Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Is all publicity good publicity?

Over the past few weeks there have been two pretty misleading articles written about one of the projects I work on, called EMMA. 

The first article appeared in the Mail on Sunday, who at least can be credited with visiting the facility. But here is the problem: the article is still pretty inaccurate, one could say downright misleading in some cases. From reading it, I can only assume that it came out this way because of some miscommunication between the person giving the tour and the journalist.

EDIT (23/6/11): For the record, the facts in the Mail on Sunday article are pretty much solid. They could have been presented in a slightly less misleading way, clearly, or the other articles which I discuss below would not have gotten the facts so wrong. The article calls EMMA 'pocket-sized' and then says you can use a 'pocket-sized' accelerator to drive an ADSR thorium reactor. While it later states you need a 1 GeV proton accelerator, I believe this is the cause of confusion...

I thought that was it. But to my (and everyone else's) surprise, it then appears on the Fox news website. Now, not only does this new article mention nuclear *fusion* in a thorium reactor (it ought to be *fission*) but also implies how this 'pocket sized' particle accelerator called EMMA could not only "power" a thorium reactor but also one day be shrunk down to "luggage size".

This new article almost sent me into a fit of rage. I am used to the press getting facts slightly wrong, but this seems to be a case of someone not giving the facts correctly, or not giving them in such a way that the journalist could understand. I don't know who actually gave the information, so I'm not blaming anyone here... 

EDIT (22/6/11): OK this is getting ridiculous, I just found this one, which is so absolutely and completely wrong that I am now compelled to contact them. Oh, and another one talking about fusion (thanks to one my colleagues for sending these) - I've tweeted the author of that one, I hope he read the info below!
While I'm at it, here's some more who've taken the Daily Mail or Fox News' articles and perpetuated the problem:
Propulsiontech (a blog I assume)

But this incident has really made me question whether all publicity is good publicity. In my position as an early career researcher on the project, I can only see that this going to negatively impact me. 

If you claim you're going to save the world and cure cancer you've got a lot to live up to... so what happens when it turns out to be not *quite* as true as the news articles claim? 

Isn't it better to be cautious about what you claim you could do and then wow everyone with your amazing research? Certainly anyone on any funding board would see straight through these claims and wonder why they were being made in the first place. 

Worrying. Very worrying. I'd love to have some feedback of what you think of this situation. 

To clear up the issues that I have with both articles, here are the facts:

  • EMMA is the Electron Model for Many Applications and is the first non-scaling fixed-field alternating gradient (NS-FFAG) accelerator in the world.
  • It is a prototype machine based on the parameters required for accelerating muons for a neutrino factory, designed to accelerate relativistic particles extremely quickly.
  • It accelerates electrons from 10-20 MeV (this is quite a low energy, that's why EMMA is so small!)
  • A thorium ADSR would require a PROTON beam of 1 GeV, note that in this energy range protons are NOT ultra-relativistic, so the same acceleration mechanism (called serpentine acceleration) used in EMMA is not possible.
  • Accelerating protons to 1 GeV necessarily requires a LARGER machine, and sadly there is not getting around the laws of physics. A higher energy beam with heavier particles requires either much stronger magnets or a much larger bending radius than EMMA to go around in a circle.
  • That said, EMMA is a very compact machine. However research carried out in the last few years indicates that you couldn't use the same design as EMMA for a proton machine anyway, because of very strict tolerances on alignment errors and the difficulty of getting a beam in or out of such a densely packed & compact machine.
  • Because of this, the idea of a "suitcase sized" non-scaling FFAG is a complete lie. I have no idea where this originated.
  • The only "suitcase sized" accelerators possible would be based on radical new technology like a laser plasma wakefield accelerator. Maybe one day they will be possible, but certainly not with the technology discussed in these articles.
There you go. There are the facts. From the horse's mouth, as it were...


  1. Publicity does go both ways Suzie. Look at it as an opportunity to promote your work through being able to correct the article. Write a letter to the editor or contact the newspaper. If what they have published is hugely wrong of a factual nature then they have a responsibility to correct their mistakes.

    Meanwhile... on a personal note. Lovely to read an entry that didn't ask me to think scientifically. You know what I'm like.

  2. I have just emailed the author of the third article (albeit only published at, the following email:

    Dear Debjyoti,

    I'd like to draw your attention to an article you wrote on Monday on the website, here:

    I am one of the scientists working on the EMMA project, so it is with alarm that I read your article which has completely misinterpreted the potential application of EMMA to thorium reactors.

    To explain what I mean and to counter the huge number of articles I am finding at the moment with this misleading information, I have written a blog post with some facts which might help you to clear up science fact from fiction. While the first part concerns the original articles which I assume your information came from, the second half has a bullet-point list of why the articles are wrong. You can find my post here:

    Most notably, you do NOT use electrons to drive a thorium reactor in an accelerator driven subcritical reactor. The reactor requires neutrons which can be produced by bombarding a target with a very intense beam of protons, which produce neutrons through a process called spallation. Note, you need *protons*. EMMA accelerates electrons, and only to a very low energy. EMMA itself is simply a demonstrator of the non-scaling FFAG technology. It is this new technology (not EMMA itself) which could potentially be used one day for ADSR. I say potentially because there are a LOT of unsolved problems and no actual fixed design as yet for a non-scaling FFAG for ADSR. Also, it is worth noting that by the very nature of the laws of physics, a proton ns-FFAG for ADSR (requiring 1 GeV protons) would necessarily be larger than EMMA. It might still be room-sized, but certainly not the size of a suitcase.

    I hope this clears up some of the conclusion and I would really appreciate it if you could fix up the article or ask the website owners to remove it or replace it with a more accurate version. Please let me know the outcome.

    Kind Regards