After yesterday’s post, the first comment was actually a ping from the Not Even Wrong blog, quoting my paragraph describing the electrical failure in the LHC. Peter Woit used it as an example of a leak (information, not helium) through a CERN policy discouraging the blogging of sensitive information. It is not sensitive information, and it does not go substantially beyond what is given in the press release, which reveals the basic cause of the accident as it’s currently understood and the decision that there must be significant down-time to repair the damage. (And most of that down-time is for re-cooling, not the repairs themselves.)
My description is more colorful than the press release because I am not the official face of CERN. As described in a much-earlier post, I am not even an LHC person, but a member of the CMS collaboration, so for LHC news, I’m an “outsider” who happens to live close to the source. That is what I thought would be valuable about this blog: it would give people who are interested in the development of the LHC (namely, mathematicians who have heard of field theory), the same kind of closeness that the experimenters down the hall have. It is not a conduit for collaboration secrets, and I have been extremely pedantic in what I have revealed. (I started by reading the CMS Constitution, and I have checked everything I say to make sure it’s on a public website somewhere, however obscure. If I’m not sure about the internal-versus-external status of a website, I check it in my iPod, which doesn’t know any of my passwords. Veeery pedantic.)
It is quite reasonable for scientific collaborations to have private information, because they are the kinds of social organizations for whom it would be best for everyone to reveal well-digested information at a late time, but better for an individual, worse for the group, to release exciting information early. We need to control that, with our own good-will preferably, and that’s how it’s currently instituted. The world interest in the LHC, the unprecedented size of the collaborations, and the new existence of blogging introduces a temptation for individual scientists to be self-proclaimed Promethei, and that’s a problem, not a good thing.
To illustrate what I mean with a perhaps not-applicable example, do you remember five to ten years ago when large extra dimensions were a new idea? People first started thinking that maybe the hierarchy problem doesn’t exist, and maybe the Plank scale is actually just a few TeV (those of you who are physicists or part-physicists)? Then someone went one step further and said, “well if so, maybe the new particles we’ll see at the LHC will be black holes.” And physicists thought about that and how they would Hawking-radiate in fascinatingly spherical patterns and how that would be cool, but in the end, not consistent with existing observations. Of course no attempt could or should be made to keep scientific discourse like that secret, but when it left the physicists, it became the headline “LHC to Make Black Holes, Eat Earth (page C-1)” and a frenzy that even lead to a death. Somehow that sort of thing happens to ideas and information, and there is strangely no way to reign it in; no amount of truth mops it up. It is utterly reasonable for the LHC collaboration to want to do an investigation before they let their members speak openly about it.
I don’t want to be responsible for “LHC Explodes, Experts Say (page E-13).” Given what I know as a nearby outsider, the problem is exactly as bad as the press release says it is: a broken electrical connection, a huge helium leak, and possibly some damage to the magnets. The extent cannot be known until it is investigated. Why is it taking so long? I can guess: a helium-rich environment is an oxygen-poor environment, and the moment they switched on the beams, they turned the tunnel into a radiation zone that will need to be mapped before it can be safely traversed.
Of course, I’m also disappointed and nervous, because I have a lot at stake. So do the LHC people. And we all have an interest in carefully-evaluated information; I mean, we’re scientists after all!