reaction of CDF to it, and the possibility of being fingered by the collaboration as sharing the guilt with the perpetrator – me. I find that strange, because I think our CDF collaborators outside Padova know me rather well, for good or bad, and showed several times in the past they could tell apart my own views -at times, radical- from that of a renowned, esteemed group as CDF-Padova. Anyways, in an act which I consider rather peculiar, the leader of my group in Padova wasted no time, and sent a mail message to some of the collaborators who had expressed concern, disclaiming liability of the group for what had happened, but by doing so casting it on me, without just process.
I really got upset to find out I had been kept out of the loop: I had received no mail message warning that there was a situation to take care of, or asking for my opinion, or telling me to take action; nor phone calls (my cell phone does work in Mexico). The mail message, although not urgent, was written while letting me in the dark. I was put in carbon-copy at fait accompli, that was all.
Now, the trouble is that I find this unacceptable, but for some reason my colleagues think this is normal. I of course want to keep a good relationship with each and every one of my colleagues in Padova, but ensuring that something like what has happened will never happen again will require some talking – and time spent arguing is never well spent.
Ok. Now that you know the story, here is the text I wrote in the CDF news forum today.
I wish to offer an apology to those of you who, having read the recent New Scientist article about the Higgs boson, have felt outraged by the claims contained there.
Let me state straight away that the apology is coming directly from myself – I received no formal complaints, nor did anybody twist my arm to write here or the like, thank God.
And let me also say first that the inaccuracies, the blatant mistakes, the quoting me out of context, and the wrong identification of myself as the leader of a group (Julien Donini is the leader of the group who did the Z->bb analysis) contained in the article are not my fault, but the result of a rather aggressive reporter’s will to make things more intriguing than they are.
I was indeed partly responsible, together with other bloggers, commenters, theorists and experimentalists who spend time on the internet to discuss physics, of the spreading of a rumor in the internet, which eventually percolated up to the press. Of that I apologize – my aim was that of getting readers interested in the physics that we do in HEP, and the discussions on the Higgs were part of a long series of posts where I have been discussing the tricks of bump hunting and the pitfalls one has to avoid, a series which had started in November last year in my blog. I did not imagine back then that we would get the attention of New Scientist, the Economist, or whatever. I think I know better now.
I apologize because I know some of you felt betrayed. But I did not show or disclose unblessed material in my blog – that I do not really want to do. My biggest sin, if you ask me, is that I did post a blowup of a blessed plot, to show some points in a data-fit dancing around the fit line, to make a point in a post. And discussing a feature of that plot that CDF had not discussed during the blessing process (fortunately, I should add, since it is indeed irrelevant).
Now, I know that besides this incident with New Scientist, a bubble which will soon blow leaving no scar, some of my colleagues – like L.[edited], with which I had an amicable exchange of emails on the subject – think that even blessed CDF material should not be discussed in any way in a blog, not even for a didactical purpose. Some feel this is okay but it may only happen after a conference has given the authors the opportunity to discuss their work; well, it looks like there is even those who think that upon being a member of CDF I have a blood pact which prevents me from having a private life which includes a private blog where, along with pictures of my kids, I post hot new results trying to make them digestible to the occasional non-physicist.
I am open to discuss the matter with any of you. I can be stubborn and I indeed have in the past within our collaboration, but I am a good listener, and I am sure I can learn from different opinions, maybe even how to behave.When last December I posted the blessed W mass result, and soon thereafter I was explained that the authors wanted to keep the number secret until the wine and cheese talk, I did take everything off my blog until after the talk. I want to keep blogging about physics because I think it is important to do outreach, something I realized better when I was offered to be part of Quantum Diaries in 2005, and I touched with my hand the sore need for a gap filler between scientific journals and sports magazines. And, to keep blogging, I do not need your consent, but I appreciate it, and I surely wish to avoid getting the enmity of my peer.So, to summarize: I think that explaining new results to the general public is a good idea. If you think this is okay for CDF, but you believe that the blogging steals something from the authors, and you are not unconcerned with the lack of outreach in our daily job, I have an offer to make.
If you bless your analysis, and you are willing to write about it, keeping the explanations at a level similar to that of Fermilab Today “result of the week” or just a bit more detailed, I am happy to host you in my blog. It is not a very high-traffic site, but it is one of the few sites where experimental HEP results are discussed for the benefit of laymen.