Rescue of old data offers lesson for particle physicists
Feb. 11, 2011
In the mid-1990s, Siegfried Bethke decided to take another look at an experiment he participated in around 2 decades earlier as a young particle physicist at DESY, Germany's high-energy physics lab near Hamburg. Called JADE, it was one of five experiments at DESY's PETRA collider, which smashed positrons and electrons into each other. Looking at the strength of the force that binds quarks and gluons into protons and neutrons, JADE finished in 1986 when DESY closed down PETRA to build a more powerful collider. In the decades since, new theoretical insights had come along, and Bethke hoped the old data from JADE—taken at lower collision energies—would yield fresh information.
What the physicist found was a disaster. Since JADE shut down and the experiment's funding ended, the data had been scattered across the globe, stored haphazardly on old tapes, or lost entirely. The fate of the JADE data is, however, typical for the field: Accustomed to working in large collaborations and moving swiftly on to bigger, better machines, particle physicists have no standard format for sharing or storing information. “There's funding to build, collect, analyze, and publish data, but not to preserve data,” says Salvatore Mele, a physicist and data preservation expert at the CERN particle physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland.