Thursday, February 16, 2012

CMS hangout

The CMS Collaboration organized its first hangout via Google+:

The selection of beverages and babes wasn't too wide. Instead, the event was a video conferencing session with a physicist in the CMS cavern, 110 meters beneath the ground, and laymen on the other side of the cable.

I find such exchanges frustrating.

There exists a wide spectrum of possible levels of knowledge about particle physics and the laypersons who participated were at the most generic extreme end. The physicists did what he could but I still think that his expertise was wildly unused.

One guy has heard the word "channel" so he probably wanted to explain all channels relevant for the CMS research. Well, there are very many. Even when the Higgs boson is looked for, it's about 10 of them that are being investigated.

A woman asks about the testing of the ekpyrotic universe scenario – universe created out of a fiery collision of branes. And a man asked about the practical applications of the LHC research in the 5-year timeframe. The physicists said something that the exchange didn't look quite painful but in my opinion, it was guaranteed to be mostly painful when the question was asked.

Needless to say, the LHC is very unlikely to say anything about the relevance of the ekpyrotic scenario for our world. Those issues are linked to higher energy scales and generally physics that the LHC is unlikely to tap. Moreover, the ekpyrotic universe has problems with predictivity and its very compatibility with the known cosmological data is disputable, to say the least.

The man's question about "accidental discoveries" was on the opposite extreme: while the woman tried to link the LHC to "very far-fetched" theories, the man wanted to link it to "way too tangible and down-to-Earth" things. Of course, he was told about the research of magnets and accelerators in medicine. But they are relatively irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. I am confident that if sensible people were deciding to spend $10 billion for the improvement of medicine or magnets that was likely to be inspired by the LHC, they would have said No.

The human activity has many levels of abstractness and even particle physicists have many degrees to which they are affected by ongoing or near-future experiments. I understand if the laymen don't understand almost any particular technical questions. But the level of ignorance in the society is much more extreme. Almost everyone misunderstands what scientific disciplines are out there – e.g. the difference between theoretical physics and experimental physics, particle physics and cosmology, pure science and applied science.

CMS's hangout wanted to interact with too wide a spectrum of people which is a reason why I think it's mostly an ill-conceived project, despite the niceties that all the people say in the video.

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