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Archive for March, 2008

It works for Indy…

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

You know, a prolonged absence sparks interest, just like Indiana Jones. Right?

Things have been happening though. We’re actually starting to test our piece of the puzzle, the CMS Tracker. It has 10 million channels from which we get information about what charged particles come out of the collisions, and we’ve now completely hooked up the 78 km of power cables, 1000 km of optical fibers, and the last 1.4 km of copper pipe (in 3.5 m pieces) to be able to start to run the detector. My students Phil Harris and Pieter Everaerts are in the thick of things, and have embarked on the Checkout procedure – we’ve only looked at about 3% of our detector since its 23 km ride on the truck to the experiment, but so far, things look quite good. Really right now we’re learning more about how to test it out then actually learning about testing it out, but “production mode” of checkout is around the corner, and none too soon.

Other things have been going on too. Mostly I am frantically trying to reteach myself particle physics before teaching it to my students. I think typically in physics one has to go over things a few times, increasing the detail each time, before you really get a grasp on how the theories all work. I tend to have “premature senior moments” when I know that something is true, but cannot quite remember how one arrives at that true statement. And we physicists are pretty good skeptics-we don’t believe something until it has been demonstrated to us.

Another really fun activity I got to do last Month was be a “speaker” in a Science Cafe. This is an event organized by the folks at WGBH’s NOVA ScienceNow and Sigma Chi, the scientific research society, where some scientist agrees to meet a bunch of regular people who are interested in science at a bar somewhere and just talk about the topic at hand, over a beer or two. No powerpoint, no real preparation, just an off the cuff introduction to what I do and why, and then Q&A and discussion. It was very relaxed, and there was an appointed moderator there to make sure I didn’t wander into too much jargon or technical description that would just lose the general well informed public. I had a blast, and think it was well received by the thirty or so people in attendance – and the bar which was our gratis host was happy too, since those thirty people did in fact have some food and drink.

The discussion did tend to revolve around Politics and Science, and I tried hard not to use my bully pulpit to express my own political views. The hardest question I think I had was “I believe in the science for science’s sake argument, and I believe is all the spinoffs like magnets, the web, Bill Foster’s (excuse me, Congressman Foster’s!) theatre company, my friend (and former Rochester HEP postdoc) Tony Vaicuilis’s wanting to use HEP Monte Carlo to test data mining algorithms in conjuction with research for identity protection (oh hadn’t mentioned that one yet, huh? New things pop up all the time), etc, but what effect will your research have directly – if we find a Higgs Boson, then what?”. I have to admit that I don’t have in my back pocket a “killer app” to implement as soon as we find the Higgs, but I think that misses the point of basic research. Maybe we can turn our discoveries into real applications 50 years from now – that is the time scale for these things to happen, otherwise it isn’t basic research. The applications I could dream up sound like science fiction, but then again, so did almost all the implements we use every day, 50 years ago. You think the guys who built ENIAC had any idea how their work would change the world? My favorite crazy ideas include controlling a Higgs field to manipulate the mass of the electron, or making supersymmetric atoms – a whole new dimension in chemistry. Right now, these are totally ludicrous, but who knows what can happen when you turn a corner on the understanding of the universe. I do know that if we don’t do the basic research now, we certainly won’t get the 50 year payoff, whatever that may be.

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Another CMS week has come and gone. A very intense one. I spent part of the week in meetings – and only two of them were officially scheduled. Most of Tuesday, half of Wednesday, some of Monday and Thursday were spent in meetings. I even wrote a talk (though short) for one on Monday. The bulk of Thursday was divided between people asking questions, needing help, and needing my system configured. The remaining hours were divided between juggling users of my system, answering phone calls and e-mails, and trying to organize a work plan for a presentation on Tuesday next week. I felt like I spent a lot of timing describing various parts of the system, which I was happy to do. But sometimes, I am left with some lingering self-doubt, as I wonder do I really understand what I am talking about.

A few years ago our first engineer retired, and I had to validate one of the remaining boards (and re-validate the others, as their new-and-improved versions came in from the manufacturers). As much time as the engineer and I spent together and went over things, there were still holes in my knowledge. Tossed into the fire, I had to really begin to understand the schematics, the parts on the boards, and the data flow in gory detail (and ask plenty of stupid questions of the new enginneer). Was this system going to do what it was designed to do? I have done my darndest to make sure, but sometimes I feel like I am missing something. I guess that it is a good thing, but even though, we sometimes overlook the most crucial. I hope that hasn’t happened here, but in the end we are all human.

Happily, I had Friday off, and went to lovely Strasbourg to catch my breath, see the sights, and to have yummy Tarte Flambée (Flammkuche to the German speaking world), a delightfully simple combination of crème fraîche, bacon (lardons), and onions often on a crispy, almost cracker-like crust. With a nice Riesling, pure heaven. One nifty version had no bacon, but real Munster cheese on it. (If you can’t tell, one of the joys I get from traveling is sampling the local specialties.) By the way, Strasbourg is a lovely city. We want to go back and spend some more time exploring the Alsace.

This week, back to frozen pizza.

A la prochain…

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The Sixth Milestone

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

Another ‘Milestone week’ is here. As with the previous ‘Milestone week’ the purpose is to run as many subsystems of ATLAS together, all taking cosmic ray data. In the usual day-to-day routine most subsystems do their commissioning independently. It is a special event to combine multiple subsystems and a milestone to combine them all.

This week is the 6th and supposedly final ‘M’ week. Or M6. Some people say it is the final M-week probably because there is as of today no M7 scheduled. But in the fine tradition of schedule-making, the end of the Milestone weeks probably just means moving to a new letter. ‘N’ being the next logical choice in this case.
But the M-weeks are fun (as well as frustrating and exhausting). The control room is a hub of activity. The air is simultaneously filled with tension and excitement. With each M-week, the goal has been to add in more and more subsystems. For M6, we have all but the pixels. So written out in full acronym glory, this is

MDT, RPC, TGC, LAr, Tile, L1Calo, SCT, TRT, CTP, HLT, DAQ, DCS, Tier0, DQ, Offline

This can be generally translated as ‘no available chairs in the control room’.

With five M-weeks behind us, it seems the subsystems have finally started to play nice. In the past, one of the most time-consuming things was simply to combine the data acquisition systems for each subsystem. So far the combination of multiple systems has been very straightforward and rather painless.

But then again I shouldn’t speak so soon. It is after all only tuesday.

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ATLAS vs. Photoshop

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

My brother-in-law just sent me a link to this contest on Fark.com: “Photoshop this super-collider“. I’ve tried to highlight the least silly (thus most quasi-highbrow) although that’s a tough contest in itself.

OK so the ATLAS magnets aren’t exactly a collider, or even a working detector at the time the photo was taken (but you can see the calorimeters in the distance!). Nor is the LHC officially called a “super collider”. Quibbles aside, good signs that the LHC is lodging itself in our collective brain — imagine what will happen when there are actually results to talk about?

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