Monday, June 30, 2014

Economist's Article On "Neutrinos" Is Still Inaccurate

I applaud when news organization such as The Economist decides to give science some coverage. It is important because such magazine reaches out to an audience that many science journals and magazines do not usually get. So this criticism is not a knock on their science coverage and hopefully, will not discourage more of it on their pages.

Still, I find it very hard to accept that an article in a magazine as popular and prestigious as The Economist would not have had some sort of expert proof-reading before it is published. They can afford to at least hire a free-lance consultant to make sure there are any obvious errors or inaccuracies in such articles (I'm available!). Take this article on the neutrinos, for example, that Business Insider took from The Economist. There are minor quibbles here and there, but there are a couple of points in which someone who doesn't know much of the topic would have a very misleading or wrong idea about what is going on.

The first is this one:

Stand in front of it and you are standing in the path of the most powerful beam of neutrinos in the world, which is emerging from a nearby particle accelerator at Fermilab, America's main particle-physics laboratory.

With any other kind of accelerator, standing in the beam would have spectacular and fatal consequences. But your correspondent was not vapourised--nor, several weeks later, has he developed either cancer or superpowers.

Well, actually, you WILL die, because the "particles" in the accelerator are not neutrinos but rather, in this case, protons! That quoted passage made it sounds as if the neutrinos are the ones being directed by the accelerator. They are not. In fact, one doesn't control the path of neutrinos whatsoever once they are generated. So kids, if you think you can stand in the path of the particles generated in these accelerators, banish that thought!

The other one is a bit more severe:

But the details of oscillation remain incomplete, which is where Fermilab's neutrino beam comes in. By the end of July work should have finished on building NOVA, an experiment designed to pin those details down. The beam that passes through the white circle will carry on for 810km (500 miles) through the Earth to a detector in northern Minnesota. When it arrives, some of the muon neutrinos in it will have transformed themselves into electron neutrinos. NOVA will measure precisely how often this occurs.

This mistake is consistent with the previous one. The writer is still thinking that the neutrinos are the ones being accelerated, because if you read this, it somehow implied that these neutrinos go around the "white circle", and then proceed 810 km away to northern Minnesota. This, of course, is wrong. Protons in the main injector (the "white circle") are bombarded onto a target. The resultant is a bunch of particles, including muons. These muons then will decay rather quickly, and one of the decay products is a neutrino! These are the neutrinos that will shoot off to northern Minnesota. There are variation to such process, but the principles are similar. You do not start off with these neutrinos, accelerate them in the particle accelerator, and then shoot them off. There are just simply no way to do that!

I don't understand why magazines such as this do not seek an expert to do copy-reading to ensure the accuracy of these types of articles. Maybe most of the readers can't tell that there are inaccuracies, and those who do, seldom point them out. It is obvious that this method hasn't ruined their reputation or they would have done something.


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