Major blow knocks physicists off their feet

Before you get too excited, I should point out that the headline above is a parody of the squillions of reports circulating today on the interwebs on what is presented as an earth-shattering discovery in particle physics. Only it is neither earth-shattering nor a discovery, and the published stories are mostly rehashes of one or two journalistic pieces that have gotten the wrong end of the stick and flung it as far as is sensationally possible.

Take the normally measured Pallab Ghosh, whose article for the BBC on results from the Large Hadron Collider paints a picture of a crumbling bedrock of the theoretical framework known as supersymmetry. The results, which have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, and are available only in draft paper and much-quoted soundbite form, are concerned with the decay of a Bs meson into two muons.

That the results are only significant to the 3.5 sigma statistical level (equivalent to a one in 4300 probability of chance occurrence), should give pause for thought, and deter physicists and science journalists from making a big deal of it. But then we have hyperbolic quotes such as from Manchester University’s Chris Parkes

“Supersymmetry may not be dead but these latest results have certainly put it into hospital.”

With such rhetorical flights it is no wonder that reporters have taken the story and let it fly. So what is going on here, aside from over-the-top science PR and sensationalist science journalism? We do not yet know, and nothing more can be said until the data are analysed to the five sigma (one in two million) level. As it is, the story should not be given journalistic prominence.

Not only that, the claim that the observed Bs decay violates supersymmetry is, as snarky physicists are wont to say, not even wrong. Tucked away at the bottom of Ghosh’s BBC article is a comment from CERN and Kings College London theoretician John Ellis – the silver haired hippy who pops up on the television on a regular basis, and to the masses talks complex physics with the utmost clarity.

As Ellis says, the latest CERN observation is…

“quite consistent with supersymmetry”

That rather puts a dampener on things. Spoilsport!