Particle Physics 2.0?

April 3, 2007

Elsewhere, Tommaso Dorigo makes a plea for particle physics experiments to enter the (free) blogging world. I find the argument intriguing but problematic.

A couple of issues are raised. One is whether the data should be made available to the public (in ASCII four-vectors or whatever); after all the taxpayers fund us, shouldn’t they get their money’s worth? I certainly agree that this is desirable, although extremely complicated. Our experimental architectures have not been designed to enable this in a simple manner (it can take literally months for a new collaboration member to learn to access data!), but if this was specified as a requirement from the beginning, as I believe it is for NASA projects, it could probably be done at the expense of a lot of physicist-years. However what is in question is not the data, but the analyses that follow, and even projects that release their data allow that what you extract from the data is your work.

Another is how collaborations communicate their results to a wider audience. Communication can almost always be better, and it’s a fair point that analysis web pages rarely go much beyond a brief technical summary and some plots. At one point, I know CDF was trying to post “plain English” summaries of physics results on the web, though for some reason all the links seem broken now. Regrettably but understandably, in the pressure to get results approved, papers written, and talks put together, the plain English version is seen as a low priority. Blogging might improve this.

[Aside: actually, we tend to communicate directly to specialists, ignoring even other particle physicists. We don’t like to admit it, but we, too, get lost and bored very easily by work we don’t immediately grasp. Try keeping an average Tevatron physicist’s attention through a 30 minute talk about measuring angular distributions in χc radiative decays. I dare you.]

Finally, should experiments somehow embrace freer discussion of the data they collect and give up their roles as “sole authoritative commenters of the results they produce”? Are they? The speed of rumor is extremely high in the theoretical community, and (as an example) theorists seem more openly dismissive of the LSND results (because they don’t fit nicely into models) than experimentalists are (they can’t find anything obviously wrong with the experiment). It’s hard to imagine anyone being more authoritative than those who produced a result.

Oh, you mean should experimentalists be free to go “off message,” as they would say? There’s a tricky one. Why shouldn’t a collaboration micromanage how an important result is presented? If I spend a couple of years working on a result, and someone completely unrelated to it is the one who gets to reveal the numbers at a ski resort or be quoted in a popular publication, is it silly to want the right to sign off on what they say? To change this would, I believe, require a fundamental rethink of what a “collaboration” is. In the current model, you are either “in,” in which case you’re generally expected to speak for the collaboration when on record (because you have privileged access to the details and your name is on the papers), or you’re “out,” where you can say whatever you like at the expense of having your opinion discounted. If we atomize into having authors be solely responsible for their analyses, then we will all be able to say what we like, and will lose the ability to report on “our results.”

Incidentally, I’m not sure how an “experiment-approved blog” would address the last point. I think the sticking point is “experiment-approved,” not “blog.” Imagine approving blog entries at physics group meetings, spending hours discussing word choices …

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