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Archive for October, 2008

CERN’s Bermuda triangle

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

I am staying in the CERN hostel during my visit.  The rooms here are pretty basic, but they certainly have everything I need for a one-week stay.  The hostel building is right next door to Restaurant 1, and not at all distant from Building 40, the main office building for the LHC experiments, and where many of the conference rooms are.  As a result, one could spend the entire visit within this triangle of buildings.  It’s not good for the psyche, though.Bermuda triangle

When I first saw the agenda for the first two days of the computing week, my thought was “Nothing here for me until Wednesday.”  But sure enough, my days have filled with a variety of informal meetings, and lots of conversation with people I haven’t seen in a while.  I have been busy trying to organize a session that I am co-chairing on Thursday, and poking people about projects that don’t seem to be moving along quickly enough, and catching up on what’s going on here at the lab.  There is plenty of speculation going around about how quickly the machine will come up after the repairs, but of course at this point it is only speculation.

I live in two time zones while I’m here; life at home doesn’t stop while I’m away.  Tonight I chaired a US-based meeting that started at 9 PM CERN time — not what I was looking forward to after dinner.  The email flow is different being here; since most of my email comes from the US, there is a lot to get through when I get up in the morning, and then it is quiet for a while, as everyone at home sleeps.  But when everyone wakes up and gets to work around 4 PM, the inbox starts filling again.  My best piece of news for the trip is that I have managed to talk to my daughter over the computer every day, and she looks no worse for wear.

And, the requisite shout-out to my fellow bloggers — I shared a breakfast table with Steve yesterday, and waved at Freya in the CMS Centre, and tomorrow I’m having lunch with Kathy.  We’ll see if either of us consider it worth blogging about.


En route

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

Regular readers will know by now that I am one of the few bloggers at this site who is not resident at CERN; I live in Lincoln, Nebraska.  But this week I am taking one of my semi-annual (at the moment) week-long trips to CERN.  To the delight of our blog editors, I will try to give regular updates on my journey.

Traveling to CERN is hard for me.  I don’t go all that often because of my teaching schedule (I was able to reschedule a lecture and hand lab responsibilities off to my TA this time), and my two small children.  Already I have gotten the news that when the doorbell rang this afternoon and it wasn’t me, my two-year old daughter burst into tears.  The poor thing has seven days to go yet.  But, while we do as much as we can on this experiment over email, the Web and videoconferencing, there is nothing that can match face-to-face communication.  So off I go.

I’m writing the bulk of this on my flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam.  This is Northwest 56, which with a 9:15 PM departure is the last trans-Atlantic flight out of Minneapolis.  I like leaving late because the flight hours overlap well with my normal sleeping hours.  I won’t arrive in Geneva until 4:30 PM, but that’s OK; I wasn’t planning on doing anything Sunday anyway.

Do you care?  Probably not, but many of my colleagues do.  I find that the favorite lunch-table conversation topic for Americans at CERN, after the business of the experiment itself of course, is travel plans and preferences.  If you make this trip enough, you end up with some firmly-held opinions.  “I always make sure I have at least two hours if I need to change in Frankfurt,” one senior physicist told me once.  Another one refuses to fly through Heathrow.  Personally, I’m fine with changing at Schiphol in Amsterdam, which isn’t too dismal-looking, and, if you are into that sort of thing, there’s an excellent selection of herring in the gift shop.

I managed to sleep for about three hours on the first leg, and then took a short nap on the flight from Amsterdam to Geneva.  I made it to my hostel room on site just in time for the regular Sunday night jet-lag pizza outing that some software and computing people take after arriving.  About a dozen of us gathered in Restaurant 1 at 6:30 for a walk towards Meyrin.  Before we left, I mentioned my travel-themed blog entry to one colleague, who pointed out the hand-held devices that about half of them were fingering.  “I don’t know,” he said, “we probably talk about our iPhones more than our travel plans.”  Oy, what geeks!


This Week at ATLAS

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

I was on shift all week at ATLAS.  When I signed up for these shifts, I thought perhaps we would be looking at collisions, but well, things weren’t quite that exciting.  Actually, for me they weren’t that exciting at all since I was at the Liquid Argon Calorimeter desk, and our detector wasn’t being read out for most of the week.  This was to allow ATLAS to write out more data in a short time.  The calorimeter data volume is quite large and our calorimeter wasn’t the focus of these studies.  Seth was sitting at the Pixel desk, and things seemed a bit more interesting there as they were recording lots of tracks.

ATLAS was recording cosmic muon data this week.  I heard there were at least 50 million events recorded, some with the magnets on and some with the magnets off.  This will be extremely useful for calibration and alignment. The data with the magnets on will contain information about muons turning as they are influenced by the magnetic field. The momentum of these muons can be calculated and compared to expectations as a nice cross-check.  The data with the magnets off will contain muons that don’t bend, and therefore draw straight lines through the ATLAS detector.  This is useful for checking the alignment between different detectors.

As of Thursday night, ATLAS is taking data with the entire detector writing out data, and will continue like this for the rest of October.  This will probably be the best data we have taken yet.  It can be studied for a few months to have us in really great shape for next year’s running with collisions.

After November 3, we won’t run much with the full detector until next year.  The detector will be opened up and people will be allowed in for maintenance, things like repairing or replacing problematic power supplies and malfunctioning pieces of electronics.


Particle Physics Nobels!

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

This week the Nobel Prize for Physics was given to three theorists in our field: Nambu, Kobayashi, and Maskawa. If you want to read more about them, the science behind their discoveries, or the coverage of the award, I recommend this post on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. You can also check out the post on Cosmic Variance, which discusses some of the controversy in the physics community over this award and has a link to a good explanation of spontaneous symmetry breaking.


DonorsChoose Blogger Challenge ’08

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

The folks at Cosmic Variance are taking part in the 2008 DonorsChoose Blogger challenge, in which various blogs pick worthy school projects to list, and invite their readers to fund them:

It’s a simple and compelling model: individual classrooms isolate a pressing need, and donors can choose which projects to support. We’ve picked out a number of great projects that will help students learn about science in fun, hands-on ways, and we’re going to be adding a few more soon.

We’ve set a fundraising goal of $10,000 over the next month. That sounds like a lot, but it is enormously less than the capacity of our readers; we get about 5,000 hits per day, so that’s a pitiful $2/visitor. But most visitors, we understand, are wimps. So if we get $20/person from the 10% of visitors who are not wimps, we hit the goal. But it’s okay to go over! If we fall short, you should all feel embarrassed.

Mostly we just want to crush the folks at ScienceBlogs, who have put together their own challenge. Crush them, I say. Sure, they have a zillion blogs, several of whom have many times our readership. So what? This is a matter of how awesome the reader are, not how many of them there are. We will also be asking other friendly bloggers to either set up their own donation pages, or hop aboard our bandwagon — if anyone wants to advertise the challenge, we can list them as an affiliate on the challenge page.

Of course, the US/LHC blogs can’t possibly take an official side in such a competition, or be any kind of “affiliate” — we’d have to get a dozen bloggers to agree, and for all I know mail some kind of form in triplicate to NSF and DOE as well. (Ok, the latter probably isn’t true.) But if you want my personal opinion, you should give money through Cosmic Variance’s page, because (a) I like an underdog, and (b) I took a course in General Relativity with Sean Carroll a few years back, and it was pretty good.

But no matter which side of the great divide between between Cosmic Variance and Science Blogs you happen to be on — or even, dare I say it, which side of the upcoming presidential election — we can all agree that it’s a good thing to send a bit of money to motivated teachers who want to give their students a little something extra. Take a look!


Message from the DG

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

Yesterday, the CERN Director-General spoke to the laboratory about the present and future of the laboratory (the slides in English, and video in French, are here). He said a couple of important things.

  1. Maintenance of infrastructure previously scheduled for the winter shutdown will instead start on Monday, October 6.  This means that an effort is being made to re-start the accelerator complex in April instead of the previously scheduled June.  That is good news for getting collisions sooner rather than later in 2009.  But presumably everything depends on repairs being finished in the LHC.
  2. Concerning the LHC, a report will be issued before the inauguration on October 21 detailing what happened on September 19, and again presumably will let us know how long repairs are expected to take.

Currently I am sitting at Geneva airport waiting for my plane to finally leave for Amsterdam. Looking east I see something the average cernoise is always happy to see: First snow on the Jura.


Hello World

Friday, October 3rd, 2008

spoons copic michael and the Alps

Hello World! I another new US LHC blogger, drafted by my friend and ATLAS Control Room buddy, Monica Dunford. That’s me in the picture above, next to Mont Blanc, my husband Dan Spoonhower, and our friend Michael. I’m a postdoc for Columbia University, working on the ATLAS experiment, and I’ve been working at and living near CERN for over a year.

I was working in the ATLAS control room a few weeks ago the day that the LHC had its … major malfunctions. I had been hoping that we might have the first collisions that weekend. I was sitting at the same desk that Adam had been sitting at, waiting and hoping the week before.  Instead of waiting for collisions after the news came in, we were waiting for more details and talking amongst ourselves. There were a bunch of people in the control room that I knew, from working on ATLAS or from previous jobs. Each person could provide a different perspective, and talking to people got me thinking about the small world of High Energy Physics. It’s true that we work with thousands of scientists on ATLAS and CMS, but we get used to seeing a lot of the same faces around.

For example, Monica was in the control room that weekend, too. I work on ATLAS with a few of the bloggers on this site: Monica, Adam and Seth. Working at the same desk with me that weekend was my friend Louise, and it happened that she knew Monica not because they both work on ATLAS, but from their previous experiment, SNO. Before coming to CERN, I had been working at Fermilab, outside of Chicago, and many people at other desks in the control room that weekend had been Fermilab folks, too.

Some familiar people to readers of this blog, Steve and Ken, were also colleagues of mine at Fermilab on the CDF experiment. I worked in the same group at the University of Michigan with Ken, while he was a postdoc and I was a graduate student. Steve worked with a different group, but he was one of the people that I remember hanging around the CDF control room all the time. He helped answer my questions when I spent my first summer there as a student. Now, I’ve become the postdoc who is hanging around the ATLAS control room all the time, trying to answer other people’s questions. Ken and Steve and I have gone from CDF collaborators to (good-natured!) ATLAS-CMS competitors.

Even people that I didn’t work much with, I still saw around — I remember going to a Chicago Cubs game a few years ago with another CMS blogger, Freya, and some mutual friends.  More recently, in Geneva, when friends of mine were looking for a used sofa for their new apartment, I went with them to help move the sofa they had found online. It turned out to be Freya’s sofa! Of course. It is a small world after all…


the Quantum Field

Friday, October 3rd, 2008

the Quantum Field One of Michelangelo Mangano‘s lectures described how delivering kicks to a proton dislodges gluons from their otherwise invisible lives. Please note the ISR (Initial State Radiation) in this painting, which was also inspired by the quantum field theorists’ success in doing away with all those nice little Greek-style “atoms”; apparently, reality is now made up of identity-less “excitations” of some fundamental “stuff”.

In other words: Pending the repair of the LHC, some of the less immediately useful members of the collaboration (a.k.a. yours truly) has reverted to armchair philosophy and the occasional excursion into physics.

Or… not really. Do tell the boss that this blogger still remains:

  • a graduate student of UCSB
  • working hard (ahem) on triggers / dataset definitions plus whatnot
  • getting a Beyond Standard Model search ready for launch
  • (incidentally?) setting up groundwork for thesis