Increased Particle Masses and Terrible Press Releases

I've got a bunch of EurekAlert feeds in my RSS subscriptions, that I use to keep up with recent developments, because I need blog fodder. One of the really striking things about these is how extremely variable the quality of the releases is.

Take, for example, the release headlined New particles get a mass boost, describing results from extremely precise measurements at Jefferson Lab:

A sophisticated, new analysis has revealed that the next frontier in particle physics is farther away than once thought. New forms of matter not predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics are most likely twice as massive as theorists had previously calculated, according to a just-published study.

The discovery is noteworthy because experimental improvements of this magnitude rarely occur more often than once in a decade.

Sounds great, right? Just the sort of thing I want to write up for the blog. There are just a couple of tiny little problems with the press release...

First, the release is dated October 1, 2007. The work it refers to is this paper in the September 21 PRL (also available on the arxiv for free). The release is at least ten days late.

Even worse, the release does not include a citation for the article. This is inexplicable, given that it's being put out ten days after the actual publication of the article. Most press releases will at least have a "Smith et al., 'Renooberation of the flobulator matrix,' forthcoming in Inscrutable Theory Letters," at the end, to make it easier to track the article down. If it's already out, they usually give the full citation.

Not only does this release lack a citation of the article in question, it doesn't even name the authors. Now, this might be forgivable for a typical particle physics article, where the author list runs to a page and a half of really small type, but there are only four authors on this paper. A halfway competent press release should include at least one of the four names. If nothing else, you'd expect to get one of them by accident, from a quote in the release or something.

But, no. I had to find the article by scanning back through the last few issues of Physical Review Letters and looking for plausible titles. And, really, if you're a press officer with the goal of getting more positive attention for your researchers, this is not the way to go about it. If you make science reporters jump through hoops to find out what you're talking about, they're just going to write about something else. If you make science bloggers jump through hoops to find out what you're talking about, they're going to write blog posts about how the press office at Jefferson Lab is staffed by incompetent goobers who don't know how to write a press release, and mention the results only in passing.

So, having established that the press office at Jefferson Lab is staffed by incompetent goobers who don't know how to write a press release, what about the results? Well, I'm not sure quite what to make of this. The main result seems to be that detailed analysis of electron-nucleon collisions enables them to put a lower limit on the masses of any as-yet-undiscovered particles that interact via the weak nuclear force. They don't have enough energy in their accelerator to produce these particles directly, but they ought to be able to see some indirect effects if those particles had masses below some fairly high value. The basic idea is the same as the EDM search experiments I keep hyping.

What does this really mean for particle physics? I'm not sure, but given that the paper was posted to the arxiv in April, I imagine that real particle physicists have had plenty of time to absorb the implications. Maybe one of them can leave a comment and explain the consensus view of What It All Means.


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Contemporary theory elegantly rationalizes anything through perturbation, Yukawa potentials, or symmetry arguments and contingent maths until experiment. Supersymmetric proton half-life plus Super-Kamiokande and the CERN axion solar telescope are eloquent. Theory then tweaks parameters to put measurement slightly out of reach, and the cycle repeats.

The Standard Model arrived massless. Jury rigs to include mass suggest curve fitting not predictive extrapolation. SUSY embellishments are then silly; the Higgs mechanism is desperate rationalization.

If the LHC finds a Higgs, Uncle Al will apologize. If his Christmas experiment measures a chiral anisiotropic vacuum background in the mass sector, you've all got a lot of explaining to do.

It means that Jefferson Lab is trying to justify its existence. Cue Donald Sutherland from Animal House: "I'm serious! This is my job!"

This coming from someone who's taken many shifts in Hall C...

Justify its existence? Doood...the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (aka Jefferson Lab) nee CEBAF (aka Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility) could be turned in to a particle beam weapon to zap filthy terrists!

It's one of many precision results that put beyond the Standard Model physics in a very awkward place, but it's not really more interesting than most of the other such results. When I first saw your quote I thought maybe it was about this, which seems to have made a bigger impression on people. Anyway, it's probably a very nice experiment, and probes a slightly different combination of operators than other experiments, but doesn't have any profound implications.

When I first saw your quote I thought maybe it was about this, which seems to have made a bigger impression on people.

Well, I'm not surprised, given that teh abstract ends with this sentence:

Therefore, the scale of new physics in models that generate new Delta F=2 operators, such as next-to-minimal flavour violation, has to be much higher than the scale of minimal flavour violation, and it most probably lies beyond the reach of direct searches at the LHC.

At least the JLab stuff is only saying that new particles need to be at the TeV level, which LHC has a chance of reaching. Given how much is riding on the LHC, I can imagine that anything putting new physics out of its reach would be just a little upsetting...

If I ever get to name something in physics, it's damn sure going to be "Renooberation of the flobulator matrix". We have lots of silly names, might as well go for broke at this point.

The paper only mentions "relevant" new physics, not all new physics. I believe "relevant" here means models that provide new neutral weak current modes, like models predicting a Z'. That does not necessarily apply to SUSY models that LHC is hoped to probe. But that limit also only applies to the parts of the model that contribute to the neutral weak current; the models could still have lighter particles that do not affect that current.

Press releases sometimes get rewritten by people who don't understand the subject. The ethanol plant we're building out at Moses Lake (on I-90) terminated its agreement with a biofuel company. We wrote up a press release. Well, I wrote the original, and then it got rewritten by every person in the company. What we wrote is on our website.

We sent this to the AP office in Spokane, since Moses Lake is covered by their office. They decided it was newsworthy and put out a rewrite of our press release. This was widely reported, for example, at Forbes. However, their rewrite had an amazing numbrer of errors, most notably calling our small plant "huge".

So I'm not sure that the university is to blame for the lacking in the press release. I know only enough about the business to say that what the originator of the PR writes is not necessarily what gets presented to the public.

By Carl Brannen (not verified) on 02 Oct 2007 #permalink