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Archive for April, 2009

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of 8th graders from a local middle school.  They were visiting the lab on a field trip and, as is custom for tours, arrangements were made near the end of their visit to meet with an employee from the lab – this time me.   I do this once or twice a month and many other people at the lab participate as well, as there are many tour groups that visit Fermilab.

It’s not a presentation, but rather a Question & Answer session, so it requires no preparation on my part other than to be in the right room at the right time.  The free form of these sessions, I think, is what makes it so much fun for me.  This week I was asked everything from how long I had to go to school to do my job here (that one always gets their attention!) to whether the protons and antiprotons make any sound when they collide at such high energy.  I mean, that’s a really great question!  I usually have to be coerced by the tour docents to stop taking questions 10 minutes past the allotted time.  I think they remind me a little why I ultimately wanted to become a scientist in the first place – there are so many great questions out there to be answered – and I always come away from these sessions feeling refreshed and enthusiastic.  That’s a pretty remarkable result from a 30 minute session squeezed into a packed schedule between lunch and some afternoon meeting.  I only hope the students get a fraction of what I do out of our brief discussions.


Changing of the Guard

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

A nice article on the changing of ATLAS leadership in the CERN Courier.   It really gives a sense of the sustained commitment that it has taken to make a huge project like ATLAS become a reality.

I am very proud to have helped the collaboration to construct ATLAS. Twenty years ago we could only imagine the experiment in our dreams and now it exists,” says Jenni. “I could lead the collaboration for so long because I was supported by very good ATLAS management teams where the right people, such as Fabiola Gianotti, Steinar Stapnes, Marzio Nessi and Markus Nordberg over the past five years, were in the right places.”

It’s also interesting to find out in the CERN courier that your own experiment is a lot larger than you might have realized (i.e. it’s officially 3000 people!  I can’t say I’ve ever met even a fraction of them myself…).


Defending the University

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

A recent op-ed in the New York times demanded that we “End the University as We Know It”! Interestingly, it is written by the chairman of a religion department. His general claim is that the departmental structure and attitude of the university system is out of date and not very useful. He envisions universities structured around topics like water, where people from engineering, social science, natural science, and humanities would come together to solve problems. He sees over-specialty (“research in subfields within subfields”) as a problem.

I’m not the first to criticize his view – there have been 437 comments on the nytimes website – and much of my initial reaction has been stated rather well at the Female Science Professor Blog. I specifically take issue with the idea that the material learned as an undergraduate (or in graduate school) is not, in itself, useful. This is not true in all cases. The basic quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, and statistical mechanics I learned as an undergraduate paved the way for the graduate material on these topics. Understanding these fundamentals then allows one to understand how superconductors and other novel materials work – this allows one to design a better hard drive. The level of specialty required for that sort of work is not what someone can learn in a broad interdisciplinary program!

Restructuring education around “big problems” would mean all of the small problems would slip through the cracks. Plenty of great technologies did not originate intentionally. The internet is a classic example – few realized how much it would expand beyond a few scientists using it to communicate – accelerators and radiation are another. Physicists made accelerators to study the building blocks of matter, and they are now used to treat cancers. I have a hard time believing that an interdisciplinary group working to treat cancer (in a world where particle accelerators didn’t exist) would decide to create accelerator technology. The research that only interests a few people may simply be so groundbreaking that more have not yet learned the necessary skills or approaches to participate. The op-ed seems to believe that the existence of narrow fields precludes interdisciplinary work and changing departments. While an undergraduate at MIT I saw the Ocean Engineering program end and the BioEngineering program begin. I fear his vision of the University would end so much of the exciting work done in physics, and the current University system is welcoming of interdisciplinary work, perhaps the op-ed’s knowledge isn’t relevant to any of it.


Public Lecture at TILC09

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

TILC09, an international workshop was held in Tsukuba, Japan, from the 17th of to the 21st of April, which was the eleventh in the series of meetings on the physics and detector of the ILC organized by the Asian Committee for Future Accelerators (ACFA) joint Linear Collider Physics and Detector Working Group. It also represented the eleventh of the major meetings to host the ILC Global design effort (GDE) discussion which pursues the development of the design and project planning for the ILC accelerator systems. More than 200 physicists got together and discussed physics on ILC and the action plan toward construction of the ILC in the international framework. (http://tilc09.kek.jp/)


Posters of TILC09(illustrator Yuji Kaida) and of a public lecture

This workshop series has a tradition to have a public lecture as a satellite session. The date was also coincident with a week of science-technology outreaching set by theMinistry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, then it was intended to invite families to the fun world of physics, of which title was Missing of anti-matters is the greatest magic of the universe with three presenters, Prof. Hitoshi Murayama from Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (IPMU Tokyo Univ.), Dr. Takeo Higuchi from KEK as a member of Belle collaboration and Mr. Tomohiro Maeda, a Close Up Magician.

In the part 1, Prof. Murayama explained matter and anti-matter using Pikachu and anti-Pikachu, which was enough to pull children into the physics. He also explained the concept of energy, the kinetic energy and potential energy with short movies like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdCJzO3w7_M.

After his presentation, three presenters were on the stage to make a panel discussion. Mr. Maeda played in total three magics which were related to the energy conservation, the prediction of the phenomena and the reaction of particles. Dr. Higuchi told people that anti-matter is other specialty goods of Tsukuba city in the sense that KEK leads the world in positron production.

Around 300 questionnaires were back among 500 audiences. One-fifth was young people less than 20 years old. Compared with the age distribution in usual event on physics or science-café, it was quite young. In the end, several children raised their hand to ask questions. I was personally afraid no questions by them, but it was needless fear. Even a 10 years old boy said he wished to be a physicist of KEK. More young Japanese are moving away from the sciences. It is important to attract them to the physics world with various way. It’s also important to remember that the questionnaires told us that two-thirds were the first-time participants to the event on the particle physics. They went back home with words, anti-matter, Higgs particle, accelerator and ILC in mind.Please also visit http://tmaeda.exblog.jp/9615443/ of Mr. Maeda’s web page (in Japanese) to see his followers’ opinion for this event.

It is told that the movie of this event is planned to be posted in near future.








It seems that when you don’t really know exactly who you are communicating to, the balance inevitably becomes a compromise. However, I think it is worth giving the audience the benefit of the doubt. I don’t want to give a lot of maths or jargon, or tell people more than they want to know, but I do think that people can handle very difficult concepts more easily than they might think, if the communicator does his/her job well. When putting together my 3 minutes of fame (heehee), I asked for alot of feedback from physicists as well as friends and family. What I noticed by comparing suggestions from all groups is that, despite our tendency as scientists to dislike a lack of detail in public outreach, when challenged to actually come up with something ourselves our estimation of what the average person outside of physics can cope with can be somewhat skewed in the direction of patronising.

Kathy Sykes, Prof. of Science and Society at Bristol University, who wrote about this issue for New Scientist on 18th April, and Ben Goldacre, writer of the Guardian’s “Bad Science” column had an interesting debate on this on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday. I really feel they both touched on crucial points.Kathy, who is a judge on the Famelab panel, felt that scientists are too critical of science outreach attempts, too quickly claiming they are  “dumbing down or not including enough science”. However, Ben Goldacre raised the good point that science is the only subject in which the audience is pandered to in this way, for example the rules of snooker not being pointed out to us during a game on TV. He also felt that real scientists are rarely the ones to find a place publicizing science, which is a great shame:

“You neglect your nerds at great cultural and economic cost.”

Bad representation of science is happening all the time, from journalists twisting scientists’ words to over-simplification (to the point where to content is no longer factual!) of an idea just to popularize it. One of the worse things I notice is that the question “why do scientists think X is true” is rarely answered well. People are all too quick to excessively defend their research to the public to sell it as brilliant. It needs to be absolutely clear to the non-scientific world just how scrutinizingly critical and cynical the scientific approach is, or else any old so and so can come along and give a bit of a half-explanation for why they think, for example, the LHC will destroy the planet, and some people will eat it up, because that is how science is fed to them anyway. For example, people were frightened and confused by the idea of LHC black hole production because of their understanding of the behavior of a naturally occurring one in the universe. Without adequate explanation of why the LHC black holes would be completely different it is hard to shake the instinctive idea that they could destroy the planet.

The way that the public were reassured on this issue as a standard was initially far from satisfactory because the level of detail and depth that can be gone into to explain this is almost endless. Now, the CERN website gives a safety page with a brief summary, with references, of all of the separate problematic theories and (in not alot of detail, true, but it isn’t a paper!) why they have in turn been ruled out. I will try to do a blog on this topic at some point with more specific discussion and not just “because collisions like that happen everywhere so it must be safe” (I read alot of papers about this!), but in the meantime, read the safety page!

Now, I must pull my neck in a bit and say that there is a big difference between misrepresentation and oversimplification or “dumbing down” of science and simply limiting the actual science you want to get across to something realistic given the context, or using something a little sensational to grab someone’s attention and engage them before explaining properly (note, you have to do the second part or else it’s just lying!) Kathy is right in the respect that the negative attitude towards science outreach is doing nothing to improve it, and scientists can have a rather stereotyping view, criticising all public science without discrimination. You cannot write off science outreach altogether – if you did you would be left with no scientists – and probably no funding! The potential future scientists of this world and the people whose taxes are contributing to our research deserve our effort to show them what we are doing and why we love it. We, the scientists, know this better than anyone. We are passionate about our subject, we know how important criticism is, and most importantly, we get our facts straight! We are clearly the ideal people for the job, and passing the buck onto someone who doesn’t know the field like we do is inevitably going to leave us with something to moan about!

What I get from my experience talking to people about science is this: we find it hard to understand the perspective of a non-scientist. Some people tell you not to include anything tricky, because “it might put them off”. Some fear that you must “sell the sizzle, not the sausage”, because presumably normal people don’t understand the motivation of simple curiosity and are interested only in the spin offs that benefit their everyday lives in an obvious way. However, I disagree with this. I think that in the right context, and put across clearly and without jargon, complex and non-instinctive concepts can be understood, if the audience is prepared to make a little effort. There’s the rub: you can’t expect everyone to want to do that as a spectator, for example watching a television programme. And frankly, real science will never appeal to someone if they don’t feel that spark of a questioning nature, if they aren’t a little intrigued when their instincts are wrong, or if they never wonder about the world around them. Science is hard. It is also fascinating, addictive and the most logical and trustworthy technique we have to understand the world around us. That is clear to anyone, scientist or not, who has made the effort to try it out.


So what about the unknown, unseen audience – the “general public”? How do you cater for everybody? The fact is that you can’t do this perfectly. I find it very strange when people (mostly scientists) are critical of science outreach on the whole. The main reason is that they feel the truth is inevitably being washed away. There is always a danger of this happening when your target audience has little or no prior knowledge. I myself have suffered from this syndrome of watching “Horizon” on a subject I know a lot about and then criticising it for being too low in content (N.B: this is different from criticising i for being factually incorrect, which has happened!) However, the fact is, when I was 12 or 13, my father and I would watch Horizon on the very same topics and be fascinated – I would have to admit that it was one of the things which sparked my interest in astrophysics and cosmology. Horizon did, in that example, reach their target audience perfectly, and they were not factually inaccurate in that case, they simply held back on all of the details (an interested adult viewer could find these out himself, but the casual viewer does not need all of it). I have learned that whilst the truth does not need to be compromised (and anyone who says it does is not doing a good job of communicating), you do have to learn to restrain yourself in certain contexts. As scientists we love our subject so much we want to tell you everything about it all at once, and it takes a lot of time and care, and the right environment, to do that (A blog is great for this because there is no-one to tell me to shush!)

New Scientist magazine received a reasonable amount of negative feedback recently for its headline, “Darwin was wrong” on 24th Jan (e.g. here) . My opinion on this, having actually bought and read the article, is that this was a clever (if a little cheap) device by which to engage a new audience – those who find it interesting that he might be considered wrong by a science magazine – and show them that he was in fact fundamentally right, but more recent work (discovery of DNA) allows us to improve on his great studies – just as Newton described what he could measure at the time perfectly well, but we have since developed ways to measure a correction on this. Hearing “Newton was wrong” from my teacher outraged me as a child but then I learned about Einstein…it makes you interested. I loved it, because people who would not ordinarily have picked up the magazine and read about this subject now presumably did (sales went up, one assumes the copies were read!) which in my mind is an excellent thing. People have concerns that it has given weight to creationist anti-evolution arguments. I simply think anyone who cites only a headline to support their argument has to be viewed with high scepticism, and those naive few to whom this is not clear probably do not need the apparent backing of a science magazine to sway them into believing something.

New Scientist magazine is purchased by the interested non-scientist and the scientifically educated alike, and I like it because it introduced me to subjects I now love, and I find out a little from it about other science. It aims to show people a little of something real in the research/industry world, that they can go and investigate further if they wish. And yes, to sell copies, it drags you in in a bit of a sensational or misleading way – but it explains itself. This is exactly the kind of science publicity that scientists seem to hate, but I disagree. Now, don’t get me wrong – as soon as Angels and Demons is out, I will be the first to the cinema booing at the back. The reason is that it is very factually incorrect, and in ways that sometimes don’t even affect the plot (an office with glass walls sitting a few metres away next to the beam pipe would be hideously unsafe!), and to be then littered with a tiny bit of truth this is a dangerous thing for fiction to do. What is real and what is false is not clear. However, as long as outreach to the public is done in a factually correct way, and anything that might have been misleading is clarified, I am not entirely against grabbing people by allowing a topic to appear more exciting/simplistic/controversial on first glance than it is shown to be later. This is exactly what the Jenga analogy does, and it still works – I am not left thinking I am actually made of jenga, am I? 😉


There is more to communicating science than simply being enthusiastic. Despite it’s bad reputation, there is also alot more to doing it well than simply “dumbing down”. In the face of explaining something to a total stranger, my first concern is that I neither want to offput with jargon nor mistakenly patronise. I then have the challenge of showing them why it is interesting. Here, I can only give people what excites me, and that is my favourite part!

The open blog is an interesting medium through which to communicate – it is (comments aside) a one-way dialogue to pretty much anyone. I try to keep my writing accessible and interesting to most people, but by adopting a certain style we are subconsciously choosing our audience – it happens naturally. This is a rather nice exception to an otherwise very tricky game of guess-the-audience’s-taste – if you like our blogs, you will read them and if you don’t, you won’t. (For example, I am not sitting here fretting about those people who might find my yoyo and catapult building silly, or who have no interest in physics!)

I am passionate about science communication and during my career so far I have found myself in various environments with various audiences to talk/write to. The most awkward and challenging of these, to my mind, is the “stand-up” style of something like Famelab – how are you to correctly judge your unknown audience’s understanding, taste and interest, without continued feedback and adaptation? In many ways it is rather like stand-up comedy, because you can never be sure you won’t have totally misjudged this and end up with rolling tumbleweeds or booing. (not to put people off the idea or anything!) However, just as in comedy, there are the occasional charismatic characters who stand out and win over specialists and newbies alike. The woman with the winning video for the Edinburgh Famelab entry, Matilda Bradford, achieves this for me, as a scientist who knows nothing about genetics!

My favourite way to communicate science to an audience I am unfamiliar with is in a chatty informal atmosphere (pub, party, over lunch?), where more and more questions can be asked – the fact is, tailoring to a general audience is extremely tricky and it works so much better if you can find out more about the specific person/people you are trying to reach. When visiting schools or with groups of students the majority’s prior knowledge is reasonably specific, it is much easier to adjust your style and assess what is catching their attention and what isn’t. The Birmingham masterclass last week (see later!) was a great chance to talk to bright A level students with an active interest in particle physics and varying levels of understanding. After talks and exercises, we had the chance to each talk to a small group and discuss their questions. We took advantage of the sun and sat outside on the grass and had great fun with this – informal atmospheres are more relaxing so it felt less daunting for them to ask things they thought were daft (and in my line of work I have learned that there are no daft questions – the ones that came up were really intelligent and tough to answer!)

Sunshine + Physics = fun!

Sunshine + Physics = fun!


Space-pig flu

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Every time I get ill I tend to joke about it being the plague or something horrible (and implausible). This past weekend my illness actually coincided with the swine flu, so the joke was not too funny. Since I don’t know anyone who has been to Mexico lately (and Tom was sick a few days before me, before the scare) I am fairly sure I am just a victim of the rhinovirus. Unfortunately I was supposed to go SCUBA diving this weekend, so my mild cold cost me some productivity and a trip to play with the starfish in Monterey!

In true Ackerman style, I decided to watch The Andromeda Strain. This is the sort of black humor my family believes in – my father often watches The Perfect Storm on his sailboat, which is the same type as is shown destroyed in the movie. I consider myself an avid fan of old sci-fi, especially anything dystopian in nature. The Andromeda Strain wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it immensely. The movie is about a satellite that appears to have brought back a deadly germ from space and the scientists that study it (in order to save the world). It is notable for a few things:

  • A female scientist! She is simply treated as one of the scientists, rather than serving as eye-candy. I believe this is one of the first (if not the first) movies to have a believable female scientist.
  • The obstacles of science being portrayed reasonably. The scientists are hampered by the limits of technology – silly little things, like a mechanical failure and communication issues. Those are the things that slow science down!
  • A ridiculous level of cleanliness. These scientists were worried about biological cleanliness (ie, not introducing bacteria and fungi into the research area), rather than the radiological cleanliness that we worry about on EXO. The steps they had to go through to enter the clean area certainly belonged in sci-fi, rather than an actual lab, but it was comforting to see we don’t have it the worst on EXO! It took them hours to get to their labs – it only takes us a few minute to put on gloves, hair bonnet, clean room suit, and go through the air shower.

The scientists in the movie were normal researchers who were part of a group brought together in the case of an alien germ. It’s exciting to think of scientists getting to save the world (without weapons). So government, if you’re reading this, feel free to give me a call!


Today, at the desk of the court yard of KITP, I was sitting on a chair, in a relaxing mood, with a decaf cofee provided at the cookie time. I was thinking about some small ideas of a new application of AdS/CFT to nuclear physics. It was really a happy moment. I was alone. In the lobby, a lot of physicists discussed physics with coffee and cookies. But I liked to be out of the lobby once, to breathe fresh air, to see the blue sky of Santa Barbara.

I suddenly again realized that I myself has changed. I guess, if it were 4 years ago when I came here last time, or 9 years ago when I was a PD here, I would have tried not to be out of the lobby where everyone gathers for insightful discussions. Now I like to be out. Why?

I remember that 9 years ago I was so eager to have chat with many excellent physicists who visited the institute. If I could talk with anyone on physics, I was so satisfied. I believed that it was how I could survive this foreign country. I think that was true for me at that moment. Everyday I was so excited and depressed. When I could have a nice discussion, I felt so proud of myself. But when I couldn’t, I got really disappointed, and I felt I was no use here. In thay way, my days continued with high up and down. My English was terrible, and in most of the days I could not speak a word, at lunch tables. So, it means, in most of the days, I was depressed.

After 9 years since I have left Santa Barbara, I have been in Japan, and there I guess I brought up my identity in physics, by publishing my papers. It took really long years, almost 10 years, to come to this feeling. Now I am not necessary to be too eager to join anyone’s discussion. I am ashamed to tell you this kind of story. If you are a physicist, some of you may understand my feeling, but some others may take much shorter period to reach this kind of phase. But in my case it took 10 years.

I recognised that I changed a lot. Does this just mean that I got just old? Probably yes. But if this is the main reason, then I need to be very careful. This way of change would surely change my way of doing physics. This is a serious question.

The blue sky, the blue oscean, the sound of waves, and the white seashore: this is a perfect combination. I vividly remember the time when I had a discussion with a professor, walking along the oscean. It was a wonderful moment. Now I am at the same place; which is just enough for me to have a very satisfactory feeling.

Thanks to my friends, I am not lonely. I wouldn’t feel like this if I could not do any discussion at KITP. I love discussions. I look forward to my future discussions, and more connections with my friends through the discussions.


A favorite pastime

Monday, April 27th, 2009

I’m not much of a winter person.  I like to visit winter on occasion, but don’t really appreciate when it drops in on me.  So when spring finally starts to come to the Chicago area, I get pretty excited.  Further, today is my birthday.  (That’s right, folks, the photo below is the last one of 31-year-old Dave.  The same photo taken today would show me all gray and hunched over and cupping my ear in order to hear you better.)  I, at least, can think of no better way to spend one of the first warm days of the year and my birthday weekend than a little bit of America’s Pastime – a Chicago White Sox baseball game.

View from the seats.

View from the seats in the White Sox Park.

I grew up on baseball.  My grandfather (mom’s dad) was a life-long St. Louis Cardinals fan.  In fact, he even tried out for the organization as a young man, but later injured his arm – he was a pitcher.  My own father was apparently a bit of a force on the mound in high school as a tall, thin left-hander.  So I got into the game very young – playing it, watching it, and talking about it with several generations of my family.  Following in these foot prints, I too was a pitcher for many years as a teenager.  In my own high school days I was lucky enough to be part of a State Championship team my junior year.  I mentioned in my bio that I was a few semesters from spending my life as an architect.  Well, the first thing I ever wanted to be, I guess, was a baseball player.

Anyway, the thunderstorms which blanketed Chicago this past weekend seemed to respect the game as well and paused for exactly 4 hours to let it proceed.  The remnants of the morning storms had to be wiped off your seat before the game, the sun came out in the 1st inning and it was 80 degrees by the 4th, and it started to rain again while walking back to the train after the 9th.  Not bad.

So Spring is trying, and I appreciate her efforts, and look forward to the summer that is to come.

Zooming in a bit.

Zooming in a bit.

A younger me at the game!

A younger me at the game!