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Archive for January, 2009

Getting out of the fog…

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Went hiking up the Jura Mountains the other day with my friend Maarten.  Going to the mountains is the only manner of staying sane in Geneve during the grey grey grey grey grey wintertime.  It’s the Brouillard, and sometimes you don’t see the sun for weeks.  Everyone gets grumpy.  But the cure is is just to go up, as we did:

Me, in the Jura not far from La Dole

You can see the soup of clouds behind and below me, underneath which is Geneve and Lac Leman.  We did a little slipping and sliding, but overall had a great time in the sunshine at 1500 meters, when it was dark and dreary at 400 meters.  Just one of the things one does around here when not banging away on the laptop or in a meeting (or both).


Phase Transition

Monday, January 19th, 2009

I was very amused to read in the article “20 years of the W and Z bosons” (Physics World, vol 16 no. 1, Jan 2003) that CERN supposedly turned off heating to “make sure that the physicists took a Christmas vacation, and maybe even relaxed.” The motivations of upper management still remain obscure and elite, but heating certainly felt like it had been solidly off that first week I was back on the job. Now that the fingers are functioning again, some physicists have even started to do non-physics things like posting on blogs… but then, the same article mentioned that management “knew that many physicists would gladly freeze to death if they thought they would be able to get time on the computers,” ahem…

On the left: My home-town is by the city of Kuala Lumpur, 3°N 101°E — asian, tropical, and unapologetically unsophisticated in how it is alive. Having a number of loving parents ensures that I am volunteered for vacations.


During the holidays, many of my colleagues working at CERN and I went home, where we encountered aunts and grandpas, parents and friends, all with the the same questions to be answered: What it is that you do? Is that the black hole thing? OK, right, physics… but what is your actual JOB?

While I was in the US, I went to visit a high school class near Rochester, NY. One of the most important things I thought I could explain to the students there was how researchers at CERN become researchers at CERN. That’s something I didn’t understand at all when I was choosing a career path, and it helps explain a little about what it is that we do everyday.

A disclaimer: People take all kinds of paths to become researchers at CERN, but there is one standard path, and that’s what I’ll describe. There are, of course, many variations on this theme — my own path wasn’t exactly what I’ll describe here. I’ll also talk mostly about the way it works in the US — it is similar in many other countries, but with subtle differences in years, titles, etc.

Here, then, is my guide for families, friends, and particle physics enthusiastics to what it is that many of us do.

Step 1. College, AKA “Undergrad.” This one is pretty well understood. Most physicists working at CERN went through four (or more…) years of college, with a physics degree or some other related science degree. In the four years of classes, students should learn the basic physics and math tools that they’ll need. In addition to taking classes, many people also start to do research with a professor at their university. This professor is someone who does research in addition to teaching. He or she is actively engaged in answering some question that no one has answered before, working in a lab on campus, or working as part of a big collaboration like the ones we have at CERN.

Step 2. Graduate school, AKA “Doctorate” AKA “Ph.D.” After finishing college, most people who want to do research (in any field, not just physics!) apply to graduate school. It’s usually a good idea to go to a different university for graduate school, to experience a new place and meet new people. The first one to two years of grad school in the US feels a lot like undergrad, only more so: classes, projects and papers, exams. Each university has a different set of exams for physics students to pass, before they can focus all their time on research. During the time that students are taking classes, they are also usually teaching classes at the university. They may be supervising labs, grading, or teaching small sections of a bigger lecture class once a week. Physics grad students may also get started doing research right away with a group of people at their university. This means that most science grad students are not paying to go to school like law students or medical students — they are getting their tuition covered, and getting paid, by teaching or by doing research.

After the classes are over, graduate students in physics focus on research. They have one or more advisors, who study a topic that the student also wants to become an expert in. The average physics Ph.D. is about six years, so people may spend 2 years on classes and then four years on research. This is one of the most misunderstood parts of science grad school, I think. After those first few years, grad school is a lot like a regular job. You don’t have any more classes, you do work, you get paid, and your tuition is paid by the research group.

The culmination of a Ph.D. in any area is the thesis. In this document, the student puts together their contribution to their field: their advancement of the knowledge in their research area. They should present a new idea, or answer a question no one has ever answered, or write about a new measurement they’ve done. The thesis is judged by a committee of professors including the student’s advisor, and once it is done, the degree of “Doctorate” is awarded and people joke around with you for a while calling you “Doctor” and asking if there’s a Doctor in the house.

One tip for family and friends of graduate students: The question that no one near the end of the Ph.D. wants to be asked is “When will you be done?” It may seem like polite chit-chat to you, but it may be a wrenching topic for them. There is no set schedule for a Ph.D. to finish. Ph.D.’s are not necessarily awarded in the spring, or in the fall, it doesn’t come everyone after a set number of years like 4, 5, or 6. It’s a decision made by the students and the advisors, when they
all feel like the work they are doing is ready. Asking people when they’ll finish only reminds them that they may not know THEMSELVES when they’ll be finished, and that’s often frustrating.

Step 3. Postdoctoral Research Scientist AKA “Postdoc.” This is the job that I have now. After finishing a Ph.D. in partiçle physics, people who want to continue doing research usually take a job at a university or lab called a “postdoc.” There’s a pretty seamless transition from grad school to being a postdoc, because postdocs also do research — similar to the last 4 or so years fo grad school. In our field, people usually take a job at a different university than the one where they were a Ph.D. student, and they keep the job there for about 4-5 years, with a bit of variation on the term (sometimes 3 years, or as many as 7…). Postdocs are often put in charge of bigger projects, and do more mentoring of grad students. Postdocs also have more choice about which topics to work on.

Step 4. Faculty member or Researcher at a Lab. After being a postdoc, physicists staying in the field apply for research positions at labs, like Brookhaven National Lab where Peter works, or they apply for research or faculty jobs at universities. Both offer opportunities for continuing research, and faculty members teach classes as well. (Sometimes research associates teach, too.) Once you have this position, you still have to deal with getting tenure if you want to stick around. I remember listening to a very interesting NPR interview with a Harvard biology professor whose students couldn’t believe that she still had things to worry about — the job she had as Harvard Professor was her goal, wasn’t it? She explained that she still had a lot to do if she wanted to STAY a Harvard Professor. The whole interview about her career and passion for deadly mushrooms is online.

Hopefully, this will give you some context for the posts here, written by people at the grad student, postdoc, and researcher/faculty levels, and some idea of the paths we’ve taken to get here.



Thursday, January 15th, 2009

So things are getting interesting: the House Democrats unveil an $825 billion (billion…) stimulus package, and the Times tells us:

… it would provide $10 billion for science facilities and research…

Ten billion dollars.  I wonder who exactly is going to get a piece of that.

One answer I’ve heard is that the DOE office of science (a major source of particle and nuclear physics funding) will get $5.9B — that’s nearly 50% more than the current funding provided by the FY09 Continuing Resolution (CR).  Now who is going to get a piece of that?  Anyway, it won’t matter until it gets farther along in the process, but wow.

UPDATE: fellow blogger Rene has pointed me to a nice set of links:

  • Press summary
    Highlight: “Department of Energy: $1.9 billion for basic research into the physical sciences including high-energy physics, nuclear physics, and fusion energy sciences and improvements to DOE laboratories and scientific facilities. $400 million is for the Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy to support high-risk, high-payoff research into energy sources and energy efficiency.”
  • Full bill

A new outlook?

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

So, I’ve been gone a bit (again), sorry.  I’m not sure you really want to hear about my trials and travails in teaching undergraduates Classical Electromagnetism, although a nice story on my class did appear in the New York Times yesterday  (Prof. Sciolla is a colleague, we were teaching two different sections of the same class, and Ms. Rimer visited hers).  I can discuss this TEAL business in another blog, if there is demand.

Made it back to CERN in October briefly, and now during the MIT break in January.  Pretty quiet over here, but I sense after last fall’s exercises in Cosmic Ray running and “almost Beam” running, people are gung-ho to apply what was learned and sharpen our preparations to improve our “readiness for beams”.  This is a good thing.   Exactly when we may see some more beam?  The $1,000,000 question – but there is a workshop in early February which is expected to produce an updated schedule for 2009.  It would be very good to see beam this year.

In the meantime, there’s the continual plight of  Science Funding in the US – noone is quite sure what will happen, but everyone is quite happy about Obama’s science team – Energy Secretary Steve Chu (a fellow member of Project Steve!), Nobelist and Director of LBL certainly is cogniscent of the issues in HEP, and John Holdren, President’s Science Advisor,  also recognizes the importance basic science can play in everybody’s life (even if they don’t realize it).  Before the legislative branch recessed, there was some indication that funding for science would be bundled into the Economic Bailout legislation, but I haven’t heard any update.  Otherwise it is a continuing resolution, which would be bad – I don’t want to go into what bad means, it’ll depress me.

However, two things I caught recently encourage me – first, a document from the National Academy of Science (executive summary for free) which notes the link between National Security and Technology, and among other things finds

US national security and economic prosperity depend on full global engagement in science, technology, and commerce

although most of the note is about export rules, but it does recommend lifting the rather stringent Visa requirements for foreign scientists coming in to the US.  Having had collaborators who spent 5 hours in Border Control after a trans-atlantic flight, and excellent prospects whom we simply could not hire due to Visa restrictions, I can see where this may have a direct benefit on Science, and the demonstration of the benefit of investment in scientific pursuits on other aspects is certainly something to be applauded.

Second was an guest opinion in the New York Times (you can tell how I get my news when I am at CERN, huh?) from Stanford PhD. biologist, who uses the LHC as an example of Big Science – to (mis)use his metaphor, if you want to reach the fruit at the top, you need to build a big ladder.  He is advocating something a little different, Citizen Science, where ordinary citizens gather eg. ecological data for survey purposes, but even the LHC has its own version – [email protected], where you can put spare cycles on your home computer to work for LHC.  I think there are even some variants out there, but you can use google, right?  Anyway, the good omen is that scientists outside the arena of Particle Physics are recognizing the reasons behind why “Big Science” is the way our field works, and even seeing how the developments of our field (large scale computing, synchrotrons were his two examples) are benefiting other scientific disciplines which lead to direct ramifications for the public at large.

All this is fairly heartening from my point of view – evidence that we are moving away from a situation where science pursuits were seen as a luxury,  towards the recognition of the cross feeding between different scientific endevours and the realization of the importance of the role science plays in our societal “pursuit of happiness”.


The Present and Future of CERN

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Sorry for my long absence.  I was on the road for pretty much all of December (South Africa, Chicago, Vermont) with a day here and there in NYC.  Now I’m back — and expect to report more often!

Anyway, what better way to enter 2009 than with this fascinating set of slides from the new Director General of CERN, Rolf Heuer?  There’s even a video of his talk online.

Heuer covers a lot of ground here, particularly the plans for the LHC in 2009, but also the budget, and quite a bit of forward thinking about the future of CERN, both scientifically and geographically (particularly slide 26 and following on “Global Collaboration”).  Enjoy.


From perfect to spiral

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

For those of you who enjoyed my fascinating discussion of the 2008 Review of Particle Physics, you will be happy to know that the small-booklet summary of the review has now arrived.  Remember that this used to be known as the “wallet card,” because you could in fact fold it up and fit it into your wallet.  The current version is nearly 300 pages, so that would be a little more difficult now.

But here was a little surprise:

This year’s booklet (left) is spiral-bound, whereas previous versions (e.g. 2006, center) have been perfect-bound.  It is also in a larger format, which makes it possible to have fewer pages than the last booklet, even though I would guess that there is more content.  I wonder what pushed the PDG in this direction.  I would have thought fewer pages (of larger surface area) would make it easier to perfect-bind a book, yet now we have a spiral.  (Seth, if you are visiting Berkeley, maybe you can track this one down!)

The big question for me, then, is what will become of the “Pocket Diary for Physicists” (right), which serves as a calendar (including birth dates of all-time great physicists) and telephone index.  It’s the same size as the old booklet, making it possible to fit them both into a little plastic cover that the PDG provided (also shown in photo).  Will that get larger too?  Will there be new plastic covers?

I know, pressing questions that will affect the fate of the universe.  But look, it was either write about that or about getting ready to teach one of the big sections of introductory electricity and magnetism starting tomorrow.  You might be getting an earful about that from me for the next four months.


Happy 2009!

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Happy 2009 (or 12009 for those of us using the Holocene calendar)!  I was on a New Year’s Eve flight back from the US to Geneva, so I got to have Champagne over the Atlantic to celebrate the start of what will hopefully be a very fruitful 2009 for particle physics.
It didn’t start so wonderfully as the heat at CERN wasn’t turned on until Monday morning when CERN re-opened.  It also has been an especially cold winter for Geneva so far, so we have had to keep ourselves warm with the happy thought that since the calendar flipped to 2009, collisions are finally back to being later THIS year instead of NEXT year.
I had a good time visiting family and friends in the US.  Even in my third year of living in France, it doesn’t get any easier to say goodbye to everyone and get back on the plane across the Atlantic.  I do miss my country as well, although not the plethora of 24-hour news channels so much.
I had a few conversations with people over the past few weeks about CERN (inevitably covering the chance of Earth’s destruction by the LHC), and realized we definitely still have work to do in getting the message out about what we are doing here at CERN.  Fortunately we have some pretty fascinating days ahead in 2009 that should interest just about everyone.
It should be interesting in the next few months as repairs are completed to the LHC, it is cooled down to operating temperature, and then protons are sent spinning around again.  We are still planning to see some high energy collisions in the summer, which will make the wait all worth it, and give us an even better reason to drink Champagne.


Welcome, Dr. Heuer

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

Now that 2009 has begun, CERN has a new management team and a new Director General, Rolf-Dieter Heuer. Dr. Heuer is a former spokesperson for the OPAL collaboration at CERN and was most recently the Research Director for particle and astroparticle physics at the DESY in Hamburg, Germany.  While working on my talks for next week’s giant annual LBNL ATLAS group meeting in Berkeley, I ran across his first message to the CERN community.  This is my favorite part:

Our top priority for this year is providing data to the LHC experiments. After the spectacular success of the LHC’s first beam, and the bitter disappointment of the malfunction barely nine days later, we have emerged stronger. As an outsider, but also a former CERN staff member, it was most gratifying to see that the Organization and its staff has lost none of its determination, none of its creativity and none of its pragmatism. It is remarkable how quickly our engineers have got to grips with the problem, and given us a roadmap to restart. We now understand what went wrong, and we know how to fix it. The timetable for repairs published at the end of 2008 is an aggressive one, and we’ll do our best to keep to it. However, if the work takes longer to accomplish, we will not rush. I will be keeping you all up to date with progress on a regular basis as we go through to the restart and physics later this year.