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Archive for July, 2009

Some summer reading…

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Some time ago I had a discussion originally got interested in particle physics and I traced it all back to a book I read in 7th grade, The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Krauss. (The book not only turned me into a physicist, but also a trekkie.)

It’s a little late to put out a summer reading list, but for those of you who are still looking around for something to tickle your particle physics fancy, here are a few other personal recommendations.

First of all, let’s start with just about anything that Richard Feynman has written. Perhaps the most enjoyable and playful volume for a general audience is his auto-biographical Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, a collection of anecdotes about his life. There isn’t much physics in this book, but you’ll see why Feynman is a hero to generation after generation of physicists and laypeople alike. If you’re looking for something with more physics intuition (accessible to ambitious high school students), check out QED, a surprisingly accurate description of the work for which Feynman was awarded the Nobel prize in physics.

To the best of my knowledge, Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe is still one of the most successful popular introductions to theoretical physics, focusing on string theory. The NOVA documentary is also available free online. While I haven’t read it, I’ve heard that Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages is also an excellent read with more of a particle physics emphasis.

For those interested in extra dimensions (one of my current projects), I would also strongly recommend Edwin Abbott’s 19th century novel, Flatland. It’s available free online, but I’d recommend an annotated version to fill in some of the background. The book is, in some sense, a social commentary on Victorian life; but more importantly it is a remarkable lesson in how to think about higher dimensions by analogy to the two-dimensional flat land. (And it was written more than a century ago!)

These are all great popular-level books, but what about something for people who want to get their hands dirty? I remember the summer before starting college I was itching to start learning ‘real physics.’ For the autodidactically inclined, I would recommend starting with any fairly recent college physics textbook. Ugh! So dry, right? Don’t worry, I suggest skipping to the last few chapters that discuss modern physics. Most textbooks I’ve seen have some neat things to say about special relativity, quantum physics, and even the Standard Model. So to all you eager college freshmen, I suggest taking a skim through these chapters now because it’s unlikely your intro-level courses will ever get to the ‘good stuff.’

For more specific suggestions, I’ve recently found a wonderful exposition on special relativity called Very Special Relativity by Sander Bais. The book is accessible to anyone with a high-school physics background and a good grasp of algebra. It is remarkably adept at conveying a real working understanding of special relativity through illustrations. I would even recommend this book as a model of excellent pedagogy to graduate students who will be teaching courses in modern physics.

For advanced undergrads or beginning grad students who are interested in particle physics, an excellent first book in quantum field theory is Zee’s Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell, which illuminates the concepts behind the equations with expert clarity. Don’t rush out to buy it just yet, though, as I’ve been informed that a new expanded edition is right around the corner. For those rising graduate students who want a lighter summer, get acquainted with PhD Comics… you’ll laugh now, and then realize it’s all spot-on. 🙂

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The dog days of summer

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

As August rolls around and most of the locals head out of town on vacation… some place sandier, sunnier, and less full of computers, I’m going to remain at my post (working hard posting :-)). This isn’t to say that I’m spending all my time slaving away in front of a computer. The past 3 weeks the world’s premiere cycling race was going on in my backyard. The Sunday before last some friends and I decided we were going to wake up insanely early, camp out on a mountain top, and cheer on these elite athletes participating in The Tour de France. Now before you think that professional sports are way to cool for the likes of us, I’d like to make you aware of its true geekiness. Really anyone who can appreciate aerodynamics, dry British humor, and grown men wearing polka-dots should be excited about the world of professional cycling. And this year, arguably the most famous cyclist of our time, Lance Armstrong staged his 2nd comeback (the first being after his bout with cancer) and placed an impressive third behind teammate Alberto Contador who won overall. I was lucky enough to witness these guys for a few seconds as they flew by while climbing up to the mountain top town of Verbier.

Cyclists at the Tour

Cyclists at the Tour

Other than enjoying the Tour, I’ve been busy wrapping up and continuing to work on a couple of studies – one I’ve already blogged about (the one involving cosmic rays) and the other maybe once I’ve gotten a little farther. In a week the Department of Energy is reviewing our group, so everyone is trying to pull together their analyses to present. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t have other things on my mind. At the end of August, I return to the United States. One month to go and I’m filled with a mixture of emotions. I was supposed to come out for the first year of running: last September to this September. Unfortunately things don’t always work out as we planned. My first thought was to extend my stay, but with news that the accelerator wouldn’t start until first the summer, then September and now mid-November. I decided it was probably best to wait in New York, where my husband is, for the machine to start. Luckily, with the power of the internet, I can do most of the same work there as I can here (like blogging :-)), but I’m always going to feel like there’s work to do on site. I’m just very lucky that I have supportive friends, family, and colleagues.

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Hello world!

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Hi there! I’m the new kid in town. As such, I thought it would be polite to introduce a little bit of the work I’m doing or, more precisely, that I’ll be doing during the course of my PhD, which has just kick-started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Let me introduce you to the stuff I’ve been breathing, eating, and dreaming about since I got to Madison: the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. This beast is a giant neutrino telescope, still under construction in the South Pole but taking wonderful data since day 1.

Inevitable questions arise: Why should anyone want to build something at the South Pole? Why there? Why do we need a neutrino telescope after all? Well, I hope that I’ll be able to answer all these questions during my future posts. But besides talking about neutrinos, PMTs, cold weather, and Wisconsin cheese I would also enjoy letting you take a peek at physics grad school from scratch. I’ve only been in the US for about 2 months now, and I’ll be taking my first graduate courses during the coming Fall, so if you really keep reading this blog long enough, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to follow the entire process explained in this comic step by step!

 

From PhD comics (C)

From PhD Comics (http://phdcomics.com)

 

 

 

 

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PHYSICS IN THE MOUNTAINS

Monday, July 27th, 2009

What hiking and mountain biking has to do with physics? Well, a lot, as it turns out! For one, try climbing 2000 feet and then tell me if you still think that gravity is a very weak force!

Aspen, Colorado is a tiny gem tucked away in the Rockies, some 200 miles from Denver. Most famous for its top-notch skiing resorts and a record number of private jets per capita, it is also a home for Aspen Center for Physics. Founded in 1962, the Center is a warm and welcoming place hosting a number of workshops and conferences in all areas of physics. Founded by physicists and for physicists, the Center offers very informal and productive atmosphere for work and collaboration with other physicists. There are about 50 people visiting the Center at any given time – usually from two or more different disciplines. The days are full of discussions, informal seminars, trips up the mountains, lunches and picnics, where new ideas are being exchanged, papers are discussed, and new collaborations formed. Want to talk about Supersymmetry? – Just cross the corridor and walk in the office of Howie Haber. Feel that four dimensions are not enough? – Cross the little meadow to an adjacent building and chat with Lisa Randall.

For the past couple of weeks I have been attending a workshop on Physics Beyond the Standard Model in Aspen, run by the leading theorists in the field. I was one of the only two experimenters invited to the workshop to offer expertise on LHC detectors and to discuss with theorists our plans for the first year of the LHC running. Michael Schmitt from Northwestern, my CMS colleague, was the other invitee.

Michael and I gave seminars for theorists about the LHC schedule and our preparations to exciting discoveries the new energy frontier is expected to offer. We also had many informal discussions on various new theoretical ideas and possible ways of testing them experimentally. Some of these ideas would require certain modifications to the way we look at the LHC data, perhaps even changes to the trigger – the fast system that decides, which few out of millions of collisions happening every second to keep for further analysis. Many of these discussions started at the Center, where continued on hiking trips, in the Alpine meadows and aspen groves, on the shores of mountain lakes and on rocky ridges leading to them. All in all, it was very productive and a lot of fun.

I’ll write more about the hikes and the biking trips we took and the discussions we had in this blog.

On top of the Ute trail on the Aspen Mountain

On top of the Ute trail on the Aspen Mountain

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Robert’s Work

Monday, July 27th, 2009
Hello, all.  This week my code finally went into production at CMS, and
it seems to work.  Hooray!  My little piece of the puzzle is some
monitoring code which tells the shifter whose job it is to guard the
pixel subdetector if a certain specific piece of the experiment is
malfunctioning in real time.  My boss, Dr. Karl Ecklund, wants me to
eventually add functionality to monitor other things, but for now, life
is good!

In other news, I've done some exploration of the surrounding area.
Lausanne and Montreux were very pretty, and I got to go hiking at a ski
resort called Les Diaberets, which was cool until it started raining, at
which point it became quite cold!  I also spent a weekend in Lyon, but
it was hot and not very interesting.

CERN in general is surrounded by beautiful scenery and filled with mad
scientists, but the infrastructure leaves something to be desired.  The
buildings look suspiciously like no architects were disturbed in their
construction, and the power grid needs some work!  Other than that
things seem cool.

More later,

Robert
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Growing in the middle of adversities!

This week has been specially difficult in different aspects of my life. There are times where everything just breaks down at once, and you wonder whats is going on! After many trials in my life, I learned that my attitude in the middle of difficult circumstances play a fundamental role. There have been times where I behaved like I didn’t care about what was happening to me, that was a big lie because internally I was suffering. Other times I have felt sorry for myself and complained why life is so hard! This attitude is understandable but It didn’t solve anything and in the end, I added my depression and self compassion to my problems, and believe me it didn’t help! Latterly, I have being trying to  assume a different attitude and recognize that I am going through difficult times, and that although it hurts, I can use those situations to learn something, to become better somehow.

Being a graduate student in high energy physics has taught me valuable things for my personal life. Things to fix, difficult programs to write (specially the ones that never compile and when they do, they don’t do what you expected 🙂 ) and tons of physics concepts to learn, have been in my daily life for the last three years and a half. When something doesn’t work, I can not  just sit down and cry feeling sorry because my code doesn’t work. I have to fix it somehow. Sometimes I have to get help from other people, or just look in google read about it and try to give it another shot. In the end, when I fix the problem (that usually is just couple lines of code that I didn’t know) I realize that digging around trying to solve the problem, I learned so much about other things, that it impresses me. So, I thought why do not try to have the same attitude in my personal life? I realized, and I know that for many readers this is not something new, that difficult times are just an opportunity to grow, to challenge ourselves, to become better. There are things that probably we’ll never forget, for example when you lose someone you love, it is hard but we have to keep moving and give our best in honor of those who loved us and can’t never be again with us.

Let me finish with a phrase that I know it might be controversial, but that so far, has been very true in my life: That which doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger. -Nietzsche.

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Rock On!!

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Currently I am at CERN working at the test beam. We are actually about to test a new pixel sensor as we want to upgrade our telescope with this next generation sensor in September. So far we are still working on the changes in the read out and therefore are not taking data yet. As soon there will be some events, I will report on them.

CERN Hardronic Festival 2009

But we are not only sitting here and freeze (the air condition system is set to a very low value and we can’t find the switch to reduce the cold air flow – so bring a jacket if you want to join the fun).  Last night we all went to the “Hardronic Festival” here on the Prevessin site of CERN. A really nice music event, with a number of bands from the CERN Music Club playing hard rock. Drinks and food were on sale, and fun stuff organized for the kids, like a rather big bouncing castle. A few hundred people came and we all had a great evening.  People were dancing in front of the stage, other people were relaxing on the lawn and yet other people enjoyed the beer and wine. A lot of people were trying to do all three things at the same time.

All bands were great, but my favorite band was “The Danglers”. They had a cool but also rather funny show. But really great fun was their adaptation of “Beat it” from Michael Jackson. The last band of the night, “ Physt”, performed a hard rock version of Phil Collins’ Land of Confusion, really cool !

I actually came home at 2 am, so getting up on time this morning was a bit difficult….

Party

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Lunch Anyone?

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

There are a number of important aspects to the working day at CERN, the multitude of meetings,
the countless coffees, the time management in order to remain productive, but there is one chief
aspect of daily life for any CERNois: lunch!
Why is lunch so important to those at CERN you may wonder. It is quite simply that occasionally,
it is a fight for ones life to get some space in the cafeterias. Let me step back for a moment and
flesh this out with a few details. The Meyrin site at CERN has two restaurants, let
us call them ‘Restaurant 1’ and ‘Restaurant 2’ for no other reason than that is what they are called.
There is a third eating place (go on have a guess…that’s right ‘Restaurant 3’) on the Prevessin site
in France. As far as any general cafeteria food goes one must give credit to the CERN cafeterias,
there is ample choice and many healthy options, plus some unhealthy ones, but in the world of
Particle Physics cafeterias CERN is high up the list (Burrito day at SLAC is still Wednesdays I
believe for anyone heading out that way). The reason why lunch can become such a brawl centres
around the spikes of activity which CERN undergoes at certain weeks of the year. Imagine an
already busy eating place between 12 noon and 1.30pm. Not enough seats for all the patrons, long
lines and some quite aggressive customers (not a bad word to be said about the staff from me as
they are always top drawer). Now, add to that 500+ additional people visiting for a meeting for an
entire week. All of them eat lunch in the same cafeteria and all of them want lunch at exactly the same
time, usually when a talk or meeting session has ended. Of this quantum of physicists (not sure if that’s
the technical term but it has a certain ring!) most of them are carrying a bag of some sort as they
try to wade through the munching minions to get at the much desired foodstuffs.

anyone interested in a spot of lunch?

anyone interested in a spot of lunch?

For CERN this has been discussed all the way up to the highest level of management and it would
be naive for a simple user of the lab to call this a problem. It’s not really. During many weeks of the
year the restaurants aren’t even that full, rarely, does restaurant 2 have a more patrons than they can
handle, and it’s a pleasant environment to eat in. One thing that CERN does wrestle with though is the
problem of infrastructure that the eating issue highlights. As all of high energy physics converges
towards one lab, the number of users has grown faster than the additional office space, the working
areas and conference rooms, and the restaurant space. These issues take time to solve and CERN
reacts well to problems from my experience thus far so we will see how things evolve over time.
For now though we will train our eyes to spot an elusive table on the R1 patio, and try not to trip over
stray bits of debris while sprinting, with tray in hand, to secure it.

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Fraturday

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Once I read about a book called Framstag, which is the combination of Friday and Saturday in German. The book is about a guy finding out that the rich people can earn an additional day by saving time while working, e.g. by doing something very efficient or by delegating the task. It seems that this book is very funny, but unfortunately I cannot get it anymore. But the thought of an additional day per week is appealing.
Imagine you can collect points, similar like air miles, if you work a lot. And when you reached a certain amount of points, you get this additional day, the Fraturday. If you followed the quantum diaries for some time, you probably realized by now, that particle physicists have the tendency to work a lot, just because they like it. So most of them would collect quite a lot of this days and probably just work again. So it should be required that you do not work on this day but that you have to do something sensible. So not working, not just hanging around and not doing the laundry …
What would I do?
When being in Hamburg I would finally start to go to some of the nice museums, for example the ethnology museum sounds very interesting. Another museum high on my list of places to go is the BallinStadt. This museum is dedicated to the emigrants leaving Germany through the Hamburg harbour.
Or I would use that day to learn another language….. It seems that there is a real life out there 😉

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Why are we here?

Friday, July 24th, 2009

I just returned from a vacation to the United States. It was nice to see my family and friends and get out of the CERN bubble for a little while. Of course, I got the usual questions:

  • 1) Did that accelerator start yet/when will it start?
  • 2) What good will it do us?

My answer to #1 was that I have no idea, hopefully in 2009.

My answer to #2 changes, probably depending on who I am talking to, or maybe just my mood. Sometimes I say something about Higgs bosons and supersymmetry (I try to avoid black holes since then I have to talk about the end-of-the-world fearmongering). Sometimes I say something about the practical benefits of past projects and that this project will also have as-yet-unknown benefits. And sometimes I say that there probably will be no direct benefit to the average person from the LHC.  Each of these is partially true, but whatever answer I give, I usually feel like I could have done better.  After being asked this question so many times over the years, I should have settled on an answer by now.

From now on, I think the answer should just be my personal reason and not have anything to do with the benefits to society overall.  For me and I think most people that work on LHC physics, I think the answer is the same: curiosity. Humans are curious, and science is the systematic way of satisfying curiosity. And I think that anyone that takes the time to learn about LHC physics would be curious to know more.  70,000 people showed up at CERN for the open day last year which makes me sure that people are curious about the things we study here.

To really answer questions about whether the LHC is worth the cost from a practical point of view, it would probably be necessary to put a dollar amount on the knowledge and other benefits we gain from it, and on the things that we then don’t do because the money is spent on the LHC. I have no idea how to do this, it probably isn’t even possible, but if you try to say whether the LHC is worth its cost any other way, you are just guessing or justifying your own beliefs.

So I think the reason to build the LHC (and to do it now as opposed to later, after we solve the problems of world hunger and disease and all the other things some people say the money would be better spent on) is that the LHC project is right now the next logical step in a series of questions and answers that started a long time ago. Scientists asked some questions and got answers through experimentation, which raised more questions, which led to more experiments, and machines got bigger and bigger until we ended up with a 17 mile long machine. Nothing else on Earth but human civilization could express its defining trait, curiosity, as the LHC. And what other point is there to civilization than coming together to collectively do what we cannot do individually, and what is more important than our defining characteristic, curiosity?

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