- "Look at all these rumors surroundin' me every day
I just need some time, some time to get away
From all these rumors, I can't take it no more"
A month ago, Tommaso Dorigo wrote a blogpost Rumors about a light Higgs. I usually just ignore such blogposts. That day, I was in a particularly foul mood and bothered to leave a comment that expressed very clearly my disapproval of such rumor spreading. (You'll find it in the comment section to Tommaso's post, I'm the "not verified B".)
In his post, Tommaso puts forward the opinion that rumors are a handy tool to make science more interesting. I think he's in the first line trying to make himself more interesting. In any case, the topic stayed on my mind. Last week, Dennis Overbye from the NYT wrote a nice essay on rumors in astrophysics that spread at light speed:
"One culprit here is the Web, which was invented to foster better communication among physicists in the first place, but has proved equally adept at spreading disinformation. But another, it seems to me, is the desire for some fundamental discovery about the nature of the universe — the yearning to wake up in a new world — and a growing feeling among astronomers and physicists that we are in fact creeping up on enormous changes with the advent of things like the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva and the Kepler spacecraft."
The first physics rumor that I can recall hearing of was the discovery of the top quark. It is also one of the very few rumors I've heard that later actually got confirmed. It's not that I don't hear rumors about some alleged signal in some experiment. I certainly find this interesting and thought-stimulating. I think it's quite natural that one talks about this with colleagues, and discusses the probability of it being confirmed and wonders about the implications. But I don't publicly distribute these stories. Nowadays, sooner or later, I'll find that rumor on some blog and then possibly even in a newspaper. Sometimes, by the time I read about it, I already know the rumor wasn't confirmed.
Well, Tommaso's rumor wasn't confirmed either. But the question that stayed with me is whether rumors constitute a valid vehicle to get science across. I don't think so for the following reasons.
First problem is that while it might draw interest in the short run, it erodes trust as well as interest in the long run. Science lives from accuracy more than any other field. The more often people read claims that something maybe was discovered, but then it wasn't, the less attention they'll pay if they read it again. Quantum gravity in cosmic rays! No wait, nothing to find there. Quantum gravity in gravitational wave interferometers! No wait, nothing to find there. Quantum gravity at the LHC. Well, let's see how that goes.
Second problem is one of principle. If rumors are considered a useful tool to draw attention, why not make up a few? It's easy enough, isn't it? Last week for example, I talked to a friend who was just visiting CERN. He doesn't want his name mentioned, but he told me...
Third problem is that these rumors tend to circle around a few presently particularly popular topics or institutions, and if they dominate the news the vast majority of topics remains uncovered. Let's face it, most people on this planet still have no clue how a laser works and are confused by something called the particle-wave-duality. Their understanding of physics is stuck in the middle of the last century, if not some centuries earlier. There's plenty of physics that needs to be brought across more urgently than the latest rumor about dark matter detection. Yes, you might think that's dull. But you think it's dull because you're being fed constantly with the highly speculative, allegedly groundbreaking, maybe-discoveries. I myself would sometimes rather read a useful, popular, introduction about a not-quite-as-hot topic in a field I don't work on rather than quotations about the latest controversy.
Last month, when I saw the July issue of Scientific American on Stefan's doorstep, I was thinking "Oh, no." The headline read "Is the Universe Leaking Energy?" I was thinking, they probably picked some way-out random paper from the arXiv and are trying to proclaim that there's something fishy with energy conservation in General Relativity. Einstein was wrong! Stefan later said, he had exactly the same thought when he saw the headline. Reading the article however, I was pleasantly surprised: Tamara Davis has provided a well-written, insightful and entertaining explanation of, yes, just standard physics knowledge! She writes about symmetries and Noether's laws, conserved quantities, and about time-dependent backgrounds. She explains why there is no conflict between the seeming violation of energy and and accepted physical laws. It's textbook knowledge, yet it made it the title story. That's the sort of articles that we need more of.