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Vivian O'Dell | USLHC | USA

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The Universality of Scientific Collaboration

The  CMS collaboration is made up of about 3600 people coming from 183 institutes in 38 countries. Besides the United States, there are large representations from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia and… well just about everywhere. In fact, it is probably easier to list the areas where we don’t have collaborators: notably Africa, Canada (the Canadians seem to prefer ATLAS) and Australia (also ATLAS).  As a result, my collaborators come from diverse cultures, religions and mother languages and the only thing we have in common is an unstoppable curiosity of how the universe works. We do have culture clashes, but we try to rise above them. I remember during a particularly conflictual meeting being chaired at CERN (pre CMS days) by a German colleague, one of our French colleagues got so angry he said “We threw you out of France before and we can do it again!” The room got very quiet as most participants looked uncomfortably at their shoes. These kind of direct cultural references are rare, though, and mostly you think of your colleagues as your fellow researcher and not as Russian, Turkish, Chinese or Georgian.

Many countries or set of countries have so many collaborators that they form their own mini-collaboration structure so that they can better deploy their own people in the larger context of CMS. For example, the US has a mini-collaboration: USCMS which comprises all the US institutions working on CMS. Last fall I was invited to the CMS RDMS collaboration meeting to give an overview of the particular physics I am interested in. RDMS stands for Russia-Dubna Member States, and is made up of the CMS collaborating institutions in Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Georgia, Slovak Republic, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. This past year, the RDMS collaboration meeting was held in Minsk, Belarus. Belarus is a tiny country between Poland and Russia and was part of the Soviet Union until 1991 when it declared its independence. It has its own language, Belarusian, although most people there also speak Russian. Not that that helped me at all — I don’t speak Russian or Belarusian.

The RDMS collaboration is very active in CMS and during this collaboration meeting I got to learn more about what they were doing as well as summarizing work in my particular area. Our hosts in Minsk were terrific and in addition to scientific meetings they gave us a tour of Minsk, took us to the opera, to the symphony and to museums. Our meeting was even featured on the national news along with film footage of the foreign scientists. I returned to CERN feeling much better connected with my RDMS colleagues and with plans to strengthen ties with them in my particular data analysis interests.

Months after the meeting ended, I received an email from the Chicago Field Office (I work for Fermilab, just outside of Chicago, Illinois), Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence asking for details on my trip to Belarus. They were particularly interested in any connections I had made, especially on a personal level, with people I met at the conference. They also wanted to know if there was any chance my laptop computer had been tampered with or if my room had been searched or if people seemed to know more about me than would be normal. Not only did they want to know what hotel I stayed in, but also they wanted the room and floor number. I should mention that I can’t even remember what I ate yesterday; I certainly can’t remember the room number of the hotel I stayed in six months ago. Of course I understand why we worry about these things, and I am not naive enough to believe that there was no possibility that I was spied on (although I don’t think I know anything particularly interesting), but it does make me realize that the world I live and work in is very special place, where country boundaries are often not noticed, at least not by my fellow researchers.

Subsequently, I had the possibility to lecture at a summer school in Iran, the First IPM Meeting on LHC Physics. Unfortunately this trip didn’t even get off the ground: judging by the collective guffaw from everyone I mentioned it to, I decided to save myself the pain of filling in forms in triplicate just to amuse the State Department and/or the Department of Energy for the two seconds it would take them to say no.

One of the great things about this field, and about international scientific collaboration is the opportunity to work and visit scientists from around the world. In general we speak the same language (physics) and we work hard at not forcing our own culture, religion, politics or ideology on others. Our biggest arguments are about how to optimize our detector and how to define which data to collect and how to interpret it. Luckily there is plenty of material there to argue about without resorting to politics or religion.

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One Response to “The Universality of Scientific Collaboration”

  1. Jacques says:

    The statement by my french compatriot is pure stupidity and one of the kind that sometimes makes me ashame of being french. It has nothing to do with cultural differences that I agree represent a challenge but also offer opportunities for everyone eager to communicate on a global basis.

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