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Information control from CERN January 27, 2009

Posted by dorigo in news, physics, science.
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A piece by Matthew Chalmers titled “CERN: the view from inside” has appeared yesterday on Physics World’s web site. It is an insightful interview to James Gillies, head of communications at CERN.

The interview focuses mostly on the media coverage of the LHC startup of last September 10th, and the steps that made it a global success, with an estimated exposure of one billion people. The point is made that now “LHC” can be used out of context without problems, but I hope the revenues to science are larger than that.

More interesting to us science bloggers is the description of how information on the September 19th incident was provided by CERN, and the measures that were put in place to prevent unwanted, uncontrolled news from leaking out in blogs and other unauthorized media. The LHC logbook was edited, pictures of the incident were password-protected. I do not think this is too worrysome: the management decided it was the best thing to do under the exceptional circumstances, and I do not blame them for being tight.

The piece ends up discussing the restrictive policy of the lab and its experiments to blogging. The point is made that unconfirmed rumors damage science, but the matter is not really discussed in detail in any way. People keep claiming that discussion of unconfirmed signals is nocuous to Science, but I continue to hear that it is nocuous to their interests. Do director generals want to be the ones releasing important lab information to protect us, or to protect their chair ? Do principal investigators insist that results are released only after a publication is sent to the journal to avoid waves of imprecise physics from being distributed to unarmed citizens, or to increase their exposure when they make an announcement ?

I insist on being naive on this matter. I think that scientific results on basic science do not belong to their discoverers, nor to the experimental collaboration: they, as much as the data they are based upon, belong to the people.

In the Physics World interview, Gillies claims that the lab will act to counter the public discussion of not-yet-confirmed three-sigma effects (the article  mentions this corresponds to a “less than 1% chance for a statistical fluke”, but I guess it was Matthew to get this inaccurate to simplify matters for his numerically-challenged audience -the probability  is actually 0.3%). Well, I think the laboratory will have to be very careful to get down to the level of bloggers: the CERN management seems to talk and think as if blogging was a controllable phenomenon, but believe me, it ain’t. Not until they close the whole internet thing down.

In May 2007 an anonymous comment left in my blog on a large signal of supersymmetric Higgs decays seen by the D0 collaboration in events with four b-quark jets started a runaway phenomenon which ended on the New York Times and on Slate, plus other media around the world. The D0 collaboration was not happy about it, but what could they do ? The answer is simple: nothing. I wonder whether the CERN experiments have aces up their sleeves instead…

Comments

1. Daniel de França MTd2 - January 27, 2009

Hi Tommaso,

in that post you said you were extremely skeptical about the anonymous post. What made you feel less skeptical?

2. Luboš Motl - January 27, 2009

So scientific results belong to the people?

Is that supposed to hold for all ideas, including the recent ones? And the discoverers should only get from the people what they need to live?

Wow. I hope that at least, you will agree that this is called communism. A hardcore one which killed 50 million people.

3. cormac - January 27, 2009

Interesting post…my own concern is silghtly different. It concerns how a spurious story of BH creation was allowed to dominate the airwaves. I think this was a good example of how professional scientists and science organisations still have much to learn about public relations

4. dorigo - January 27, 2009

Daniel, what makes you think I am less sceptical ? I always said it was a complicated analysis and I did not believe there was a signal there…

Hah Lubos, why don’t you try to put together an argument against those ideas, rather than attaching a label to them such that you can classify them in the proper folder without using your brain ? You can surely do better.

Cormac, the BH hype did catch the CERN management a bit by surprise. It did catch all by surprise, in fact, so I would not blame them for that.

Cheers all,
T.

5. Alejandro Rivero - January 27, 2009

I’d say that the point of view that ideas -includig recent ones- belong to the community is held beyond comunism. Most systems have laws for intellectual property and for patent law which are closer to the laws for the use of common forests or grazing pastures that to the laws of property.

6. Guess Who - January 27, 2009

If it’s work for hire, it belongs to those who paid to have it done. In publicly funded research, that’s the tax payers. There may be ulterior considerations if the research in question has security implications (e.g. is weaponizable) but the idea that a civilian, publicly funded research facility like CERN should withhold information from those who pay for it is just bizarre.

(It would of course seem quite natural to Soviet style communists, who were big on keeping all kinds of things secret from their own people.)

7. Dag - January 27, 2009

[…]In the Physics World interview, Gillies claims that the lab will act to counter the public discussion of not-yet-confirmed three-sigma effects (the article mentions this corresponds to a “less than 1% chance for a statistical fluke”, but I guess it was Matthew to get this inaccurate to simplify matters for his numerically-challenged audience -the probability is actually 0.3%).[…]

Well, I suppose we are talking about a 3 sigma excess over background here. Then the relevant probability is actually 0.15% (prob. for a 3 sigma upward fluctuation).

8. dorigo - January 27, 2009

Well said, Alejandro, and good point, GW. In fact, that is exactly what I think: scientists are doing a service to the community, not to themselves. They are paid by the taxpayers, like it or not… (usually scientists do like it, while taxpayers don’t, but that’s a detail!)

But Dag, usually three-sigma is 0.3% because we integrate the probability distribution of a one-sided Gaussian. That is to say, we know we would not bother to assess the probability of a negative fluctuation of backgrounds, in a search for a signal on top of it. Are you in HEP ? If you are, you know that what I say is not the rule, of course; but it is a common practice.

Cheers,
T.

9. Chris - January 27, 2009

Well, the thing that ticked me off the most is the experiments were expecting first collisions, so for that not to happen and then the LHC people shutting up is disheartening. With this many physicists on an experiment, they become part of the ‘public’ in some ways, and it’s utterly shocking to be told you can’t know something directly related to your own job.

dorigo - January 28, 2009

Yes Chris, even the experimenters belonging to CMS and ATLAS to some extent were left out of the loop. I did not like it then, but I guess we have to play ball… And just a thought: those who work in experiments that get airborne by NASA must feel orders of magnitude more frustrated -they are totally out of the decision circle on what and when things are launched etcetera. So HEP physicists at CERN should remind themselves they are privileged in some way!

Cheers,
T.

10. Luboš Motl - January 27, 2009

Dear Tommaso, there are no arguments you want to hear. These disagreements are about the basic values. But let me remind you of them, anyway.

Discoverers are owners of the valuable ideas they discover, they deserve the credit, they deserve the profit coming out of this credit, and they deserve to be celebrated by generations of science fans and others.

The situation is completely analogous to the ownership of any other thing. The private ownership of these things is both a moral principle per se as well as a crucial motivation that makes the potential discoverers – and capitalists – care. It partly motivates them to work. If the profit of the people were the only positive thing for them and they would have nothing person-specific out of the discoveries, they would almost certainly leave it to others.

They must have the pleasure of finding things out, which is a private feeling, not a feeling that belongs to the people, and this pleasure has additional consequences that belong to the individuals, too.

If a scientist has a contract with someone who funds him – or “the people” – this contract would be completely counterproductive both for the sponsor and the payee if it didn’t depend on what the scientist actually finds. If a worker is doing a mechanical work according to a contract, the results of the work may be directly compensated and become the property of a company (or a society).

But the more unequal and unpredictable the discoveries of a scientist are – and they are unpredictable especially in the basic research – the more they have to belong to the actual individual(s) who did it. Otherwise the system inevitably deteriorates much like any other communist system in any human activity – isn’t it obvious?

What I am saying is not just a “label”. It is a crisp and accurate description what you proposed. It is, by definition, a form of communism and communism is a catastrophe. This sentence is no simplification of any kind that could be humiliated or marginalized. It is an essential truth about the world – and unfortunately an experimentally proven one.

dorigo - January 28, 2009

But Lubos, when you say “If a scientist has a contract with someone who funds him – or “the people” – this contract would be completely counterproductive both for the sponsor and the payee if it didn’t depend on what the scientist actually finds”, don’t you see you are picturing the exact situation of many scientists doing HEP ? They are paid with taxpayers money to do research, and their salary does not depend on whether they discover the Higgs or a high-resistance point between two magnets.
Cheers,
T.

11. carlbrannen - January 27, 2009

I bet Luboš’s argument will depend on whose ox is gored. He may argue differently when it comes to evidence used to justify global warming fears. Maybe it makes a difference when you are telling the world that “billions of people are going to die unless you listen to our advice” while at the same time refusing to release your data and models because you want to maintain an advantage in academia.

Meanwhile, Phys Math Central rejected my application for a waiver of fees writing “I am afraid that we are unable to grant a waiver on this occasion as you have not provided us with sufficient enough information as to why you are requesting a waiver (lack of funds etc)” So I’ve written to them that I am poor, perhaps this will resolve the issue.

12. CERN: The View From Inside « Not Even Wrong - January 28, 2009

[…] Dorigo has a new post up on Information control from CERN, where he discusses a Physics World interview by Matthew Chalmers of the head of communications at […]

13. dorigo - January 28, 2009

Hi Carl,

did you send them the voucher ? They are expected to honor it.
Let me know,
T.

14. Thomas Larsson - January 28, 2009

Ownership of intellectual property by university employees is a thorny business. E.g., Harvard’s patent policy appears to be described in this document.

15. Nige - January 28, 2009

‘I think that scientific results on basic science do not belong to their discoverers, nor to the experimental collaboration: they, as much as the data they are based upon, belong to the people.’ – Tommaso

‘Discoverers are owners of the valuable ideas they discover, they deserve the credit, they deserve the profit coming out of this credit, and they deserve to be celebrated by generations of science fans and others.

‘The situation is completely analogous to the ownership of any other thing. The private ownership of these things is both a moral principle per se as well as a crucial motivation that makes the potential discoverers – and capitalists – care. It partly motivates them to work. If the profit of the people were the only positive thing for them and they would have nothing person-specific out of the discoveries, they would almost certainly leave it to others.

‘They must have the pleasure of finding things out, which is a private feeling, not a feeling that belongs to the people, and this pleasure has additional consequences that belong to the individuals, too.’ – Luboš

I always believed in the romantic tale that scientists were beyond the corruption of monetary prizes and rewards, because were just seeking factual knowledge. (E.g., the tales of Copernicus and Galileo being in trouble for heresy, and getting relatively little in the way of prizes, money, or public praise. They didn’t ‘leave it to others’ because it was financially unprofitable!) Politics, warfare and even sadly some sports are, by contrast, competitive races, where people want to win big prizes and fame by way of beating their human opponents.

Luboš is correct, and science is mainly motivated by capitalist greed, just like everything else. It’s interesting that the communist U.S.S.R. succeeded with the first satellite Sputnik and the first man in space. Presumably the scientists behind those advances were motivated by other considerations than fame and money. But it’s a nice finishing touch that – after first making the case for science being a capitalist activity – Luboš then adds that scientists should also derive some pleasure just from making discoveries.

dorigo - January 28, 2009

Nige, I object, and what you say is not corroborated by the slightest piece of evidence, as far as HEP goes.
Please provide some if you can. Scientists are human beings and they of course seek a decent salary. I can give you my example, though: in the US in 2000 I was offered 42,000 US$/year to work as a post-doc, but I chose to go back with a similar post-doc position in Italy, where I got a salary more than three times lower. Yes, three times. I did it because I liked more what I would have been doing in Italy as far as research went. Am I an exception to the rule ? Maybe, but the people around me in HEP are generally not moved by greed. Many do seek responsibility positions, but in most instances they do it because they genuinely believe they can do a better job than others there.
Cheers,
T.

16. Nige - January 28, 2009

‘Scientists are human beings and they of course seek a decent salary.’

Hi Tommaso, I’m sorry you found something unsatisfactory. I don’t think you are inspired by capitalist motives. But generally mainstream science is changed from the situation where Dalton, Einstein and others could work as teachers or patent examiners and do physics as a spare-time hobby, making little money from it. I agreed with Luboš that nowadays, if scientists gained ‘nothing person-specific out of the discoveries, they would almost certainly leave it to others’, because I think high energy theoretical physics is losing its momentum. It’s great that you enjoy your work, and were prepared to take a much lower salary to do the scientific research you wanted to do.

17. carlbrannen - January 28, 2009

Tommaso,
I still have the voucher. They have not asked me to mail it to them. It seems strange that they would want that when they are entirely electronic submission.

After pleading poverty, I’ve not yet heard back from them.

Later today, I will go to a meeting with the governor’s energy czar talking about financing our (now cellulosic) ethanol plant so it’s possible that I won’t be poor soon.

18. Anonymous - January 28, 2009

“Is that supposed to hold for all ideas, including the recent ones? And the discoverers should only get from the people what they need to live?”

Lubos – you forget one tiiiiiiiiny little bit: limited periods for copyrights and patents.

Personally, I think it’s perfectly OK to hold exclusive rights over your discoveries. For a limited time, like 2-3 years after which it enters public domain.

For an example, look at pharma industry – effective time for exclusive drug production is about 5-7 years. So it forces drug companies to constantly develop new drugs while giving us an advantage of generics for most of necessary drugs.

19. dorigo - January 29, 2009

Hi Nige,

of course scientists who excel gain reputation, fame, and ultimately even money -or at least access to resources which eventually lead to more money, like books, conferences, prizes. But I do not believe that the average scientist is moved by a desire for personal gain, period. The average scientist, as I know him or her, is a person who loves the work he or she is doing.

Carl, you should reply to PMCA that you received the voucher from me, and that you want to redeem it for the publication you are submitting. They cannot refuse. If you encounter further problems, let me know and they’ll get a bad phone call.

Anon, experiments like CERN allow people to fiddle with proton-proton collisions that users would be unable to get otherwise. The data is not property of the experimenters in any way, so it is a malpractice if the users benefit from it without the funding agents getting a similar return. So I do not see it as a problem of copyright. Besides, in particle physics there is little if anything at all that can be copyrighted…

Cheers,
T.

20. Markk - January 29, 2009

“If a scientist has a contract with someone who funds him – or “the people” – this contract would be completely counterproductive both for the sponsor and the payee if it didn’t depend on what the scientist actually finds. If a worker is doing a mechanical work according to a contract, the results of the work may be directly compensated and become the property of a company (or a society).

But the more unequal and unpredictable the discoveries of a scientist are – and they are unpredictable especially in the basic research – the more they have to belong to the actual individual(s) who did it. Otherwise the system inevitably deteriorates much like any other communist system in any human activity – isn’t it obvious?”

Hah? As a funder of science and many other jobs through taxes I am buying the possibility of results and the results and the effort to find and announce them. The scientists involved get my money to live on and the respect and recognition of making discoveries. They do not own any “intellectual property” (what a communistic idea actually – using the government to force private individuals to not use information as they wish). I would own that having paid for it. If you want to keep the results yourself or control them, then get the funding yourself in the true capitalistic way.

21. Anonymous - January 29, 2009

“Anon, experiments like CERN allow people to fiddle with proton-proton collisions that users would be unable to get otherwise. The data is not property of the experimenters in any way, so it is a malpractice if the users benefit from it without the funding agents getting a similar return. So I do not see it as a problem of copyright. Besides, in particle physics there is little if anything at all that can be copyrighted…”

I know. However, other projects work differently. For example, most of data from the Hubble telescope is proprietary for one year (or slightly more, it’s decided on case-by-case basis) after its acquisition and ‘belongs’ to the PI of the experiment.

In the end, it’s a question of balance. You need to lobby for years to insert your project into the Hubble’s schedule, then you wait for it to obtain data. And now imagine that some other team jumps in and publishes a paper based on your data before you.

Obviously, situation is very different in particle physics.

But still, I’m completely OK with _limited_ copyright-like rules. Of course, it’s insane to use life-of-author+100 years copyright terms for science data.

22. carlbrannen - January 30, 2009

The trend has been for the term of intellectual property rights to extend to longer and longer periods. Back when the US was founded, patents were for 14 years. That was a time of wooden ships, slavery, and animals used as transportation. A hundred years could go by without much of a technological change.

Now technology changes completely in 14 years but the terms for patents in the US has been extended to 17 to 20 years. It’s ridiculous. The basic problem is that there are a very small number of people who make a lot of money from patents and they have perverted the law to their ends, at the expense of the public at large. Similar things have happened with copyrights.

Tommaso, PMC has accepted the waiver. Apparently there was some miscommunication. I’m guessing that they didn’t have very many people turn in papers and mine might possibly have been the first using a waiver.

23. anonymous - January 31, 2009

In the interests of being a troublemaker, and as an uncontrolled sociological experiment, here is a site for discussing such rumors. Of course, it will only serve to make trouble if people use it.

24. dorigo - February 1, 2009

Hi anon,

glad to see that the net is indeed evolving the way its equations of state predict. I do not think physicists will break the rules of discretion of their experiments just for fun, but I do think the CERN director general is up for a few surprises, as are the spokespersons of the main experiments, if they believe they can really control what gets discussed around.

Cheers,
T.

25. buffalo chip - February 2, 2009

Who owns a result enabled by the hard work of a cast of thousands?

Communism is certainly the tradition in large HEP collaborations. Everybody who contributes gets their name on the paper, and eventually the result is subsumed into the Review of Particle Properties, and original authors aren’t even referenced.

This tradition probably has contributed to the view of many contemporary theorists that experimentalists are dopes. The feeling tends to be mutual, however.

One of the really hilarious ideas in the past few years was that particle theorists needed $10 million and their own `Physics Frontier’ center to learn how high energy experiment works. Simply taking some time and working in an experimental collaboration for a few months or a year was too demeaning to the theorists.

dorigo - February 2, 2009

Hi Buffalo,

the PDG does reference original papers with the measurements, but I see your point.
Cheers,
T.

26. buffalo chip - February 2, 2009

Yup T., I phrased badly. Yes, my point is that non-experts just default to a reference to the RPP/PDG, and don’t bother to go back to the original paper. So citation statistics in Experimental HEP are inaccurate. best, Bchip


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