Thursday, August 04, 2016

Combining QM, SR, and HEP is "New"?

Often times, when science news is reported in the mass media, while the reporting might be somewhat accurate, the implications that it leaves behind, especially when read by someone not trained in that area, may lead to a horribly wrong idea. This might be the case here.

This news report is covering a paper out of the Princeton's Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL) on a new theoretical model to explain a plasma physics phenomenon. Nothing wrong there. However, I have a lot of issues with this part of the report very early on:

Researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have developed a new way to explore some of the most extreme environments in the universe by combining three separate branches of physics: High energy physics (which describes charged particles traveling at or close to the speed of light), quantum mechanics (which describes the motion of subatomic particles), and Einstein’s theory of special relativity (which describes the propagation of matter and light at high speeds).

“People haven’t done this before,” Yuan Shi, a graduate student in the PPPL and lead author of a paper published July 29 in the journal Physical Review A, told Business Insider. “Nobody really wanted to cross the boundaries between the disciplines to see what other scientists are doing. The difficulty was mostly that there’s no communication between these fields.” 

Now, I'm sure that if you are a physics, or even a graduate student in physics, you can already spot something odd here. The existence of quantum field theory (QFT) is already evidence that Special Relativity (SR) has already been incorporated inside quantum mechanics (QM). And high energy physics (HEP) is a field that makes use of QFT!

But if you don't know that, then reading this news report will give you the impression that this isn't known till now, and that this is all new!

And the statement made that "People haven't done this before" with regards to crossing boundaries between disciplines in physics is blatantly false, especially with all the brouhaha surrounding the discovery of the Higgs within the the past couple of years. Anyone following the history of the Higgs field will have seen how the idea originated out of a condensed matter system, and how Phil Anderson, a condensed matter physicist and a Nobel laureate, was himself a strong candidate to be considered for the Nobel prize when the Higgs was finally discovered.

I know that press releases can sometime over-glorified the importance and significance of something. But there really is an important mission here to make sure that one is conveying a message that is clear and unambiguous to the audience that can easily be misled. What you mean may not be exactly what they understand!



Steve W said...

I guess part of the problem that stands out in this case is that the offending statement is actually a direct quote from the researcher.

In some cases, the popular science articles don't get the science quite right, because it's hard to communicate such complicated topics effectively, or the writer may not understand all the fine details (which is reasonable, since the research is likely cutting edge).

But, when there is a direct quote that is so misleading, it seems somewhat like misconduct on the part of the researcher.

If I were the researcher in this case, I would ask them to issue a correction to the article.
Either they are being quoted out of context, or they are being directly misleading to hype their own results.

Seems unfortunate to me, but also rather common.

ZapperZ said...

I agree. And my statement on "What you mean may not be exactly what they understand" is directed at scientists in general, based on a previous blog entry that I posted here. Scientists need to not only figure out what to say, but also put themselves in the shoes of ordinary folks and see if what they are saying can be misconstrued into something else. I've seen this happening many times.

Still, that graduate student at PPPL needs to learn see if he was misquoted out of context, or if he is really ignorant of what how these various disciplines are already "talking" to each other.