Sunday, August 09, 2015

NOvA Neutrinos - A Slight Lost In Translation

OK, this post is making two different points, and try not to miss both of them, because one of them reinforces my stand that what you say may not exactly be what they understood.

This press release out of Fermilab announced the observation of neutrino oscillation by the NOvA detectors. This is crucial for NOvA to show that they can detect what has already been shown to exist, because it is their mission to study this more carefully and to make specific measurements on this phenomenon.

That's my first point, and that's the main news. Now comes the second point. Another "news"  article took that Fermilab press release, and reported it. But read how it has been presented in the beginning.

Scientists have witnessed their first evidence of oscillating neutrinos, taking a huge step forward in particle physics. The new findings confirm that the extraordinary detector built for the project not only functions as planned but is also making great progress toward its goal of a major leap in our understanding of these particles.

Now this is important, because it comes in at the very beginning of the news article and it sets the tone for the entire report. But read it carefully. If you don't know any better, reading the first sentence will give you the impression that this is the first ever sighting of oscillating neutrinos
Since they got this from Fermilab's press release, did the press release itself made the same mistake? Let's take a look. The Fermilab's press release wrote this:

Scientists on the NOvA experiment saw their first evidence of oscillating neutrinos, confirming that the extraordinary detector built for the project not only functions as planned but is also making great progress toward its goal of a major leap in our understanding of these ghostly particles.

Notice the subtle but important difference. Fermilab's press release indicated that this is the first observation of neutrino oscilation by NOvA scientists! Of course, those of us in the know are aware that this statement is indicating that the new NOvA detector has detected what it SHOULD detect, and this is a major milestone in the commissioning of any new instrument, i.e. it should detect what have already been detected to make sure everything is working as it should. It doesn't mean that this neutrino oscillation is the first detection anywhere!

But this is what frequently happens. I don't know the quality of news reporting on "Science World Report", but that is irrelevant because this time of "mistranslation" happens regularly when non-experts tries to interpret or understand scientific reporting. It is why what you write needs to be looked at in several different angles and from background of people who are ignorant of not  only the subject matter, but also the progress in that area. A person reading the news report will think that this is the first ever evidence of neutrino oscillation, when that is clearly false.

The Fermilab news release should look at this type  of misreporting, and see if they need to make their press releases even more "simplified" so that people aren't mislead into thinking the same way as the news report. We must always be vigilant of the fact that what we wrote and what we meant may not be exactly what they understand.


1 comment:

Hamish Johnston said...

I'd put much of the blame on Fermilab. Firstly, is it really news that this experiment has measured something that others have seen already -- in other words, does it merit a press release? Secondly, the explicit statement that others have already seen oscillations before is buried near the bottom of the press release.

The reality is that if the release began "Fermilab physicists see something that other physicists have already seen..." no-one would cover it.