The Higgs rumor spreads again June 5, 2007Posted by dorigo in Blogroll, internet, italian blogs, news, personal, physics, politics, science.
The recent rumor about a possible MSSM Higgs signal, which made its way on electronic media starting from a comment on this blog after having been passed mouth to ear for a while among HEP experimentalists, has now spread wide through blogs (for instance in Not Even Wrong , in the Arcadian Functor, in Charm & c. ( twice), in Asymptotia , in the Quantum Pontiff, in Bad Astronomy, and apologies to those I missed), online journals ( Slate, the Center for Science Writings), and the like.
The tentative signal allegedly seen by the D-zero experiment at the Tevatron might be significant – some unverified sources talk about 4- to 5-sigma deviations. But it might just as well (or certainly, if you ask yours truly) be a fluctuation, a incorrect modeling of multiple heavy flavor production backgrounds, or a combination of both effects.
We have already seen the very same propagation mechanism at work a few months ago, after blog posts commenting another tentative MSSM Higgs signal seen this time by CDF (on a different final state) made ripples in the web. Therefore, we are in the pleasant position of having a good shot at predicting the future, creating for ourselves the possibility to sit back and observe the predictable unpredictability of the propagation of information in this inordinate beginning of the twentyfirst century.
Let us learn from the past. It took about five weeks before the New Scientist published the story of the possible observation of Higgs decays to tau-lepton pairs and the alleged ensuing rumors that the particle could be seen – if it existed – in other datasets. From then on, things snowballed with a piece on the Economist and quite a few articles on daily and weekly newspapers of regional interest.
On that occasion, however, there was a rock-hard core of news to base the story on (or, as journalists would see it, to build the story around): the tau-lepton pair signal was public, had been presented at a international conference, and the CDF collaboration was standing behind it as a single man. In the present case, instead, the ripples in the blogosphere have started from nothing more than a rumor: we lack, in this case, of a real notitia criminis.
Will journalists manage to build the story around nothing this time ? I think so, because the topic is red-hot. LHC versus Tevatron, Europe vs the US, a multi-billion-dollar investment at risk of being left without anything else to discover. And more: the diffusion of scientific information in the 21st century, the loyalty of members of giant collaborations and the impossibility to keep things secret, the sociological implications when even larger collaborations at CERN will start publishing. Plus, of course, the physics issue: is the Standard Model alive ? Will Supersymmetry be found ? What does Witten say ? (The latter, admittedly, is more like something string theory novices would ask themselves than a meaningful question from a science writer.)
I have no idea how long it may take D-zero to produce a preliminary result from their multi-b analysis. I believe it will be ready for summer conferences, which means a time-scale of about six more weeks. Will science magazines be willing to wait ? Hmmm. I bet there already are a few investigations ongoing (but I swear I personally have not been contacted by the press yet). So my prediction is that this story is going to appear on printed paper at least somewhere , just in time to match the public release of D-zero findings – mid-July most probably.
Eventually, though, this will bubble out as everything else. This prediction is much easier to make: I am convinced that the signal is an artifact even without having seen it, by just studying the previous paper by D-zero – but I admittedly base my idea on the belief that supersymmetry is a nice, bold, incorrect theory.
There remains to discuss whether all these rumors are good, bad, or irrelevant for the progress of science and the well-being of high-energy physics. My opinion ? Getting mediatic attention is good for science. And while it is true that crying wolf too many times gets the general public bored, funding agencies, however, know better. Hell, the committees are formed by smart people, not ordinary Joes who cannot distinguish an official result from their own fart, if you pardon my French. So I am not in the least moved by the anxiety of those stiff-necks that are ready to point their fingers at rumor-spreading as if it was the reason for their failure to get grants, rather than their ineptitude. Particle physics will out-live just as well their irrelevant contribution as the wild rumors they blame.