Friday, July 18, 2008

LHC publicity machine

I understand that the folks at CERN feel like it's important for people to be aware of the LHC and get excited about it - at this point, it looks like it's going to be the only game in town in a few years for the frontier of high energy physics. Still, the steady stream of publicity (much of it arguing that they're going to unlock the secrets of the universe, prove string theory, find evidence of extra dimensions, etc.) is getting to be a bit much. Today comes this article discussing the cooldown of the magnets for the collider and the detector. Technologically impressive to be sure, but the whole "colder than deep space" angle is pretty lame - people have been able to reach these temperatures for nearly 100 years, and superconducting magnets are used in thousands of MRI machines the world over. We get it - it's a big machine. If this is the level of publicity hounding that's going on before they even have a single piece of data, the coverage of the actual physics runs is going to be really oppressive.

9 comments:

Chad Orzel said...

That's pretty much my feeling, as well. I've decided that I'm boycotting LHC stories until they have some actual science to report.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the problem or how they're being hyperbolic.

The LHC is quite possibly the most complex machine ever built. CMS has more steel than the eiffel tower tower, data is measured in pentabytes/s and that's with complex triggering. The background from events is a mess, and

Moreover, these sort of stories inspire the young and the next generation of physicists.

Doug Natelson said...

Chad, I'm with you. Anon., I know it's the biggest machine and an incredible technical tour de force. I also know that having weekly news stories for months on end before the machine is even turned on is excessive. As far as inspiring the young, I could make a reasonable argument that the significant majority of physicists do not work on particle experiment, and in fact in the future that ratio is likely to become even more lopsided.

jonah said...

I think you need to take a breath, Doug. This is the general public we're talking about, and the wonder and awe they express at the things we scientists take for granted is perhaps even motivating in itself. It's easy to forget that we walk into a lab and play with toys colder than any temperature in the rest of the known universe, or with devices made from countable numbers of atoms, or that we fabricate these devices with beams of electrons ripped out from their host lattices by electromagnetic and thermal forces. If anything, we should take it as a good sign that they're paying attention! Even if the 'mysteries of the universe' uncovered are the little details which we find mystifying and they find mundane.

thm said...

For anyone who's done ULT physics, 1.9K is sort of warm.

On the PR front, one thing I've though of: I'd guess there are maybe a couple hundred working dilution refrigerators worldwide. Depending on which ones are running, and which ones are leaking, at any moment in time, any one of them could be the coldest spot in the universe. Of course the thermometry and computer control of each is completely different, but it would seem feasible to have each dilution fridge send its current temperature to some central server, which can then pick the coldest and let the world know where the coldest spot in the universe is.

Bernard said...

thm said:
>>let the world know where the coldest spot in the universe is

... that we know about. I'm still holding out for extraterrestrial intelligence somewhere in the Universe, so who knows? Maybe they've got even better dilution fridges. Too bad we're likely to never know... :)

Anonymous said...

If we want to brag about the coldest spot in the universe, it's not in a dil fridge. The AMO folks have that title at the moment, with their laser-cooled BECs and such...

Anonymous said...

My guess is that once experiments actually start, the news coverage will totally die off. How long will it take to interpret the data output of a single experiment on this thing? What member of the general populus is going to have the patience to continue to pay attention while that process happens? For that matter, how many people on the planet will truly be able to understand the results? The media will eventually get bored, when they realize we can't just hand them the secrets of the universe in a 30-second video clip.

Doug Natelson said...

Seems like there are a few possible trajectories:
1) The LHC finds the Higgs and one or two previously unknown particles. There is much crowing about how this proves supersymmetry, etc., but then it fades from the general consciousness because it's hard to understand and has no obvious practical impact.
2) The LHC finds only the Higgs. This would be pretty awful from the point of view of high energy physics, and that awfulness may make for a compelling media story.
3) The LHC finds something really wild and exotic - this would be a big deal, and justifiably so.
4) The LHC finds nothing at all, not even the Higgs. This would surprise a lot of people, and again might have a compelling media narrative (picture the headlines now: "Nonexistence of 'God particle'?").