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Archive for January, 2009

This Just in

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Thanks to Harvey Newman, a brief update on how the repairs are going.  This is all good news – it means they have a way of detecting this sort of problem before it becomes catastrophic,  and implementation of better means of mitigation is also proceeding well.  Even the ping pong ball test, where they send a ping pong ball around the beam to test for obstructions which may occur when the magnets are warmed, has been effectively utilized.  I see this all as very encouraging.


Angel of the Higgs Boson

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Via symmetry breaking, here’s a neat video of artist Josef Krisofoletti painting a stylized image of ATLAS on the side of the Redux Contemporary Art Center in Charleston, SC:

But no art (nor science) comes to the public without some misunderstanding:

“As with the creation of the real ATLAS detector, Kristofoletti faced a few setbacks along the way. Approached by a policeman who thought he was covering the wall with graffitti, he explained what he was doing and that the painting was of one of the particle detectors at CERN. The policeman had heard of CERN and the LHC, and let the painting continue, but not without a quick discussion of much-publicized doomsday scenarios.”


Listening to data

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Darn it, Peter got to it first, but I too would like to call your attention to the interesting essay that Dennis Overbye wrote in The New York Times this week.  (I have to post more rapidly.)  It reflects upon President Obama’s call to “restore science to its rightful place,” and the interplay between science and democracy.  There is a shout-out to the LHC in there, as he remarks that people from a great variety of backgrounds have happily worked together (or at least happily enough) on these projects.

I agree with Overbye’s arguments, but the essay, which asserts that democracy is one of the values of science, got me thinking about what other values that science gives us.  I think that one of the most important values for me is one that Overbye touches on a little: the value of listening to what nature is telling us.  In science, that means listening to the data that our experiments provide. 

There are many ways to be creative in science — in my particular science, we create new acceleration technologies, devise new ways to detect particles, and find clever ways to analyze our data so that we can measure particle properties with the smallest possible uncertainty.  We have a healthy appreciation, and admiration, for ideas that we haven’t seen before that turn out to have a big payoff.  Practitioners of theoretical physics can build very creative theories that explain current measurements and make predictions for future results.  But there is one thing that we are never creative about, and that’s what the actual answers are.  Those we can only find by doing the experiments — we can’t make it up, we can’t guess, we can’t rely on the opinions of others, we can’t be superstitious.  All of the creativity we have must bump up against the realities that nature presents us with, and if our hypotheses disagree with the data we record, we must discard them.  It is a little humbling, in a way.

But on the other hand, it is also empowering.  So many answers may be out there, if we only open our eyes and look!  This is obviously true of something like particle physics, but I think it applies to a broader range of human problems.  What kind of programs are effective in reducing societal ills?  What economic policies might improve the lives of the largest number of people?  You can try them out and see what works, or analyze the results of previous attempts to implement them, and see if those worked.  We can do better than just following a philosophical ideal or notion — we can test our creativity against the real world.  Obviously these sorts of “experiments” have all sorts of complications that physics experiments don’t.  But we can still collect data and learn something from nature.  Perhaps that is one of the rightful places of science that Obama has in mind?


The two chambers of the American Congress, the House and the Senate, are working their way through separate stimulus bills that total $819 Billion in each case. But the devil is in the details and if you look for funds to stimulate science, which would make a lot of sense in these days, because of the obvious link between science education, research and development on one side and the economy on the other side, the two bills are quite different. Effectively each package vows to support three science oriented funding agencies, the DOE Office of Science, NSF and NIST. Here I will only comment on the DOE and NSF proposals, because these are the agencies that predominantly support high energy and nuclear science.

In the house version, which passed yesterday amidst a very partisan vote, the DOE Office of Science can expect a $1.9 Billion increase, and NSF will receive a $3 Billion increase compared to last year’s continuing resolution. Now that budget was already considerably below the projected science funding agreed upon in the America Competes Act in 2007. So it might make more sense to compare the numbers to the projections of the America Competes Act. In this case the increase for the DOE would be around $700 Million and the increase for NSF $1.7 Billion, still sizable numbers that pass as real stimulus.

On the Senate side though, these allocations were seriously curtailed. The Senate proposes an additional $430 Million for the DOE and an additional $1.4 Billion for NSF compared to the continuing resolution. This is in effect an additional $141 Million for NSF compared to the America Competes level, but a de-facto reduction of $752 Million for the DOE compared to the America Competes Act. 

I think in general all my colleagues are very excited about the prospects of a stimulus package for science. But we also view our work in research and education as a central part of getting the economy back on track, and it is worrisome to see that these allocations, which should be at the heart of every stimulus or recovery package, are considered low priority and negotiable. The House numbers were reasonable and based on detailed input by large organizations such as the American Physical Society, the Association of American Universities and the Task Force for the Future of American Innovation. The relative cuts in the Senate bill seem less well motivated and one needs to see whether the House numbers could potentially be restored in conference. The DOE funding is of particular relevance to high energy and nuclear physics. The proposed $430 Million in the Senate bill are largely assigned to infra-structure projects and thus will not lead to additional grant money for research and educational groups or Frontier Research Centers as planned in the House Bill.

The American Physical Society initiated yet another letter writing campaign in order to convince your senators and house representatives that additional funding for science is well targeted and effective in getting the economy going. You can find pre-written letters at:



Let’s just hope that in all the partisan wrangling about who is serving the people best, one essential piece of actual sensible stimulus does not fall prey to ignorance. Money for science education and research is not ‘pork’, it never has been and it never will be.



The Never Ending War

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

I admit it: I’m still pinching myself on a daily basis when I see “President Obama” in newspapers and on broadcasts.  While many are excited about how he will restore balance to American foreign policy and the gyrating economy, those of us in the science community are still buzzing about Obama proclaiming loudly and clearly, in his inaugural address no less, that he will “restore science to its rightful place.”

Dennis Overbye wrote a lovely piece for yesterday’s Science Times on this, thoughtfully explaning the connection between scientific method and democratic values.  In particular, science is “not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth”.  That is to say, it is an approach towards finding truth which implies a worldview based on values of “honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view.”  Overbye goes on to discuss how this pragmatic activity, this behavior which “evolved because it worked”, is often squelched in authoritarian societies such as China.  There, any contradiction with Marxist dogma (which while anti-religion, does all those things that orthodox religions do), including advocating the Big Bang theory, leads to imprisonment or worse.  But even nominal democracies like ours can stray, as it has in recent years:

But once you can’t talk about one subject, the origin of the universe, for example, sooner or later other subjects are going to be off-limits, like global warming, birth control and abortion, or evolution, the subject of yet another dustup in Texas last week.

What still surprises me, in this optimistic new era, is that science can still remain under attack — but the techniques get more and more insidious.  To my eyes, the doomsday crowd plays a similar role as the same gang of politically-motivated thugs who try and squelch actual science.  But rather than claiming that certain science is immoral (e.g. stem-cell research), they object to it on the grounds that it is somehow dangerous for humanity on scales that we can barely imagine — based on “scientific” arguments which can be proven false.  Seriously, I could accept their concerns, but only if they had a point and they took a consistent scientific approach to the problem, allowing all relevant evidence to bear upon it.

But check out this Onion-worthy headline Fox News ran today (pointed out by fellow blogger Seth): “Scientists Not So Sure ‘Doomsday Machine’ Won’t Destroy World.'” from an article by Paul Wagenseil.  It seems to start out in the right way: here is a scientific paper which says something, and I’m telling you the conclusion.  But he isn’t.

Instead of quoting the actual paper, an unrefereed (it’s arxiv, natch) preprint by Casadio, Fabi, and Harms (yes, Harms), Wagenseil quotes a blog post merely about the paper on arxivblog.org.  Arxivblog is  anonymously written by a blogger named “KFC” and is unrelated to the actual arXiv.org website.  I personally think KFC is an amusing blogger, as do many others, and seems to know something about physics.  However, the conclusion drawn from the last sentence of the paper: “Whoa, let’s have that again: these mini black holes will be hanging around for seconds, possibly minutes?” has two serious problems.  First, it has no obvious connection to the destructive power of said black holes.  Second, it is completely at odds with the conclusion drawn by the authors of the paper, who most-likely know their assumptions and results far better: “We conclude that, for the RS scenario and black holes described by the metric ([6]), the growth of black holes to catastrophic size does not seem possible” (which is the second-to-last sentence.)

If you’re going to use a paper’s conclusions to support an argument, the scientific method requires you to cite the full conclusion, not just the part that you need.  All of the estimates in the paper, based on quite relaxed assumptions, tend to work against a doomsday scenario, but this doesn’t seem to make it into either the arxivblog post — nor into the article by the putative science journalist who doesn’t bother to read the original paper, or simply call the authors.

Instead, all you get is a punchy headline, which can only add fuel to the fires raging against doing actual scientific research.  We can only hope that in the Obama era, Overbye’s imagined “wild and beautiful” garden of wide-ranging scientific research is properly protected from those fires.


Can We “Point” the LHC, Too?

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

The Bad Astronomy blog is publicizing a chance to choose what the Hubble Space Telescope looks at.  The basic idea is that there’s going to be an internet vote between six objects that Hubble has never looked at, and Hubble will be pointed at the winner and send out pictures of it by April.  It seems like a fun way to get the public to learn more about, and feel more involved in, the Hubble project.

I’ll let you read more details at one of the links above, but I have another question to consider: can we do something similar with the LHC? That is, could we put up some kind of page where people could vote on what kind of physics we would study over the course of some particular week?  Maybe a choice between searching for Supersymmetry, or a high-mass Higgs boson, or a low-mass Higgs boson?  At first glance, the answer would seem to be “no.”  We obviously have no control over what kind of physics happens when the protons of the LHC collide — we just look at what comes out.  And it seems unlikely that any physicist would volunteer to put their work hours into a particular analysis because of a public vote, and anyway we’ll have people working on all the high-profile analyses and many low-profile ones besides.

But there actually is a sense in which ATLAS or CMS could to something similar.  Remember that our detectors can only record a few hundred events every second, out of the almost forty million times the beams cross during that second.  There are lots of collisions we have to throw out because we can’t store enough data, and it’s the trigger system that decides which few we keep.  In practice, there are a number of different signals that we program the trigger system to be interested in: we take a certain number of random low-energy events to help us calibrate what we see in our other events, and we have separate “trigger paths” for hadronic jets, for muons, for electrons, and so on.  We try to record all the events that might represent interesting new physics, but as the collision rate at the LHC increases, we’ll have to throw away even some of those.  When the committee meets to decide how to balance the different possible triggers, what is at issue is precisely which kinds of events the detector will “point at,” i.e. recognize as important and save.  People with different interests in terms of physics might make different choices about how to achieve that balance, and every study would always love more trigger bandwidth if it were available, and that’s why we have committees to argue about it in the first place.

So why not reserve 5% of the ATLAS or CMS trigger bandwidth for a public vote on what physics to look for, to give a little extra oomph to one study or another?  Actually, I can think of several good and practical reasons why not — but it’s fun to think about!


Invading Sludge

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Just a quick blog to add a little strangeness to your life, or mine anyway. Back in Boston, where we’re getting yet more snow today – we’re running out of places to put it.   Anyway, 8 inches of snow (or sleet or rain) does not make for a great bike ride home so I slogged to the bus, and on my way, encountered this:

A river of rather dirty smelly water in travelling down the Mass Ave in Arlington, deep enough to leave the street and start invading the sidewalks.   There was talk at the bus stop about manning the lifeboats.  Seems a sewer pipe somewhere uphill broke – the real problem will be cleaning this up before it freezes and turns the main thoroughfare into an ice skating rink!

Not much to do with the LHC or physics in general, but scientists do do ordinary things like take the bus to work too.  They don’t often encounter sludge, however.


Chu Speaks

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

It’s one crazy time, post-inauguration.  I mean, Obama was sworn in again.  And the stimulus package is really kicking the science community into high gear.

So expectations will probably be quite high today, when Secretary Chu (no more mere designate, he) speaks to the DOE community today by video.  I will update this later today after watching.

[Update: I couldn’t get my RealPlayer settings sorted out until just before the end, so I basically missed it.  BNL will post video soonish, but in the meantime, I found a nice set of notes posted on Cosmic Variance.

Some things jump out: Energy is priority #1. The national labs are crown jewels.  The US needs to replace the great industrial labs that have closed down.  He expects lots of young-to-middle-age scientists to shift their careers toward energy to develop the transformative technologies needed for US energy independence…more later when I see the video.]



Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Seth at the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama III was there.  My personal politics are hardly a secret for those who are interested, but I am not inclined to say too much here about why I was there or what I think about it.  However, there were things to be celebrated at yesterday’s inauguration that even Rick Warren and Diane Feinstein could agree on, things which have already been said by so many who are more eloquent than I am that I hesitate to say a word.   But I will leave you with the words of another, and my own small addendum:

This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.

— Senator John McCain, November 4 2008

That special pride belongs to all of us, Senator McCain.


Oui nous pouvons!

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009
Barack Obama is sworn in.

Barack Obama is sworn in.

Yes, the coverage of the historic day is just as intense here in France.  We watched the big ceremony on TV (you perhaps can see the french subtitles of the swearing-in ceremony on the TV).

Favorite line in inaugural address: “We will restore science to its rightful place…”