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Everyday science

Should cameras be banned at conference presentations?

03 Sep 2008

By Jon Cartwright

Physicists used to be able to show preliminary results at conference presentations, safe in the knowledge that no-one would steal their data. Now, with the advent of the “physics paparazzi”, things have changed.

It started a few weeks back when, at a high-energy physics conference in Philadelphia, a member of the PAMELA team flashed a slide that depicted an excess of high-energy positrons in the ionosphere. Although several conference attendees suggested the positron excess could be evidence for dark matter — the elusive substance thought to make up some five-sixths of all matter in the universe — the team did not make the slide available to journalists or other scientists.

That, however, didn’t stop Marco Cirelli of CNRS in France and Alessandro Strumia of INFN in Italy. Those attendees managed to take a snapshot of the slide during its momentary disclosure and use the picture as the basis for an analysis which they published on the arXiv preprint server.

Piergiorgio Picozza, the principal investigator for PAMELA, is reluctant to pass judgement on Cirelli and Strumia. “It happened. We learnt. This is life!” he told me earlier today.

Others find it less easy to accept. Here’s what Andrew Jaffe wrote on the Leaves on the Line blog yesterday:

bq. [It] makes me very uncomfortable. It would be one thing to write a paper saying that recent presentations from the PAMELA team have hinted at an excess — that’s public knowledge. But a photograph of the slides sounds more like amateur spycraft than legitimate scientific data-sharing.

So, what do you think? Should cameras be banned at conference presentations?

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