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Setback after setback, but it’s all part of the process

Setback after setback, but it’s all part of the process


Joey Roberts

“Failed” science

Chic conferences, polished presentations and glossy journals. The scientific world seems like one big success story. “Seems”, because reality, of course, is different. In this series, Observant will look for the mistakes, the setbacks, the slip-ups, the unexpected turns. Because those too, or maybe even especially, are science. Today: Marcel Merk, professor of particle physics.

He has been living in Amsterdam and working at Nikhef, the Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics, since the 1990s. But Marcel Merk now also has a flat in Maastricht, the place where he was born in 1964. As of January 2020, he holds a partial appointment as professor of particle physics at the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

These are exciting times for him, he says. One of these weeks, the results of an experiment in which UM also participated will be revealed. “How exciting? There have been two highlights in my career. The first happened in 1993, when we discovered that there are three copies of each particle, each fundamental building block of matter. And the second is this experiment that is now coming to an end.”

The results may still be disappointing, though – more on that later.

Holy grail

His whole life, Merk has been trying to unravel the mystery of missing antimatter. Collisions in the accelerator in Geneva have shown researchers that each particle has an identical counterpart that carries the opposite electric charge. There’s an antiproton for each proton, an anti-electron for each electron. The Big Bang must also have created these antiparticles, or “antimatter”, but the big question is: why are there no signs of this in the universe? Where did all those anti-atoms go?

It’s actually a good thing they’re not there, says Merk, as matter and antimatter cancel each other out and disappear in a burst of energy. In other words, there would be no universe. The particles and antiparticles apparently did not annihilate each other during the Big Bang, which suggests they are not completely identical and behave slightly differently. Detecting this difference in an experiment is the holy grail of particle physics today.

Software guys

Experimentation in this branch of science differs from experimentation in behavioural sciences. Whereas psychologists may conduct several experiments per year, physicists devote many years to a single study. And they don’t work alone, but together with dozens of universities.

The seed of the exciting experiment Merk is looking forward to was planted in 1995. “We got together with thirty universities to design a detector best suited for our purposes. Those meetings took place in Geneva. After that, each university set to work building and testing a part of the detector. This took about ten years.”

This stage of the process takes such a long time because it involves one setback after another. “Reality is tougher than you think. It’s always more work, it’s always more complicated and time-consuming. On some level you know that going in, but it’s still frustrating. For example, the detector didn’t detect the particles in the accelerator as accurately as we wanted it to.” Meanwhile, the “software guys” were designing programs to reconstruct the trajectory of the particles as well as possible. “This is also something that dozens of people will work on for years.”

Spectacularly wrong

And they weren’t out of the woods yet, as each university had to apply for funding in their own country. “We requested five million euros from the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM), now part of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). And yes, our proposal was accepted. But if it isn’t, which happens regularly, you have to try again a year later. Generally, it all works out for projects of this magnitude because they are accompanied by lobbying, as is happening now with the Einstein Telescope.” 

Once the funding was secured, dozens of engineers from all the countries involved gathered to install the detector in the underground tunnel at CERN. But in 2008, it went spectacularly wrong. Just before the experiment was due to begin, dozens of superconducting magnets – each 15 metres long – came loose in the tunnel with an enormous bang. Human error, setting the experiment back by a year.

Merk: “It was a bit of a shock at first, but we used the extra time to subject some detector components to additional testing. All in all, the incident benefited us more than it hurt us.”

Serious crack

In 2010, the particle accelerator was started up again and the experiment resumed. The result followed two years later: while the researchers were able to detect a difference, it wasn’t large enough to explain the Big Bang, says Merk. 

This was a disappointment – but the detector has been further improved since, and UM postdoc Jacco de Vries and Nikhef PhD student Silvia Ferreres have analysed a lot of new data. Those will be revealed in the next few weeks. “The research process is ‘blind’, which means the researchers can’t look at the interim result. It’ll be a big surprise for everyone.”

If it turns out that particles and antiparticles do behave differently, this will also have consequences for the overarching theory of particle physics. This Standard Model, which has been showing cracks since the 1970s, describes the fundamental forces in nature, among others. 

“Finding a significant difference between matter and antimatter would cause a serious crack in the theory and create space for new ideas at the same time. It would be big news in particle physics worldwide.”

A happy man

It’s a question Merk is asked all the time: what does the world gain from this? “Nothing, in a way. That is, it won’t lead to a concrete application. But that isn’t the point, either. What we do is try to shake the very foundations of physics. That’s something I work on every day in my head. And if this experiment makes a major contribution to our understanding of the universe, my life will have been a success and I’ll be able to die a happy man.”


Journal of “failed” science

Many things go wrong in science, as they do everywhere. But why are the failures, setbacks or dead ends in research rarely exposed? Is it because of the tremendous amount of pressure on researchers to be successful? Is that why failure is a taboo in science? 

“We have unrealistically high expectations of researchers”, says recently graduated historian of science Martijn van der Meer. “If failure was a little more accepted in the scientific world, the work environment would immediately be a lot healthier and more pleasant. Sometimes failure is necessary to achieve something beautiful.”

Van der Meer is one of the master’s students from Utrecht University who founded the Journal of Trial and Error (JOTE). This open-access journal embraces negative, non-significant results rather than shying away from them.

The point of the journal, which first appeared in November, isn’t to glorify “sloppy science”, says Van der Meer. Papers with incorrect statistics, improper data collection or sloppy writing are rejected. All articles go through a rigorous peer-review process and first appear online in preprint

The journal isn’t receiving a lot of submissions yet. “People have plenty of articles in their desk drawers”, suspects Van der Meer, “but they have to be brave enough to submit them. Some might be worried that being published in a journal of “failed” science wouldn’t look good on their CV.” And that’s exactly the problem JOTE aims to address. (HOP)



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