behind the news

Rumors at Fermilab and CERN

How science, media, and gossip affect cutting-edge physics
July 26, 2007

The gossip mill is spinning in the particle physics world, with journalists, bloggers, and scientists all taking turns speculating about major discoveries that may or may not have occurred. As Dennis Overbye noted with a well-turned phrase in Tuesday’s New York Times, “this is a summer of rumors, hope and hype.”

Actually, the gossip dates back a little farther than the summer. For the last six months or so the science media have been abuzz with speculation about which (if either) of the world’s two most powerful particle accelerator labs will be first to discover a “legendary” particle that has eluded physicists for decades. According to a longstanding and central theory of physics, this “God particle”-or the Higgs boson as it’s called-gives mass to all other particles in the universe, such as the more common protons, neutrons, and electrons of basic chemistry. To date, nobody has found it, but that has not stopped rumors of its discovery from flying in the press.

In early 2008, the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator will open in Switzerland at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. Many physicists believe that the circular collider, which is seventeen miles long and 300 feet below ground, is our best chance for finding the Higgs. Of course, with an $8 billion price tag, if the collider fails to produce the Higgs, or another significant discovery, it could derail all of the momentum (and funding) behind experimental particle physics. “Barring a breakthrough, it’s hard to imagine how the project can continue,” Elizabeth Kolbert concluded in a long article about the Large Hadron Collider for The New Yorker in May. “Such an outcome would not mean that the fundamental order of the universe is unknowable. But it might well mean that we will never know it.”

The upshot, says Overbye (who had a similar profile of the European collider in the Times the day after Kolbert’s piece), is, “If the CERN experimenters find the Higgs, Nobel Prizes will flow like water.” That puts a lot of pressure on European physicists, but also on the Swiss lab’s biggest competitor-the Fermi National Accelerator Lab outside of the Chicago. Fermilab, as it’s known, operates the Tevatron, which will remain the world’s most powerful collider until its European counterpart opens next spring. “The advent of the CERN collider also cements a shift in the balance of physics power away from American dominance that began in 1993,” Overbye wrote.

Because of such pressures, Fermilab, which is due to shut down by 2010, has been the source of at least two recent and well-publicized rumors suggesting that the aging operation has made some significant, but unverified and unannounced Higgs-related discoveries. In the cases of both rumors, the gossip and hearsay surrounding the unsubstantiated “discoveries” at Fermilab began in the blogosphere and spread to mainstream media.

In January, Dr. John Conway, a scientist who works on one of two rival teams at Fermilab’s Tevatron, speculated on the blog Cosmic Variance about a “bump” in his data that might have been evidence for the Higgs boson. The data did not hold up, and the scientist never specifically claimed that it did, but his post nonetheless sparked a widely circulated rumor that the Higgs had been found. “The result was a flurry of invitations and publicity,” Overbye wrote this week in the Times, “including articles in publications like New Scientist and The Economist.”

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Then, on May 28, an anonymous scientist asked-on a blog operated by Tommaso Dorigo, a scientist on the other of Tevatron’s two teams-if an unrelated rumor he had heard that Dorigo’s team had made a significant Higgs-related discovery was true. Dorigo was noncommittal, but acknowledged hearing the rumor, too, drawing criticism from some of his more reserved colleagues. Again, however, the rumor had already taken hold, and the story was picked up by Slate. The article clearly states that the so-called discovery is mere rumor, but nonetheless goes on to discuss the implications for CERN if Fermilab were to find the Higgs first.

There is a good summary of how the gossip spread from lab to blog to mainstream media on Dorigo’s blog. Dorigo adds some useful insights regarding the relationship between science and the press: “Will journalists manage to build the story around nothing this time?” he asked. “I think so, because the topic is red-hot. LHC vs. Tevatron; Europe vs. the US; a multi-billion-dollar investment at risk of being left without anything else to discover.”

Dorigo also raises this valuable meta-question: “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.” To put it more bluntly, does science journalists’ fascination with rumors of competition and intrigue help or hinder the process of scientific discovery? Indeed, whether the topic is physics, biology, climatology, or any such discipline, this is one of the most important debates in science journalism. Dorigo’s opinion? “Getting media attention is good for science.”

That’s probably true, up to a point. Hype, to a certain extent, is as good for science as it is for business. Although the major organizations that fund science can spot the difference between rumor and accomplishment, the competitive tension created by gossip draws public attention to scientists’ work and makes their experiments appear more relevant. But journalists who cover this stuff need to be careful.

The rumors and gossip that have surrounded CERN and Fermilab are an integral part of the scientific process-the incomplete and false leads that give rise to the rumors are a crucial part of experimentation, and they count as progress in their own way. When they reach a fever pitch, as they have in the past several months, they can make for great, “real world” stories about the lives of scientists. But reporters need to take care to present rumors as rumors, rather than evidence of concrete “discoveries,” and explain their role in scientific process. This keeps scientists honest and gives readers distinctly human stories about science, what engenders hype, and how it affects the pursuit of the next big breakthrough.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.