Friday, April 8, 2011

Another breathless science story for the blogosphere to open a skeptical can of whup-ass on?

The BBC reports that researchers at the Tevatron particle accelerator in Illinois are claiming the possible discovery of a new high-energy particle not predicted by current formulations of the Standard Model. It's not nearly high enough energy to be the Higgs-Boson, so they are thinking it's something completely unanticipated.

Now I am not a particle physicist, but this smelled fishy to me right off the bat, even before I remembered the whole story with Tevatron. Extraordinary claims, and all that. There are surely many refinements to be made in our understanding of particle physics, and the precise energy of the expected Higgs-Boson particle is of course highly uncertain. But a completely unanticipated particle, that would be... well, highly unanticipated. These things happen, of course, but it would take a lot of convincing, and even the researchers themselves agree they have not met the required uncertainty threshold yet.

But there's more. The BBC was extremely remiss in failing to point out in the article that Tevatron is scheduled to cease operations this September, unless they somehow miraculously secure an extension of their federal funding. The reason given is that it has been "made obsolete" by the Large Hadron Collider. Oh, and lookie, the scientist they quote casting a skeptical eye on this discovery works on the LHC. Hmmmmm, are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Again, I am not a particle physicist, but it seems obvious to me that this is what's going on:

The Tevatron folks are desperate. They feel they can still do useful work (and for what it's worth I agree; see below) and yet the whole project is going to be shut down in less than six months.

Now, the folks at these particle accelerators comb through a lot of data. As a recent XKCD graphically illustrates, the more data you are going through, the higher your chances of false positives. The standard of certainty for these guys isn't p < 0.05, it's p < 0.00001 (I think I counted the right number of zeroes... 5-sigma certainty). Tony Weidberg, the guy from the LHC project, is quoted as saying, "every few years we get these three-sigma [p < 0.001] effects..." (That is the certainty level being claimed by the Tevatron researchers at present.)

So a shade over five months from Doomsday, the Tevatron data fortuitously happens to show one of these three-sigma blips. In a desperate gambit to garner public exposure for the (still very useful!) work they do, they decide to go public with it right away, with breathless claims of a possible new particle. If their plan works, there is an initial spike of popular support for the Tevatron effort, which barely diminishes when (as not reported prominently in the mainstream media) the blip turns out to be nothing. Hell, maybe they can even leverage some of the populist jingoism we are so afflicted with these days -- after all, the LHC is located on the border between France and Switzerland. We can't let those cheese-eating surrender monkeys gain the edge in particle accelerators, can we?! The hope is that they can parlay this into an extension of their funding.

And to be honest, I don't really begrudge the Tevatron researchers for this last ditch maneuver. It is true that the pace of significant discoveries from Tevatron has waned, and it's also true that the LHC is bigger and better in virtually every way. On the other hand, there is only one LHC, so having the lower-energy Tevatron operational means the world's researchers can run twice as many experiments within that energy range. The LHC could be knocked out of commission for a period, by like a catastrophic magnet failure or something -- I know it sounds far-fetched, eh? Moreover, the annual operating budget for Tevatron is $35 million. So dudes, like, take one day off from mixing it up in Iraq, and you can keep Tevatron open for eight more years. (Seriously, fucking do the math, it's that ludicrous!)

Is it ethical? Would I engage in this kind of misrepresentation in their situation? Hell, I dunno. But I sure don't blame 'em. They're getting short shrift here, and if this little PR sleight of hand buys them some more time, more power to 'em.

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