Any Publicity is Good Publicity?

By JoAnne Hewett | February 27, 2006 10:03 pm

Maybe in Hollywood, but not necessarily elsewhere….

I should have learned this in high school – then, the local newspaper did a feature each week highlighting a group of seniors from the various schools. There was a theme each week and the group answered questions on topic. I was chosen and was pretty excited about it – until the interview started and I learned the theme was religion. Being my honest, naive, 17-yr-old self, I stated that I was rather unsure about the existence of God and that I thought churches were money making organizations. Naturally, I was quoted in print. In a smaller midwestern town. I received a barrage of truly hateful mail – some letters acusing me of devil worship, others wanting to save my soul. My senior science teacher summed it up best by saying `What you said was probably correct, but it’s not what you say to a newspaper reporter.’ That’s when I should have learned to be careful with reporters.

Two weeks ago, it happened again. The good folks in the SLAC publicity office are starting a feature where every few weeks a piece of work from the SLAC theory group will be highlighted. Great idea, I thought! I was the first guinea pig and was asked to do an interview for an article on a paper I wrote last Spring. The work was cute, has a catchy title, and is published in Physical Review Letters, but is not going to change life on earth as we know it. The article was to be for the internal SLAC newsletter TIP (The Interaction Point) and would also make a brief appearance on SLAC Today, the daily newsboard for the SLAC community. So, co-author Tom Rizzo and I spent an hour with the reporter, we saw a draft of the article and sent in revisions, and they took a few pictures of us at the blackboard. We could not get too technical, we were told, because the article was intended for the general, non-scientific, SLAC community.

Next thing I knew, the headline

SLAC Physicists Develop Test for String Theory

was emblazened on the main SLAC homepage! Then Peter Woit of Not Even Wrong lashed onto it. Then it was picked up by, which was subsequently featured by Slashdot. All with a smiling picture of yours truly, supposedly devising a definitive test for all of string theory. AARGH!!!!

The entire article was misrepresented, blown up out of proportion, and I could not have been more upset. Nothing against the good folks at the communications office at SLAC – we worked on this together and none of us saw this coming. Nonetheless, I did not have a good week.

The remedy? We posted comments on all the blogs and revised the article to include the scientific details which then put our work into proper context.

So, what’s all the fuss about? There has been heated discussion, on this blog and elsewhere, regarding the fact that there are no known scientific tests to prove or disprove the existence of string theory. We came up with an idea that could test classes of string theories, within a very particular framework, which may or may not be present in nature. If this framework exists, then we can test for whether there are 10 or 11 dimensions of spacetime, as Sean recently explained is favored by critical string theory, or not.

Here is the revised version of the article:

SLAC Physicists Develop Framework-Dependent Test For Critical String Theory

String theory solves many of the questions wracking the minds of physicists, but it has one major flaw — there are currently no known methods to test it. SLAC scientists have found a way to test a particular version of this revolutionary theory. The test applies to a class of critical string theories which posit that there are 10 or 11 dimensions in our universe — no more, no less.

This past December, Joanne Hewett, Thomas Rizzo and student Ben Lillie published an article in Physical Review Letters which shows theoretically how to measure the number of dimensions that comprise the universe. By determining how many dimensions exist, Hewett, Lillie and Rizzo hope to either confirm or repudiate critical string theory under specific conditions.

The first three dimensions, length, height and width, are familiar to all of us. The fourth dimension is time. But what are the extra dimensions? “Imagine a tightrope stretched between skyscrapers,” says Hewett. “If you are watching an acrobat walk across it — the tightrope looks like a line. But if you are watching an ant walk on the tightrope, you can see that the tightrope is thick and round.” The extra dimensions postulated in string theory are like the tightrope with an ant on it; they are too small to see unless you get really, really close.

Hewett, Lillie and Rizzo found that if so called micro-black holes, which are smaller than the nucleus of an atom, exist, they can be used to determine the number of extra dimensions. If scientists were to smash two high energy protons together they could theoretically make such a micro-black hole. Such a collision could happen at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which will become operational next year. Once created, the micro-black hole decays quickly and emits over a dozen different kinds of particles such as electrons, neutrinos and photons, which are easy to detect. Using the predicted decay properties of the black hole into neutrinos, Hewett, Lillie and Rizzo solved complex equations to determine if our universe has 10, 11, or more dimensions — perhaps too many dimensions to be explained by critical string theory.

More technically, the analysis applies to models of extra dimensions where micro-black holes can be formed with a size smaller than the curvature of the additional dimensions and where the fundamental particles which make up our universe do not reside in the extra dimensions. These micro-black holes must also exist at an energy scale which can be probed at the LHC. Under those very specific conditions, the test holds. These conditions are possible within string theory, but need not be present.

“The computations were so massive, we had to make extreme use of the Babar UNIX farm,” said Rizzo.

Of course, string theory hasn’t been tested yet — experimental evidence is necessary. Additionally, Hewett, Lillie and Rizzo’s analysis can only disprove critical string theory; it cannot prove it.

“If they see black holes at the LHC, they’ll definitely do this analysis,” says Hewett. “This would tell us about the fundamental nature of the universe.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and the Media
  • graviton383

    Glad you posted this explanation…the authors were all put in a rather sticky situation.

  • hackticus

    I think you should have mentioned the outside chance that this work could lead to a cure for cancer. Not likely, but you never know.

  • JoAnne

    thank you, hackticus – that made me laugh! And, regarding this topic, I needed that.

  • Science

    JoAnne, you should have copied what Euler did in the Russian court to discredit Diderot: write your stringy formula on the blackboard, then announce ‘Therefore, God exists!’ (That would have guaranteed you a meeting with the world’s leaders, plus the Pope …)

  • Alejandro

    “Additionally, Hewett, Lillie and Rizzo’s analysis can only disprove critical string theory; it cannot prove it.”

    Um, isn’t it the other way round? I mean, if the black holes are formed as predicted it will be a good indication critical string theory is correct (not a proof of course, but nothing is ever proved in science), but if they are not formed then critical string theory may still be correct but with the extra dimensions in a (currently) untestable region of parameter space.

    That’s the general idea I got from this article and others, so the quote “disproving yes, proving not” struck me as strange. Unless by “disproving yes” you mean if black holes are indeed produced but their decay does not agree with the predictions of ST, and by “proving not” you mean even if everything goes as predicted there can be another explanation for the results different from the truth of ST. But aren’t these things true of any scientific experiment?

  • Science

    ‘… if the black holes are formed as predicted it will be a good indication critical string theory is correct…’

    Wrong. There could be other predictions from other theories (which aren’t funded like mainstream ST) which give similar or even better predictions. So it isn’t a ‘good indication’ of anything. In science, you need to compare statistically to an alternative hypothesis (which isn’t a straw man). This is why the famous 1919 general relativity prediction was confirmed by comparison to Newton’s prediction of starlight deflection, which was only half as much as Einstein’s. If you don’t compare predictions from two candidate theories, you aren’t comparing anything, and you aren’t being scientific, because if it agrees you say “Eureka” and if it doesn’t, you can just say that any “unexpected result” is not a failure but just a need for more fine-tuning (epicycles). This may be why some string theorists are so hostile of “alternatives”, because there is a risk they may be right. Kill off funding for alternatives, then you can’t be discredited (but you are doing religion, not science).

  • Mark

    “Science”. It really would be helpful if you would restrain yourself from turning every possible thread into a “the establishment is keeping alternatives suppressed” diatribe.

    This is why the famous 1919 general relativity prediction was confirmed by comparison to Newton’s prediction of starlight deflection, which was only half as much as Einstein’s.

    This is just wrong. The Newtonian prediction is in stark disagreement with the experiment. Therefore Newton’s theory fails, independently of the existence of GR. Similarly, the fact that GR was a success doesn’t depend on the existence of the Newtonian theory; its success rides on the number and accuracy of its predictions. Yes, GR needed to reproduce all the successes of the Newtonian theory, but it would have had to agree with that data anyway, even if we’d never known about Newton’s laws.

  • LuboÅ¡ Motl

    The original media articles were clearly misguiding. On the other hand, the “improved” version is equally terrible. Proposing

    SLAC Physicists Develop Framework-Dependent Test For Critical String Theory

    as a title for a press release is rather perverse. Is it just a joke, or did someone actually propose this distateful conglomerate of incomprehensible words as a press release? Everyone who knows what’s going on also knows that the natural way to describe these tests is without the term “string theory” whatsoever. On the other hand, different scenarios in string theory are the best way to identify expected results of the experiments. And once the journalists decide that it should be explained as a story about string theory, then the first article is more consistent than the other.

  • Ponderer of Things

    it’s a fine line for communication office people to walk – if you try to avoid being sensational and present things the way they are, the story becomes boring and doesn’t capture imagination of young people and non-scientists. On the other hand, if you try to get some attention, you need to say something sensational – “String theory is tested” or “Quantum computing without doing calculation”.

    We scientists don’t like the hype, but we tend to overstate the damage from such “publicity stunts” – they do more good than harm. We can sort out the truth and actual claims in scientific journals using boring and hard-to-understand jargon, but the public needs to know something – anything – about what we are up to and how their tax dollars are spent. They wouldn’t be able to understand 2% of what you have been working on anyways, so if they learn anything remotely related to your field, communication office people are doing their job. Even if the headline is moderately misleading.

  • Ponderer of Things

    a good example of trying to explain things without being sensational is Sean’s “puppy”, “salad” and “steak” explanation of quantum computing Nature paper. Even then, it involve a fair amount of “dumbing down” which probably lead to some misinterpretation of experimental facts.

  • Science

    “This is just wrong. The Newtonian prediction is in stark disagreement with the experiment.” – Mark

    I said the Newtonian result is wrong because it is out by a factor two. In hypothesis testing, which is now widely used in other areas of science, you compare two condidates and see which is the best. Otherwise you get the placebo effect, and whatever the experimental result, the one candidate election result is, “heads I win, tails you lose”. You can’t ever get rid of any theory unless you are willing to compare it to another!

  • chimpanzee

    “Journalists are successful because the are good and enterntaining writers, not because they are careful with the facts.”
    — from forums

    From middle-school science class on scientific-measurement:

    “Accuracy, Precision, Repeatability”

    The media is flat-out sloppy in all 3 categories.

    The original post reminds me of the 2002 asteroid story that got botched by BBC (& other news agencies): NASA Scientists Call British Media’s Asteroid Hype Unethical Rubbish. Here are some good quotes:

    Utter Rubbish
    Make it Sensational

    Last Wednesday, the BBC’s online news site ran this headline: “Space rock ‘on collision course.'” The top of the story read: “An asteroid discovered just weeks ago has become the most threatening object yet detected in space. A preliminary orbit suggests that 2002 NT7 is on an impact course with Earth and could strike the planet on 1 February, 2019 — although the uncertainties are large.” [ WHAT!? ]

    “This is just utter rubbish,” said Alan Harris, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who focuses on asteroid risk. “The reader is told that NT7 is on a collision course, followed by an ambiguous ‘uncertainties are large.’ Uncertainty of what? Time? Place? Maybe the end won’t come until Feb. 5, or maybe it will hit the BBC studios and not us.”


    “I think that in the end it comes down the journalistic objectives, and, perhaps rarely, to journalistic integrity,” said Steve Chesley of JPL, where much of the NASA asteroid search is coordinated. “It is unlikely that we will ever see an end to pieces like the one from Sky News.”

    Doom sells, and perhaps no one knows that better than members of the British media.
    David Morrison, senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the Ames Research Center…Like many of his colleagues, Morrison thinks the hype and inaccuracies of the British press are a problem for just about everyone.

    “The NEO community and the public both are harmed by exaggerated or false stories, because they tend to trivialize the real search for hazardous NEOs, and they diminish public confidence in the folks who are trying to do this in a responsible and honest manner,” Morrison said.
    “Perhaps we’ve all been guilty at one time or another of colorful quotes in describing NEO phenomena, and the media certainly tries their best to extract such quotes,” said Donald Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office. “The goal, I suppose, is to be at the same time sober, informative but not too nerdy.”

    Yeomans had a unique view of the whole media frenzy over 2002 NT7. He and colleagues “did not think that this object warranted any proactive news releases,” so he was unprepared when “the media blitz struck.”
    [ parallels original post, the end-result turned into a “cosmological event of astronomical proportions” ]

    “Most of the six interviews I did with BBC reporters Tuesday night began with their assumption that there would be a collision,” Yeomans said. “One is then forced to back up and try to explain the real situation and the fact that there is not really a story here. They didn’t wish to hear that.”

    Yeomans then watched as the stories (with his cautious quotes often subordinated to others) spun out of control, begetting more reporters’ calls and flooding JPL’s online asteroid pages to the extent that at one point even he couldn’t view them.
    [ this parallels the original post, where other media like, jumped on the media-frenzy ]

    Yeomans now says journalists and scientists both need to redouble efforts to help the public understand how asteroid risks are determined.

    What’s mind-blowing in the above article, is that the BBC Science Editor is *defending* an intentional inaccurate statement in the article, as a tactic to attract readers (sensationalism). This is a major complaint of the media, in general..where it’s lost its Journalistic ethics (above JPL scientist referred to this). “Real” journalism is almost like Science: gathering data, analyzing it, reporting it (both sides, non-subjectively). You may remember the infamous Jim Gray incident (the Pete Rose interview):

    “The fact that he can’t see that, not to mention his superiors at NBC, reveals a major personal character flaw and underscores why there is so much growing disregard of the media by the public. Gray was coming from a particularly low and scum-sucking point in journalism in the late 20th century, one that allows reporters to insinuate themselves into the news to the degree that they became as much a part of it as those on the other end of the microphone.”

    Interesting point: the media became part of the news. A basic no-no in Journalism.

    I’m seeing another bizarre effect of science “sensational-journalism”: it’s indistinguishable from crackpot-science by idiots/lunatics:

    As a matter of fact I heard a proponent of this story on a local radio station on Wednesday morning. Within five minutes this gentleman uttered bits and pieces of every crackpot doomsday comet theory (some borrowed from Comet Lee nonsense) and loony bin alien conspiracy tale imaginable.

    — Dave Mitsky, public-outreach amateur-astronomer (Penn State public observatory)

    How do you distinguish the media doing sensational stories on Science, from the media hosting crackpots? The whole Journalistic mediums have become a ludicrous/idiotic joke bent on Entertainment: cheap thrills.

    “After Surely You’re Joking became a best-seller, Feynman was invited to do an appearance on the well-known Johnny Carson show. A number of us were sitting around at dinner when the topic of the invitation came up. Feynman stated that was unfamiliar with the show and was debating whether or not he should go on. Everyone there started putting on the hard sell. Al Hibbs discussed the excellence of the show and that he had appeared on it several times discussing various space exploration missions by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Carson is a science buff, he exclaimed. Others joined in the choir of approval. I turned to Feynman and said, Watch it first. Watch it before you make any sort of commitment. He turned to me and said, That’s the first wise thing I have heard on this topic. A few days later Feynman spotted me walking across the campus and demanded I come over. What? YOU WERE RIGHT! I watched that show and it was the most idiotic program I have ever seen. I would have walked off it in the middle.
    — from Feynman Online

    Television is termed the boob-tube. And now, mainstream print-journalism doing science-articles has turned to this Lowest Common Denominator?

    In reference to “spun out of control” statement, this reminds me of another incident (in particle physics):

    “The speaker will discuss why The New York Times does not always have the right spin on data.”
    talk by Melissa Franklin/Harvard
    [ in her profile on “Discovering Women”, she made reference to the SSC getting cancelled at a FermiLab talk to high-school students: “NY Times said the particles had funny-sounding names, as a reason ” ]

  • Mark

    “Science”: this is not corect. If I have my own theory that predicts unambiguously that, in vacuum, a dropped ball will rise up over the surface of the earth – in complete contradiction with every experiment, then I can indeed get rid of that theory without ever comparing it to another.

  • Count Iblis

    I’m actually a bit puzzled. Usually, when popular news articles about physics come to the attention of physicists working in the field, they will read the original articles if they read something strange. So, why didn’t Peter Woit read the PRL article before commenting on his blog?

  • Mike

    I think we (the scientific community) will just have to write our own articles for the general public. Rare is the journalist who can get the story right and make it palatable to their readers. On the other hand, there are outstanding writers in the scientific community. I think we need to be supportive of that kind of public outreach when it comes to tenure, promotion, and – perhaps – even when awarding grants.

  • Elliot

    Does the Babar Unix Farm ever do “Celeste”ial calculations?

  • Science

    ‘If I have my own theory that predicts unambiguously that, in vacuum, a dropped ball will rise up over the surface of the earth – in complete contradiction with every experiment, then I can indeed get rid of that theory without ever comparing it to another.’ – Mark

    you are describing as an example a straw-man “theory” which is in disagreement with basic observation (hence complete nonsense), so it is not a scientific theory requiring hypothesis testing.

    M-theory theory takes well established mathematical theories (Calabi-Yau manifold, etc.) and some established physics and extends it by adding unobserved extra dimensions and superpartners. Yes, it then allows quantum gravity and unification of Standard Model nuclear and electromagnetic forces at 10^16 GeV. It can’t be refuted in the way you describe, simply because it is an extrapolation of existing well-tested theoretical ideas in the Standard Model.

  • Mark

    I must have misinterpreted

    You can’t ever get rid of any theory unless you are willing to compare it to another!

    In any case, comparison with other theories is sometimes useful (and fascinating if one has two theories which both explain and fit all data within the error bars), but is not a prerequisite for a good theory – comparison with data is what matters.

  • damtp dweller

    Science, you’re hopelessly confused by the concept of theory and comparison of a theory with experimental observation.

  • Peter Woit

    Count Iblis,

    I did read the PRL article before writing anything about this and actually directly commented on the paper itself in my posting as “This paper is perfectly reasonable, discussing a proposal for getting information about the number of extra dimensions, assuming Tev-scale gravity (a huge assumption most people think unlikely) and thus production of black holes at the LHC.”

    What I was objecting to in my posting was nothing in the PRL article, but the misleading “physicists develop test for string theory” hype in the press release, hype of a sort which one sees time and time again. It seems to me that Joanne and her co-authors agree with me that this kind of headline was a misleading, overhyped way of characterizing their work. The only person who seems to think it wasn’t is Lubos.

  • bittergradstudent


    In this case, there are a slew of other possible theories to compare this prediciton to: no micro-blackhole production and micro-blackhole production corresponding to hawking radiation scenarios consistent with an n-dimensional blackhole horizion (with n arbitrary), for example. If you wanted to get kooky, you could come up with far more ideas than this to compare the result to.

    But in the end, you do the experiment, you calculate what the error bars are, and if a theory has a prediction outside the error bars, it is ruled out, and if it is consistent with the error bars, than it is a candidate theory for the supposed theory that acutally works. Adding a control is just one way that social and medical science attempts to properly calculate what those error bars are.

  • Plato

    Well, some people might have thought quantum Diaries might have not been successful in relaying information to the public? Overall, I thought the public relations that you work with JoAnne in collider perspectives, were extended by them, to the cosmological interactive recognition by Steinberg(Microstate blackholes) or John Ellis(Pierre Auger Expeirments), and the many more.

    So I think this process is a very good one, regardless. More personal in a blog experience, that we can get right to the heart and truth of the matter eh?

    Slac still might be thinking in terms of, the “ole way of doing public relation” for sure. I would not like to think, that the opportunity given to us here, might had been thought in that context of the experiment not working, as Quantum Diaries might have.

    The very name string evokes stranges things in people’s minds, and right away, they get up their guard, but if you understood the rise of model speculation, from your predecessors, it is not some ID relation we should call such progress and evolvment of thinking, that we might now correct ourselves today, and say yes, it was the title that did it?

    There is a deeper responsibility, that our lack of funding in one area, is not at the revulsion of another area, that we spew forth, all the wrong reasons, and quickly discard the underlying work to extend the whole standard model process.

    So I say, continue to persevere, and not think of it as a futile process, but a very good one, that you have shared your information today.

  • Count Iblis


    My apologies!

  • Maynard Handley

    Peter is being polite and objecting to the PR aspects of the announcement.
    But come on, “if so called micro-black holes, which are smaller than the nucleus of an atom, exist, they can be used to determine the number of extra dimensions ” is not physics, or at least its workaday, let’s see what happens physics, not “let’s trumpet it to the skies”.

    Mathematicians do a thriving trade in theorems of the form “If the Riemann hypothesis were to be true then …”, but this is the first time I have see physics in this form. What’s next?
    “If we can ignore GR then …”
    “Assuming the existence of a material with 5000 times the heat conductivity of diamond, we propose an experiment to …”

    Of course there is a matter of judgement here. The whole existence of LIGO is dependent on “assuming the existence of gravitational waves”. The difference, as I see it, is that we have pretty good reasons to assume the existence of gravitational waves. On the other hand, the argument here is structured like
    “assuming the existence of A (for which we have no evidence whatsoever) we prove the existence of B (for which we have no other evidence whatsoever)”.
    When LHC makes its first black hole, great, I’ll admit I was wrong. Until then, color me sceptical.

  • Plato

    I’ll just ignore this then, and any particle creations that arise from any such speculation, Okay? :)

    The reason I do research is to understand where things arose from. I give indications of this. Once you learn this history, it is not so easy to call them crackpot(Gellmans help in keeping John Schwartz moving forward). Especially, learning of these leaders stature.

    Maybe, these are some of the reasons behind trackbacks being denied? Of course I speculate and wonder as well. Maybe, it will be corrected.

    The tone has changed much, and I see lots of support.

    You have to remember such dialogues like Solvay were initiated( meetng of minds), to progressively move thinking forward. Qui! NOn?

    What could have been gained, if no such dialogue took place? A layman perspective here, is all.

  • Science

    ‘Science, you’re hopelessly confused by the concept of theory and comparison of a theory with experimental observation.’ – damtp dweller

    You seem to be confused: if you include nonsense in the category of scientific theory.

    The only way Ptolemic theory was overthrown was by comparison to an alternative. String theory similarly needs to be compared to alternatives to see if it is the best model. Otherwise, you fiddle the theory to the facts.


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