Editors’ personal opinions


Climate Change – News and Comments

Nature muddies the water

As a science writer I’m well used to picking my way through the minefield of embargoes on papers not yet published. I know, too, of possible risks to scientists as well as journalists, when quoting from preprints or even reporting results presented at a conference. Publication can be cancelled.

You’d expect clear guidance from leading journals on that subject. How bewildering then, to read an editorial “Scientific climate” in today’s Nature (vol. 478, p. 428). It’s on the subject of the Berkeley Earth / Richard Muller furore noted in my recent posts. The editorial’s sub-heading is:

Results confirming climate change are welcome, even when released before peer review.

… Where “climate change” is to be understood, I suppose, as “catastrophic manmade global warming”. Other points from the editorial are, as I construe them:

  • The welcome is the stronger because the Muller results can be used against the Republicans in the USA.
  • But Muller really should not have publicised his work as he did.
  • Muller is wrong to claim that Science and Nature forbid the discussion of unpublished results – Nature only opposes pre-publicity.
  • All that said, it was fine for physicists to give pre-publicity to apparent evidence of neutrinos travelling faster than light.

What on earth does all that mean, to scientists and journalists who are just trying to tell their stories promptly? Here are three extracts from Nature’s instructions to authors concerning embargoes, which can be seen in full here http://www.nature.com/authors/policies/embargo.html

Material submitted to Nature journals must not be discussed with the media, except in the case of accepted contributions, which can be discussed with the media no more than a week before the publication date under our embargo conditions. We reserve the right to halt the consideration or publication of a paper if this condition is broken.”

The benefits of peer review as a means of giving journalists confidence in new work published in journals are self-evident. Premature release to the media denies journalists that confidence. It also removes journalists’ ability to obtain informed reactions about the work from independent researchers in the field.”

… communicate with other researchers as much as you wish, whether on a recognised community preprint server, on Nature Precedings, by discussion at scientific meetings (publication of abstracts in conference proceedings is allowed), in an academic thesis, or by online collaborative sites such as wikis; but do not encourage premature publication by discussion with the press (beyond a formal presentation, if at a conference).”

What the new editorial means, in my opinion, is that the politicisation of science has now penetrated right through to the workaday rituals of publication. On no account must you publicise your new work prematurely, unless you do it to bash the climate sceptics or the Republican Party or supporters of Special Relativity or anyone else the editors happen to dislike today. In that case they’ll forgive you.

Conundrum about neutrinos


Updating Magic Universe

A new conundrum about neutrinos

Billions of them are passing through your body right now. With no electric charge and very little mass, neutrinos are the most penetrating of the commonplace particles of the Universe – and the shyest. Detecting them calls for experiments on a monumental scale. To figure out their properties requires immense patience too, and big steps forward are few and far between. But, as announced today at the Neutrino 2010 meeting in Athens, a multinational team is 95% sure that there’s a greater contrast between the masses of different kinds of anti-neutrinos, than between different kinds of neutrinos.

The MINOS far detector in the Soudan Underground Laboratory consists of 486 octagonal steel sheets weighing 6000 tons altogether. Although billions of accelerated particles generate neutrinos every two seconds, the MINOS collaboration records only about 1000 neutrinos per year.

The work’s being done in the MINOS experiment (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) wherein a beam of muon neutrinos travels below the ground for 735 km, from Fermilab in Illinois to detectors deep in the Soudan mine in Minnesota. On the way, some of the muon neutrinos νμ change their “flavour” to become tau neutrinos ντ or, more rarely, electron neutrinos νe. Ditto for muon anti-neutrinos, when the Main Injector is set to create those instead.

Jenny Thomas of University College London, MINOS co-spokesperson, is quoted as saying:

We do know that a difference of this size in the behaviour of neutrinos and anti-neutrinos could not be explained by current theory. While the neutrinos and anti-neutrinos do behave differently on their journey through the Earth, the Standard Model [of particle physics] predicts the effect is immeasurably small in the MINOS experiment. Clearly, more anti-neutrino running is essential to clarify whether this effect is just due to a statistical fluctuation or the first hint of new physics.

The red dot and uncertainty rings are for anti-neutrinos and the blue curve for neutrinos.

If confirmed, this will be an important update for the story in Magic Universe called “Neutrino oscillations: when ghostly particles play hide-and-seek”. It tells the tale of Raymond Davis’s failure to detect the expected number of neutrinos from solar nuclear reactions, with a pioneering experiment in Homestake Mine in the Black Hills of Dakota. It led to the joky question, “Is the Sun still burning?”.

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