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Archive for September, 2007

The art of scrounging

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

HAH! My father has made a major discovery, which basically made my day on several levels. First, if I ever get to name something I think I’ll call it the “Charlie Busom” in honor of his faux paus. Second, he is mentally allergic to computers, so the fact that he managed to put a comment on my blog is nothing short of a miracle.

Finally, if you’ve seen the garage, you know you can find anything in there. This is because, after raising 8 children (4 boys, 4 girls, I’m the 7th, and the answer to the religious question is yes) you tend to accumulate a lot of stuff. Add to that the fact that for all his life he has fixed engines on cars, boats and mopeds, completed fairly big interior and exterior home improvement projects (mostly on his offspring’s houses these days, as Mom doesn’t let him mess with “her house” too much…), and you get the picture. It was always somewhat disconcerting to see your Dad, an ophthalmologist whose livelihood depends on his ability to do surgery on people’s eyes, with oil stained, bloody fingers, knuckles, arms, etc from incidental nicks and scratches incurred doing whatever project he was working on. He looked more like a hired handyman than the head of the household – but of course, with 8 kids who needs hired help? His workshop was quite a masterpiece of disorganization. For 25+ years, there was a sign taped to the boiler in his workshop which read:

Note: This room may not be much, but it is mine. I cannot fix your toys if you lose my tools. -Dad

and it in fact worked – it was neigh impossible for anyone other than Dad to find things in the workshop, but he knew where everything was.

I think probably I owe some fraction of my experimental prowess to this situation, for it was in my Dad’s workshop where I learned the art of scrounging. Bizarre as it may sound, this is a unsung skill of experimental science – the ability to enter a lab and find/construct what you need to solve some design issue or prototype a potential solution for feasibility. You have something you want to build, and you are looking for which tools you might be able to use to do it – maybe you cannot find exactly what you need, so you experiment with what might work, or maybe change your approach to solve your problem in a different way based on what you can do with what you have. I don’t really think this is something that I consciously pursued, but it basically just happened to me as I grew up helping my Dad with projects, or scrounging around in his workshop on my own…from tinkering in the garage with the building blocks for a go-kart to tinkering in the lab with the building blocks of nature is not as far a stretch as it may seem.

So, Dad, if you indeed found the “Higgs Busom” in the garage, how about a swap? I’ve got a nice 24″ crescent wrench…
Swap for the Higgs


Tour du Leman

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Last week when the Tour du Leman (a.k.a Tour du Lac) was looming, my goal was to finish. As it turns out, we didn’t just finish.

We won!

We were the fastest mixed quad to row around the circumference of Lake Geneva. It was 160km and it took our crew 15 hours, 33 minutes and 15 seconds to lap the lake. Starting at nine in the morning and finishing in the dead of night, just past midnight.

The Societe Nautique de Geneve, which is where the race began and ended is one of those boathouses that every rower and sailor dreams to belong to. The rowing boathouse has many bays located next to a truly massive club house. Upon entering the club house, the America’s cup, which is impressive beyond words, is immediately to your right, followed by case after case of trophies.

The start of the race lived up to the grandeur of the boathouse. It was quite an event. There were the paparazzi boats filled with photographers. The support boats for each crew. Plus an armada of boats with spectators from the club house. Probably 50 boats in all. When the crew boats took off, we were flanked on both sides by very fast and very expensive catamarans. Although the start was exciting with so many people around, crew boats don’t handle wakes well. One of the photographers’ boats in particular was zipping back and forth taking pictures. Several times we had to stop, bank the boat to one side and brace for the impact of the waves. Once outside of Geneva though, our catamarans, photographer and spectator boats left us and we were on our own for the next 15 hours.

There were five rowers in our boat; four rowing, one coxing. Every 30 minutes, the coxswain would rotate back into a rowing seat. Thus, for every two hours of rowing, there was one 30 minute period of rest. Rest being an extreme understatement here. In those 30 minutes, you had to steer, eat, re-hydrate, stretch, etc. And before you knew it, you were back to rowing.

Throughout the entire race, we were followed by a support boat, which was there for emergencies only. For the most part, it just floated in the distance behind us. Every once and a while it would get close enough so we could see the drivers. They looked like two parents and their teenage son, who was clearly bored out of his mind. I wonder what parental guilt trip had been applied to this kid to convince him to spend his weekend on a tour of Lake Geneva at 5 knots.

As predicted, the 10th hour was truly the 9th level of hell. It was mentally the most difficult part of the race. The point where your focus starts to waver and you really start to feel the pain. At this point, we had reached the end of the lake about two hours before and we were headed back to Geneva. This picture was taken in the heart of that hour (doing my part to represent Cern though with a running club hat!). It was then that it really occurred to me, ‘Man, this lake is big! Why was I so stupid to have agreed to this!’


But as Stefan Kroh, a competitor in last year’s Tour du Leman, said, ‘I know that all difficult periods come to an end’. And so they do. In the last two hours to the finish, the only sound in the boat was eight blades entering the water. The sound of five people’s pure determination to finish.


But the next day at the award ceremony when we were showered and rested, victory was sweet. My very good friend and rowing partner Michelle and I were all smiles, showing off our winning cup.

When Michelle’s husband Jesper was driving us home after the race, he asked, ‘would you ever do it again’. And without hesitation I said, ‘no’. At the awards ceremony, when asked again I said, ‘uhm…’. If asked today, I’d say, ‘yeah, why not.’

Clearly, some people just never learn.


CMS Blues

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

I missed posting last week – I am already slipping.

Last week was CMS week, so it was quite hectic. We were also trying to run some tests on our hardware underground. The tests didn’t always go as planned. We had several outages – power to something or water cooling to something else. On Friday we couldn’t even get started. It was a frustrating period. Most of the reasons were understood, eventually. Monday’s was due to a fouine (beech marten) in a transformer. Poor little thing, what a way to go. Wednesday – Friday’s were due to a diesel generator replacement. We knew about that – but we thought the impact would be minimal.

Then yesterday afternoon (or evening, it was about 6:45 or so when it happened), I was going underground to drop of some items and fetch my husband, who was working hard on his portion of the experiment, and I stepped into the elevator, pressed the button for the floor I wanted and then waited. The doors closed and clunk! The elevator stopped. The display was blank, pressing buttons was doing nothing, I was stuck. I had a working CERN cell phone with a little charge and called my husband who made a few calls to the technical services (“we’re working on it”) and eventually to the fire department, who, since they come from the main CERN site, about 20-25 minutes away, arrived about 45 minutes later. I was glad to be out. I’m not particularly claustrophobic, but I’d rather not spend my evening in there. I am now wary of that elevator…I’m glad we have two.  I’m not sure this was at all related to the outages, but it just felt like the icing on the cake.

I was also writing a proceedings to the conference I just attended. I hope to have it done by friday – Monday I’m off to Modena, Italy for a few days to hang out and see some sights with my in-laws, who are around for about two weeks. It should be a good time – I always have enjoyed Italy, the food, the history, and, lest I forget, the wine.

A la prochain…


The Power of the Beam

Friday, September 21st, 2007

I wonder if the people working on the LHC accelerator fully realize the sheer power they hold over the entire high energy physics community. The ability to inflict mental anguish on thousands of people in the experiment communities with the tiny little phrase, ‘The LHC turn-on has been delayed.’ This week at CERN there have been meetings of two major administrative bodies: the Scientific Policy Committee and the CERN Council. If there is going to be a schedule change in regards to the turn-on date of the LHC, it will be made here.

For the whole week, it has felt like the entire scientific community at CERN is holding one collective breath. Waiting. Waiting. For that potential bad news of a scheduling delay. The meetings have passed. There have been no announcements of a scheduling change and now you can feel that breath being slowly exhaled. Just a little.

The annoying thing about schedules is that they generally only move one way. And there is a lot of nervous energy floating around in CERN about whether or not the beam will hold to the current schedule of next year. It is not that the detector people distrust the beam people. It is just that it is a big machine, with tons of little but important parts. Tons of places where things can go wrong. We understand why the schedule would slip. Doesn’t mean we have to be happy about it.

On my thesis experiment, SNO, life was easier. We measured neutrinos produced in the Sun. The beam was always on. And if it did turn off… Well, the world had much bigger problems. In SNO, the detector was all that you had to worry about.

Within the groups that I work, the feeling is similar. The detector is the focus. And the beam will just one day magically appear. I find that most people tend not to discuss the beam schedule but it is always present, unspoken in everyone’s mind. There is this thought, mostly dormant, that says, ‘what if we are ready and the beam is not? How long will we have to wait?’ Granted the beam people probably think the same thing. Only in reverse. ‘What if these detector people who are constantly nagging us about the schedule aren’t even ready when the beam turns on?’

With a machine so complicated, scheduling delays are to be expected. A month here. A month there. We could use the extra time for the detector. But what about a catastrophic failure? A year delay. Or even more. That fear can be felt, lingering occasionally in the hallways. No matter how much reassurance the CERN council can provide about the schedule, that nervous energy will always remain until the beam is running. Only until the first time two protons collide inside the detector will that collective breath finally be released.


Prairies and Alps

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

Ok, I promised my friend Jean to say something about the differences between Batavia and Geneve. But before I get there, a little more about my personal blog policy (Peter kicked it off, and there’s a bunch of discussion on another Peter’s site, about what should and shouldn’t appear, etc.) Here’s the way I look at it:

  • From the invitation to join the blogging community:

    The site is geared toward a wide variety of people: press and media, members of the US funding agencies and government, students and teachers, scientists from all fields, and the general public. In talking to representatives from many of these groups, they’ve all said how important putting a human face on science is, and that blogs are a great tool to achieve this

    To me this means a sort of continuous “day in the life”, rather than a source of latest “news” in the field of particle physics

  • The distribution of scientific information goes through peer reviewed journals. In fact, more than that – there are rather lengthy and thorough review procedures before results are released for external review in every collaboration that I know of. So someone hinting at something interesting in a blog is to be taken at the level of unsubstantiated rumor- maybe it bears out, maybe not, we’ll see when the paper comes out. (My kids know the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf by heart). There are problems with the way this works, for sure, but it does work.
  • As a corollary to the above – Just because I say so in this log doesn’t make it necessarily true. I may make statements about what I believe is correct, but someone else’s experience may be different. As an example…

On the differences between Geneve and Batavia

First off…


Ah, that isn’t being very fair, but suffice it to say that while prairies are fine, I prefer mountains and lakes. On the other hand, this is always misleading – you tell people you just spent 15 months in Switzerland and they immediately assume it was vacation-city, but in fact you are working so you don’t get to enjoy the environs as much as you want. And in fact, I much prefer the freezing but sunny winter day in Illinois to the ever cloudy and damp Geneve January, but that’s me. By the way, I took that picture at around 2400 meters on our way up to 3100 meters at the top of Mt. Buet on a 12 hour hike.

Living in Geneve is certainly a bit more complicated than living in Batavia. First there’s the language – to my shame and the chagrin of my wife, I have never really learned French, although I lived in France for three years and now in Geneve for another year or so. Essentially I have developed some vocabulary and no grammar, which used to unnerve me and make me afraid to try to communicate, but I’m over that now and just bumble through the best I can – with a decent effort and a good sense of humor (and sometimes a thick skin) you can get your message across. Why did I never learn to speak? Well, at CERN, English is the most common language used (everyone’s second language), so learning French isn’t necessary, and in fact I didn’t go there to learn French, I went to partake in CMS, so that is what I spent my time doing. The unfortunate side effect is getting a little lost or eating some “interesting” food but I continue to survive.

The other issue about Geneve is the expense – Switzerland is an expensive country, and Geneve is full of international workers (UN, UNICEF, WHO, WTO, UNHCR, ILO, IUIT…those are just off the top of my head) on expense accounts, so the prices go up accordingly. A while ago I looked at Money magazines “Most Expensive Cities”, at the recommended Government Per Diems from the State Dept., and at an online Relocation Salary Calculator used by MIT’s HR department, and they all told me the same thing – living in Geneve is about 1.5x more expensive than in Boston. Plus the dollar is sinking, but more so against the Euro than the Swiss Franc.

I don’t think I can really compare Geneve to Batavia beyond that – its apples and oranges. In Geneve we lived downtown, which was very fun albeit a bit noisy, because we could just walk almost anywhere or take public transport, which was very good. Batavia is a great town for what it is – which is more than just a bedroom community for Chicagoans, it has a feel all its own (the river helps). But, you are pretty far from the hustle and bustle of Chicago – we didn’t get in there very much, but that probably has more to do with the two youngsters than anything else.

What might be comparable is the difference between FNAL and CERN…but that’s for a later blog.


Tom and Me

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

Washington Irving’s story ‘The devil and Tom Walker’ keeps coming to my mind. The story goes (and having not read this story in 15 years, this retelling might be slightly skewed) that Tom Walker, walking through the forest one day, stumbles upon the devil. The devil offers Tom 20 years of complete prosperity for his soul at that the end of those 20 years. Tom agrees and for the next 20 years leads a cut-throat mortgage business. But as the twentieth year approaches, it occurs to Tom that the devil will be returning to collect his due. He begins to carry a bible with him at all times, thinking the devil can not take him with a bible. But one morning as Tom is foreclosing some poor person’s property, there are three loud knocks on the door. Exasperated from this poor person’s pleading and begging, Tom without thinking throws open the door. To the devil of course. Tom realizes too late that his bible is on the desk. And he is gone.

Right now I feel that Tom and I have a lot in common. Not that we both have ruthless real-estate businesses but rather that the time of collection has come.

I row with a small boathouse in Divonne (near Nyon on the French side of the border near Cern). In this boathouse I am the only member of Cern (that I know of) so it makes for a nice escape. Many, many months ago one of the eminent members of the club, Jacques, was telling us about an annual rowing race around the entire circumference of Lake Geneva. Jacques himself has competed in this race twice. And while at the time we all joked about the insanity of such a race, the seed had been planted. Soon we were having dinners to discuss the training. Next we had actually registered. Now we have to trailer the boat to Geneva for the race this Saturday. I promised to compete in this race and now the race has come. Ready or not.

I have included a picture of Lake Geneva just in case there are any doubts about this being a big lake.
Lac LemanIt is 160km around to be exact. And we will row around it in a coxed quad (five rowers where each rower rotates being the coxswain). In the best case, we expect to finish in 15.5 hours. In the worst, 17 hours. The race starts in Geneva saturday morning and goes through the night ending again in Geneva.

Now despite the opening story of doom and despair, I am actually really excited about the race. My boat is composed of four incredibly awesome people. Jacques, a two time competitor in this race; Vincent, a former French competitive rower; Michelle, a competitor in the NCAA national championships and former rowing coach at Columbia; and Oliver, who rowed across the Atlantic in 64 days. Having interesting people in a 15-17 hour competition is critical to one’s mental health. We talk about everything from the Higgs mechanism to the finer details of executive search.

But the excitement aside, there is a certain sense of anxiety too. It is the fear of the unknown. I have run marathons, I have raced innumerable crew races, I have trained for this race for multiple months. I know exactly how each of those things feel. I know exactly what to expect there. But what will the 10th hour of this race be like? When my hands are bleeding from open blisters and my quads are exhausted and my back is throbbing and I know that there are still 5-7 more hours to go? That is the devil at my door right now.

But unlike Tom Walker, the devil is not going to get me. Because come 9am this saturday morning, that lake is mine. All 160km of it.


36 Hours in Geneva

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

Oh, now the Grey Lady tells us what we should be doing in Geneva — and how long we should stay there? 36 hours? That’s a day and a half (3/2). Unfortunately, someone seems to have titled the web page “16hours.html” — or two thirds of a day (2/3). I’m detecting some mixed messages, or maybe just a typo.

Many of those who have spent essentially any time at CERN will have covered most of the writer’s suggestions. I visited LEP when I was a prospective grad student, and most of these things (Jardin Anglaise, Paquis, Les Armures, St. Pierre) were on the itinerary. Geneva has never felt like a fast-changing city. But then again, I missed the, um, Platinum Glam Club. So maybe I’m less surprised they don’t mention CERN anywhere in the article. Too bad — maybe I’m biased but I can’t recall a single visitor who wasn’t impressed, if not somewhat moved, by a visit to the lab.

That said, that I didn’t find Geneva to be a particularly stimulating place to be when I was there as a student in the 90’s. Lack of sufficient funds notwithstanding(the 25 CHF drinks aren’t that new of a phenomenon), the austerity of the Genevois was quite daunting to me, and I ultimately found myself really living in the French countryside, moving between various friends’ houses and the famous “farms”. Since then, sounds like the Genevois have moved to the country, and now some colleagues are choosing to settle in for the LHC era in town. Not too shocking, since I can barely keep up now with the new bars/restaurants/etc. popping up and disappearing all over the city. So times change, even if the Times may not be catching up so fast.


Why media matters

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

Hello All-
Nice to hear from old friends and new friends. Alan (MSNBC and creator of the Cosmic Log), I look forward to the full package. In fact, as I was doing all this media activity I realized that it is probably the best form of outreach we can do-with this blog, I won’t come anywhere near the readership of Alan, or the NY Times, Chicago Trib … In addition, these people are trained to communicate this message to the public effectively, while I am trained in Experimental Particle Physics, and there isn’t much overlap. Just as an example, I could make a web page describing my research for public consumption, but it would probably be too technical and not nearly as accessible as what David Levin and friends at NOVA Science Now put together. Much better to explain to the media experts and let them do the packaging to explain to the public, in my opinion.

Now, some of my colleagues (who will remain nameless) have been rather “high and mighty” about talking to the media, claiming that it is not relevant to the task at hand or only for those who want fame rather than physics. To these colleagues I ask – “Where does your paycheck come from?” In the end, our field is supported by taxpayer dollars (and similar for countries outside of the US), so if we refuse to inform the public about what we are doing and why it is important, seems pretty likely that our support will founder.

Sometimes this is hard – if you venture away from the spinoff argument Jane Q. Public doesn’t necessarily see the benefit the LHC brings her. However, I think you can sell the argument that exploration of the workings of nature is beneficial for the evolution of civilization-if we stop pursuing questions that don’t have immediate technological payoffs, we’ll become intellectually stagnant. 2005 was the centennial of Einstein’s famous papers, with much hullabaloo in the Physics community. Can anyone imagine that in 1905 one could predict what the world would be like 100 years later? So, what will it be like in 2105?

OK, enough pontification, I’ll aim to keep this short (I have a tendency to write far too long emails, and noone reads past the first few sentences). Next time, I’ll try to answer Jean’s question about the contrast between Geneve and Batavia…carefully.



Friday, September 14th, 2007

I really intended to get another post up yesterday, and it might have been a good one: there are a few isolated musings on the LHC schedule by some anonymous bloggers out there. But I held my fire.

It’s so tempting when writing for a blog to start really keeping up with and responding to the blogosphere. I mean, it will be great to get all meta on everyone and even discuss Chad Orzel’s recent post about this website (and not just because he was/wasn’t complimenting me on my “veteran” status in the physiblogosphere…) But I checked with my more senior colleagues who couldn’t verify the rumors, and after a lot of soul searching, I’ve come up with a new principle: no gossip from unverified or anonymous sources. As much as I feel that “gossip” in general is actually good for science in general, reminding people that the decisions that are made, even about huge projects like the LHC and its experiments, are made by people interacting with other people, it doesn’t make sense to me at this point to let every quiver of good or bad news propagate outward under its own power, a la light in vacuum. There’s a lot of great journalism out there, fact checked, vetted, edited, etc. And there are lots of great physics blogs out there from different subfields with real named individuals on them who can take responsibility for the information they disseminate. While it would be fun to inspire debate, I think I’ll be conservative for the moment.

Am I wrong? I know I’m setting myself up to violate my own rules, but you have to start somewhere!  The LHC is getting to be such a big deal, both in its importance to science as well as its sheer bulk in terms of resources and mindshare, that the gossip is inevitable.  So maybe this is a warning to readers to take what they hear “around” with a grain of salt.  Fortunately, CERN hasn’t seemed to shy away from bad news when unavoidable.  Here’s hoping there’s not much to report until the spring!

(And super interesting that the Greek god of gossip is “Pheme”, the root of the word “fame”…)


The City of Atlas

Friday, September 14th, 2007

I was perusing through our new US LHC website which is really quite nice. And I came across the page introducing Atlas. The question is given ‘What is Atlas?’. The answer is that Atlas is ‘one of two general-purpose experiments’. While there is nothing wrong with this statement, I feel that it doesn’t convey the correct mental image.

In freshmen physics, an “experiment” meant walking into class, seeing some air-track or pendulum set up on all the lab desks and thinking, ‘Awesome! We get to do an experiment today instead of being lulled to sleep with some monotonous lecture.’ Atlas is the exact opposite of this kind of experiment.

There are 1900 physicists working on Atlas. That is a lot. That is roughly the same number of people that lived in my hometown when I was growing up. It is like having 1900 lab partners except the experiment instead of sitting on a table is now the height a six story building.

The clear downside to having 1900 lab partners is that it is a lot of cooks in the kitchen. A lot of cooks with very different backgrounds and ideas about cooking. A lot of cooks who although they are open-minded to new approaches in cooking, still deep down think their approach is superior.

But the upside is in such a large group collaboration, the exchange of ideas is not a luxury but an necessity. The job is too big for one person. If two people disagree on a subject, they must work together to find a middle ground. Forging out alone is not possible. Working in such an environment forces you to constantly re-evaluate your own ideas and consider and incorporate the ideas of your other collaborators. It is never a stagnant environment.

A small city would be a better mental image for Atlas. In order to make the construction and operation of Atlas at all manageable, the experiment has to be organized that way. We have a ‘city council’ composed of men and women chosen for their experience and leadership who guide the general direction of the experiment. A ‘tourism bureau’ which organizes tours and websites about the detector. The “workers” who are the backbone of the experiment, the people who are building the detector with their own sweat. The “engineers” who verify that each sub-system is functioning to spec. And finally the “managers”, people who oversee each sub-system and determine where manpower should be distributed.

This is certainly an oversimplified image of the intricacy of the human interactions involved. But I find it impressive how an experiment so big can be built and its manpower organized at all.