CERN: The View From Inside

Tommaso Dorigo has a new post up on Information control from CERN, where he discusses a Physics World interview by Matthew Chalmers of the head of communications at CERN, James Gillies.

Gillies addresses what CERN sees as a problem: information coming out first in blogs rather than from the CERN director through official press releases. One aspect of this is the release of information about experimental results, and Tommaso discusses this question on his blog. Unfortunately, I think CERN and the LHC are still quite a ways away from having any experimental results that need to be protected. For the rest of this year, the LHC will be getting a lot of attention from high energy physicists, but what they will be interested in is the question of how the machine is progressing towards the goal of colliding beams at a useful luminosity. For most of the history of the project, CERN’s information policy was remarkably open: the slides from presentations made before the technical committees guiding the project were posted in locations that, while not advertised, were easy to find and did not require a password to access. Anyone with a serious interest could follow along and get first-hand technically accurate information about what was happening.

Things changed rather dramatically after the accident last September 19th. Publicly accessible logbooks were edited to remove information, and public access to the websites of the technical committees was shut off:

Who ordered links to photos and some presentations to be password protected after they appeared on blogs?

[Aymar] wanted the CERN community to receive the news from him before it was made more widely available, so access to slides was temporarily restricted. People just hadn’t realized how much in the spotlight we are now.

Gillies doesn’t address the issue of why these websites have now been restricted, a policy that appears to be permanent and go beyond a “temporary” restriction. According to Chalmers:

CERN’s new director general [Rolf-Dieter Heuer] told staff on 12 January, that from now on people would hear about events first from him, not the press.

This kind of tight control of information about what is happening at the LHC seems to me to be a misguided policy. The best and most timely source of information for CERN staff about the LHC should be first-hand information from the engineers and physicists working on the project, not whatever has made its way up the chain of command and then been laundered for public consumption. Shutting off access by physicists to accurate technical information and making the DG the only source of news about what has happened at the LHC is likely to just encourage unchecked rumor.

Next week at Chamonix there will be an LHC Performance Workshop, and the slides are supposed to be publicly available here as the presenters post them over the next few days. These slides should give an accurate picture of where the project is and what a realistic proposed schedule for the rest of the year would look like. According to the Physics World interview, CERN’s plan is that “a realistic schedule will be announced” after the Chamonix workshop. Of course, by then, many people will have already have a good idea about what this schedule will be, that is, if the slides are not password-protected….

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8 Responses to CERN: The View From Inside

  1. rumors about chamonix says:

    Well, one additional piece of news about CERN restrictive policies is that CMS is closing the outside access to their twiki page.

    Since this is going to happen on February 2nd, there is still time to dump the whole site on some disk and make a mirror. Of course, that will not allow access to future additions to the page, but still…

    On a different note, in Chamonix the plans for 2009 running (and beyond) will be laid down. There is considerable focus on whether 6 TeV c.m. would be enough to beat the Tevatron results on Higgs and other searches, given 100/pb of data or so. It seems 6 TeV are insufficient, while 10 TeV would fit the bill. However, 10 TeV will be very risky for the machine, which will not be totally safe from possible additional incidents like the one of Sept. 19th. My guess is that they will declare they’re going for 10 TeV this summer, and then settle for 8-9 TeV this fall.

  2. DB says:

    I have been harbouring a suspicion for some time that the LHC management are more concerned about the long term operational viability of the LHC than they are letting on.
    There is a question as to whether the machine can fulfill its operational goals or whether is will be so prone to breakdowns that its effectiveness may be seriously compromised.
    However, I don’t want to exaggerate this, it’s just a minor nagging doubt for now.
    Debates as to whether the quench suppression systems really are up to the job, in which case the last incident was just a freak occurrence, are among those that you might expect to see aired in internal meetings. Management would not want the outside world to get hold of such candid discussions for obvious PR reasons and this could explain the “temporary” access restrictions which are still in place. While I don’t like it, I can understand the need for internal teams to feel they can freely and candidly discuss all possibilities without the prying eyes of the media who, let’s face it, can only be trusted to adopt the most sensationalist spin.

  3. Peter Woit says:


    The only sensationalist spin about the LHC I’ve noticed in the media is that surrounding black holes, and that is driven by theorists. The media coverage of LHC progress, problems and the accident seems to me to be have been quite responsible, with the accurate first-hand information available from the technical committees and the links to that provided by blogs helping to ensure this. When there is trouble, the media attention is going to be uncomfortable for CERN, but they’re the ones who have gone to a lot of trouble to get this media attention before the machine is operational, while they’re in problem-fixing mode.

  4. Yatima says:

    Groan. I can understand the urge to “control and restrict” information about the internal processes of CERN, even though the primary reason for this will be the bog-standard one that you encounter time and again in industry, public organizations and politics, namely, preventive ass-covering and the urge to not make your money sources ask too many questions that you cannot honestly answer. While there evidently will be no darker motives behind any such policy change (Dick Cheney has not being tapped for this, right?), I’m sure a lot of fringe elements will be energized and will start looking for the “story behind the story” and the coverup motives in a heartbeat. I’m sure it’s easy for everyone to list a few scare scenarios not out of place in an X-Files episode. It is doubtful that this will result in a positive message or responsible media coverage in the long run.

  5. onymous says:

    The only sensationalist spin about the LHC I’ve noticed in the media is that surrounding black holes, and that is driven by theorists.

    Is it? My sense is that the person who has been most consistently pushing the possibility is Greg Landsberg, an experimentalist. There is a bit of theory work at one edge of the community but I think few theorists would call this a plausible possibility. Most of the work by competent people in recent years was either driven by the need to produce a safety report once the crackpots got too vocal, or by people arguing that the original estimates were too optimistic even in the implausible models where it could happen at all.

  6. Pingback: No Chamonix For You « Not Even Wrong

  7. Warren Platts says:

    One thing I’ve found conspicuous by its absence is an analysis by CERN of CERN’s culture, and what role that culture played in the explosion, er, “incident” of Sept 19. When NASA reviews what happened when a shuttle blows up, there is in addition to an analysis of the proximate, mechanical causes, there is also an analysis of how NASA culture might be involved, e.g., pressures to launch despite icicles hanging from rockets. Yet there’s be nary a word from CERN regarding its culture. The only clue that there are cultural issues came from Herr Heuer’s promise to be more cautious than his predecessor. Why would he say such a thing? It wasn’t the fault of a busbar splice after all? All this information control and spinning is not healthy–not to mention undemocratic.

  8. csrster says:

    Trying to stop physicists from talking about their work? Welcome to the exciting world of cat-herding!

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