Sunday, May 1, 2016

The weasel that wasn't

Just another quick - and sad - notice about the state of science reporting these days. Each and every major science news website in the Anglo-Saxon world is reporting that "a weasel" had attacked an electrical system of the Large Hadron collider, causing a shutdown. But there was no weasel: as everyone can read on page 10 of the Daily Summary for April 29 of the LHC machine status, the culprit was a fouine, and you have just to go to the respective French Wikipedia page to find out that this refers to one species of carnivore, known - use the sidebar with the 'Autres langues', always a good idea to translate animal names precisely - as the beech marten in English or the Steinmarder in German.

It's so simple: martens are the genus Martes while weasels and some close relatives form the genus Mustela. Both belong to the same subfamily Mustelinae and are thus related (although recent genetic research seems to remove the Martes and others from that subfamily) - but they are neither the same nor is one a subset of the other. (In German confusion might arise as the genus Martes is known as 'Echte Marder' while the family Mustelidae that includes the martens, weasels and much more is called 'Marder', so Wiesel are Marder but no Echter Marder can be a Wiesel. In English the term 'weasel' usually refers to one Mustela species while the Mustelidae may be called "weasel family".) A little digging would also unveil that the beech marten is the only Mustelid known to bite into cables (the reason for which is a subject of interesting research all by itself) - weasels don't do that.

With one "weasel" article after the other appearing on the web (by one author copying from another without checking the simple facts one may conclude, a chain of errors going back to the early incomplete stories) I got almost angry: how were we to trust these sources on reporting correctly on the LHC's complicated science when they can't even name the critter correctly that bit into it? Eventually my trust in journalism was partly restored, though, by the German Press Agency DPA which in its article - widely distributed among German newspapers - named the animal precisely and correctly as a Steinmarder. Still not convinced that this is an important issue? Then check out this bizarre article from 2011 ...