S03E09: The Vengeance Formulation

In tonight’s episode, Sheldon is angry. Or maybe it is just me.  Some European researchers  appeared to beat Sheldon to the discovery of magnetic monopoles.  In real life.  And they are not even particle physicists. Now Sheldon could be upset, but he can’t cry foul if he were scooped by a team that “got there first” with a technique that was better, or at least faster.  There is only one problem.

At the end of last season,  Sheldon led the gang on a months-long expedition to the Arctic to find the magnetic monopoles predicted by string theory.  The team returned in the season premiere, after a long ordeal, but like all such experiments before them, without catching any magnetic monopoles.    Then things took a strange turn for all of us.

In between the season premier’s taping date (August 11, 2009) and its air date (September 21, 2009)  an article  appeared on September 3  in the prestigious journal Science claiming discovery of magnetic monopoles. The equally prestigious journal Nature immediately ran a news summary,  “Overwhelming evidence for monopoles: Multiple experiments reveal materials with single points of north and south“.

Worse still, the researchers interviewed for the Nature article were taunting Sheldon in public:

People have been looking for monopoles in cosmic rays and particle accelerators — even Moon rocks,” says Jonathan Morris, a researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Materials and Energy in Berlin.

Instead, these researchers claimed, they found monopoles in small magnetic crystals “the size of an ear plug”.  Boy, Sheldon and everyone else searching for monopoles in cosmic rays and at accelerators must have been pretty stupid to be looking in all those wrong places.

But here’s the “only one problem”.    For every  North magnetic pole the researchers created in their small crystal samples, another magnetic pole, the South pole could always be found.   As Sheldon describes to Ira Flatow on National Public Radio’s Science Friday, “mono-” means one in Greek (“di-” being two.)  These samples  always had two.     Sure, to have called them “monopoles” is only off by one,  so maybe the editors of Nature will claim they were close enough.  But one versus two makes all the difference, between revolutionary “monopoles” and mundane “dipoles”.   They experiment reported simply did not discover magnetic monopoles.

Long tubes of magnetic field in spin ices produce effective monopoles at both ends. The two monopoles (North and South) are really a dipole.

The experiment reported in Science was a tour de force.   The experimenters did a beautiful job of separating the “North” and “South” poles by an enormous distance (nanometers, or billionths of a meter, which only a physicist could call “enormous”) in the materials, called spin ices.   So-called because the arrangments of spins is similar to that of hydrogen atoms in frozen water.  The experimenters created long tubes of magnetic fields, like spaghetti, whose ends behaved just like magnetic monopoles.  However, spaghetti has two ends.  They had created two objects like monopoles with opposite charge….in other words, a dipole.  Now each of these quasi-monopoles is still interesting.  It creates an anomaly in the crystal called a singularity.  The researchers measured and quantified much about the behavior of these singularities by scattering neutrons off of their samples.  Condensed matter theorists had developed interesting models about how such singularities would behave, and this experiment provides much needed data on the topic.

My only beef, and probably Sheldon’s too, is that overselling results by the media has consequences.  The public naturally comes away thinking a discovery of a completely different magnitude has been made.  What happens if one day Sheldon or someone else discovers a real magnetic monopole?  Physicists would have cried wolf too many times.

Now perhaps the media went farther than the researchers claimed.   For example, when my Ph.D. experiment, the CDF detector at Fermilab, announced evidence for the top quark in 1994, the New York Times said the final element of matter had been discovered (NYT 4/26/94).    Well every single one of us knew full-well that at least the tau-neutrino and probably many other particles had yet to be discovered.  Sad to say, this happens often, and consumers of the science media should take reports of major discoveries with a healthy dose of skepticism.   (Extrapolating, it makes me wonder how much we should believe of what reporters say about politics or world events.)

Thankfully there are exceptions.  Sometimes after an interview reporters come back to me with their near-final draft and ask for comments.  Those reporters get it right.  I heard from someone that went to journalism school that they discourage reporters from going back to the interviewees for a final check,  to promote impartiality.  But what’s the point of of impartiality on a news item that is not even correct?

So perhaps the same happened to the authors here.  I checked the original article and right in the first paragraph they are careful to state that they have created objects “resembling” monopoles.   They say that they “look like” magnetic monopoles.  While they never explicitly stated that these were not real monopoles, I think the researchers have done an honest job in the original article.   It is in the news summaries, such as the one linked above, and its echoes throughout the news world, where things got carried away.

Perhaps after listening to Sheldon’s interview on NPR’s  Science Friday, the journalists who wrote the news summaries confusing this experimental observation with true monopoles will post a clarification.  Sheldon is waiting.

Will you keep Sheldon waiting?

17 Responses to “S03E09: The Vengeance Formulation”

  1. lake Says:

    Awesome! Is Shelton (or Leonard?) also going to debunk the following highly-speculative theory which is overly publicized?


  2. Drew Scott Says:

    Excellent article David. With all of the recent news about LHC and the hype about the Higgs boson I worry that if/when it is finally found the media – and consequently the public to some extent – will have decided there is nothing at all left for particle physicists to do.

  3. Robert L. Oldershaw Says:

    The fault for this subtle, yet gross, misunderstanding was not primarily on the shoulders of the journalists, although they should be much less credulous and sycophantic than they have been for the last few decades.

    The blame primarily belongs to the scientists who published their research and said they had created “magnetic monopoles”. They had done no such thing, and they should have chosen scientific integrity over celebrity. They should have called their created phenomena “magnetic pseudo-monopoles” or “faux magnetic monopoles”. Then they would have gotten full credit for their accomplishment without causing a very regrettable misinterpretation of the results.

    Given the many millions of dollars and the countless research efforts spent in a totaly fruitless search for true magnetic monopoles, in accelerators, at the bottom of the ocean, coming from outer space in cosmic rays, on the surface of the Moon, up many dark holes, etc., you would think scientists would finally accept the verdict that nature has been telling them over and over and over and… … … . The little buggers do not exist, could not possibly exist, and thus will never be found anywhere.


  4. Bill Says:

    That’s interesting about the monopoles; but what I don’t get is how simply pumping helium into somebody’s office can replace the nitrogen with helium without also replacing all the oxygen.

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      If you replaced 100% of the air with helium, then there would be no oxygen. Even at some fraction less than that, you could have what is called an ODH (Oxygen Deficiency Hazard). I figured that Kripke was able to repace about a third to half of the air with helium. So it would not be much of an ODH, but would still have the desired effect on Sheldon’s voice. Sheldon was only in the office for a few seconds with the reduced oxygen anyway. NOTE. One of the writers BP clues me in to the fact that a roomful of helium may cause this effect differently than breathing helium. I’ll check it out and make a new post.

      • Nan Says:

        When the scene was shot, was Jim Parson really in a room full of Helium or was the audio signal simply processed?

  5. Michael Varney Says:

    “The little buggers do not exist, could not possibly exist, and thus will never be found anywhere. ”

    Wow… you sure like your absolutes, don’t you?
    Prove to me they (magnetic monopoles) absolutely do not exist.
    Design for me an experiment that can disprove their existence?

    Oh wait… the scientific method can’t really help you do this absolutely.
    That is ok, all you have to do now is remove your absolutes and write:

    “The little buggers most likely do not exist and thus unlikely to ever be found.”

    Oh, and for the obvious reasons (scientific method and all that) please don’t come back with a: “Prove to me they do exist.”


  6. Robert L. Oldershaw Says:

    Hi Mike,

    You are correct that my rejection of magnetic monopoles was too absolute. Sorry but I inject a little hyperbole into my polemics from time to time.

    But are you facing up scientifically to the mountain of negative scientific evidence pertaining to this issue?

    The mountain of scientific evidence does not “rule out” MMs, but it makes those who still hold out hope for their discovery look ever more like they suffer from Einstein’s definition of insanity: getting the same negative result over, and over, and over, and over, and … , and each time expecting the next result will be positive. Only a fool goes on a fool’s errand. Know what I mean?

    Care to comment on the other 90% of the post?


  7. Michael Varney Says:

    Yes, there is a huge mountain of evidence that MM do not exist.
    But I happen to be of a bent of looking for things that are not likely by examining unexplored areas of parameter space, so perhaps I am a bit less disturbed that others wish to do so as well.

    Straight forward Cooper theory stated there were no high temperature superconductors. Hey, no point in looking.
    Newtons laws work just fine. No point in looking.

    What is simpler than the inverse square law for gravity? But do we know it is valid for all length scales? This law has only been tested at certain length scales. So my group tested inverse square laws at short distances, and in doing so set strict upper limits on other (seeming unrelated) theoretical ideas, such as axions, compactified extra dimensions, dilitons etc.

    The point is that MM searches are not only about finding MM, they are setting limits on the parameter space where MM could be found, and other (seemingly unrelated) concepts. The money is well spent, and the mountain worthwhile to climb even if you already have a good idea what is at the top.

    P.S And yes, sensationalizing results is anathema to science.

  8. Alice's Astro Info Says:

    “Physicists would have cried wolf too many times.”

    Well, the media seems to eat up reports on the “discovery” of water on Mars or the Moon as many times as reports on varying states and amounts of H2O are published.


    So, I’ll bet you can discover something as charismatic as monopoles or dark matter as often as you want and still get media coverage.


  9. Ashish Says:

    I am an absolute fan of TBBT, and sometimes really roll on the floor on the Physics/Chemistry jokes and the insistence on grammatically correct english by the Nerds. However, it would be nicer if they talk less about Twitter/Facebook and more about real Computer Science, like complexity of some algorithm, or undecidability of some problem, or delay in network routing, etc.

  10. CapitalistImperialistPig Says:

    Robert & Michael,

    The reason magnetic monopoles remain interesting is that there are very good theoretical reasons for believing that they exist. See, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetic_monopole

    If they don’t exist, then there is probably something seriously wrong with our current understanding of theoretical physics, so there existence is an important idea whether true or false.

    • Michael Varney Says:


      Most of the “good” theoretical reasons are actually theories that are predicated on MM’s existence.

      Charge quantization needs but one mm in the entire universe… or god.
      (I wonder where to look for either?)

      Strings, branes… hugenormous number of adjustable parameters, some of which are mm mass etc.

      GUT’s… see above.

      “Gauss’s” law for magnetism is uniformly zero, experimentally and to exceedingly high precision.

      Nature gave us one Valentines day gift, then tossed the receipt and thumbed her nose at us.

      I say keep looking, especially if a nice theory points an arrow in a direction to look.

      But any theory that states that a mm exists but is not able to be tested for is not a scientific theory.

  11. Robert L. Oldershaw Says:

    “If they don’t exist, then there is probably something seriously wrong with our current understanding of theoretical physics…”

    Oh, you can bank on that my friend. Many serious problems!

    “But any theory that states that a mm exists but is not able to be tested for is not a scientific theory.”

    Now that’s what I like to hear! Nice!

    And the problems can all be traced back to a lack of the criterion stated by MV.


  12. Tradução: “S03E09: The Vengeance Formulation (A Formulação da Vingança)” « The Big Blog Theory (em Português!) Says:

    […] feita a partir de texto extraído de The Big Blog Theory, de autoria de David Saltzberg, originalmente publicado em 23 de Novembro de […]

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