Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Did Reuters and the BBC break the embargo on the neutrinos-speed of light story?

with 6 comments

Unless you’ve been living under a rock — or then again, this being particle physics, maybe even then — you’ve by now heard about what is being heralded as a finding that may overturn Einstein’s theory of relativity. With the caveat that the results need to be confirmed, a group of physicists working on an experiment known as OPERA, run by CERN and Italy’s Gran Sasso Laboratory, say they have observed neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light.

And as a number of people have suggested, a story by a colleague of mine at Reuters seemed yesterday to violate far more mundane rules, those of the embargo. (Or, as a few jokesters said, the new findings may have allowed the story to travel back in time.)

But it’s far more complicated than that. Sort of like particle physics.

Some of the details of are a bit murky. And I should say from the outset that whenever you write about something involving your colleagues, it’s tricky. But I’m pretty clear on what happened.

First,  a number of science journalists knew about the finding starting some 10 days ago. CERN and the OPERA officials had asked those reporters to hold off publishing until they gave the go-ahead, and had suggested that the news would be released last Friday, September 16. But they weren’t sure how they were going to publish and publicize the results, and they had never asked anyone to agree to an official embargo, certainly not in writing.

That’s apparently standard practice for CERN, which doesn’t typically put out embargoed press releases. Marco Cattaneo, editor in chief of Le Scienze, the Italian edition of Scientific American, has covered CERN and Italian physics research for two decades. He told Embargo Watch:

Everybody can do whatever they want. There’s nothing written. It’s a gentleman’s agreement.

Everyone seemed to maintain that gentleman’s agreement, at least until yesterday morning: The Italian newspaper Il Giornale published an interview — a somewhat strange one — in which a well-known Italian astrophysicist, Antonino Zichichi, said that “something unexpected” had happened at CERN. Zichichi had apparently called the reporter one evening. Here’s part of that story, with original text followed by Google Translate’s version:

“I neutrini prodotti al Cern arrivano nei laboratori del Gran Sasso prima di quanto impiegherebbe un raggio di luce.” “The neutrinos produced at CERN laboratories in Gran Sasso arrive before it would take a beam of light.”

I neutrini sono più veloci della luce? Neutrinos are faster than light?

Ma questo è impossibile. But this is impossible.

“È per questo che l’ho chiamata. “That’s why I called.

“Se venisse confermata, sarebbe la scoperta del secolo. “If it were confirmed, it would be the discovery of the century.

“Anzi la più grande scoperta da quando Galilei incominciò a studiare la logica che regge il mondo: logica cui si dà il nome di Scienza….

“Indeed, the greatest discovery since Galileo began to study the logic that rules the world: logic which is given the name of science….

Soon thereafter, rumors began circulating on Twitter and elsewhere about the find. It’s unclear if those rumors originated with the Il Giornale piece, but my Reuters colleagues being wire service reporters, they wanted to try to confirm them and get the news out. CERN apparently told the OPERA spokesperson for the experiment, Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern, it was fine to speak to Reuters.

I’m told that Ereditato never mentioned the word “embargo.” So a Reuters story went live at about 12:30 Eastern time, at which point everyone began publishing their stories, starting with the BBC.

So there, as best I can tell, is what happened. This wasn’t an embargo break. It was a clumsily handled gentleman’s agreement whose existence probably wasn’t clear to everyone.

I’ve contacted CERN to ask whether the experience means they’ll consider using formal embargoes. I’ll update with anything I hear back, keeping in mind they’ll be pretty busy today.

In the meantime, there’s a CERN webcast going on as this post goes live in which scientists are describing the results. Here’s part of the press release CERN sent out this morning:

The OPERA result is based on the observation of over 15000 neutrino events measured at Gran Sasso, and appears to indicate that the neutrinos travel at a velocity 20 parts per million above the speed of light, nature’s cosmic speed limit. Given the potential far-reaching consequences of such a result, independent measurements are needed before the effect can either be refuted or firmly established. This is why the OPERA collaboration has decided to open the result to broader scrutiny. The collaboration’s result is available on the preprint server arxiv.org: http://arxiv.org/abs/1109.4897.

The OPERA measurement is at odds with well-established laws of nature, though science frequently progresses by overthrowing the established paradigms. For this reason, many searches have been made for deviations from Einstein’s theory of relativity, so far not finding any such evidence. The strong constraints arising from these observations makes an interpretation of the OPERA measurement in terms of modification of Einstein’s theory unlikely, and give further strong reason to seek new independent measurements.

“This result comes as a complete surprise,” said OPERA spokesperson, Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern. “After many months of studies and cross checks we have not found any instrumental effect that could explain the result of the measurement.While OPERA researchers will continue their studies, we are also looking forward to independent measurements to fully assess the nature of this observation.” 

Hat tip: Fabio Turone, who also corrected some of the Google Translate translation

Written by Ivan Oransky

September 23, 2011 at 10:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Interesting account but you neglect to mention that rumours starting appearing in blog comments from the 15th By the 19th there were detailed posts on some science blogs. I don’t think the MSM can be expected to keep an embargo about something that is already being openly discussed on the internet.

    Philip Gibbs

    October 6, 2011 at 5:03 pm

  2. Basically you are suggesting in your notion of a “gentleman’s agreement” that journalist should cozy up to who they are covering. There was no embargo. The story was written. You just missed the boat.


    November 22, 2011 at 2:40 pm

  3. If people will remember the big press situation over Kip Thorn’s Time Travel ideas a few years ago played against him in many ways. But in general there never has been any real embargo on news. As for the rumor mill in this day and age with most of the world connected it is almost certain anything talked about in private will spread across the world faster than a speeding neutrino,LoL. CERN has been right all along in subjecting the whole Neutrino finding to checking and rechecking. In some ways, the release of the Cat out of the Bag, so to speak has insured some of that actual checking and rechecking process. There are aspects of this whole finding that should be relooked at, especially over more paths of detection and over a wider baseline. It is my opinion that the press should be kept informed and that the best way to keep the rumor mill more true is to make sure the truth is out there and not impose some artificial embargo on news.

    Paul Karl Hoiland

    December 17, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    • It is not the job of the Establishment to hinder the flow of truth from discovery. However, it is the job of the Establishment to make sure that truth is truth, and not some half baked rumor driven dribble. By the way, the CERN case is not an example of dribble at all. It could be one of the most important discoveries of all time and it also could be one of those many wrong turns on the way to a better understanding of the Cosmos we live in.

      Paul Karl Hoiland

      December 17, 2011 at 7:54 pm

  4. They did not have to wait such a news (on faster thal light particles) was confirmed!!!
    Such a news had to be rejected immediately, as I did!
    And I did it because I knew electromagnetism.





    Leonardo Rubino

    April 11, 2014 at 8:39 am

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