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Archive for October, 2009

Discovering kindness

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

The most peculiar thing happened to me on Saturday. Together with a bunch of my Double Chooz colleagues I waited for the train to arrive at the train station in Reims, France. We were coming back after the Double Chooz meeting. Since the train was delayed, I took a seat kindly offered by my DC colleague Maury and we started chatting about fun ways to explore Paris later that afternoon. I naively put my backpack next to me, but leaning forward to look closer at the map, the backpack ended behind my back. An that is when the thief seized the opportunity and took it. Everything really important for my trip was there – my passport, all of my documents, money and credit cards, my laptop, my cell phone and other minor things. In a few moments I realized that my backpack vanished! It was a horrific feeling. I was in shock for a moment. Maury and his wife Sharon started looking for it with me, but it was nowhere to be found. Still hoping that the thief may have just took the money and left the backpack laying around, I quickly went to the group of my colleagues to ask for help. Everyone started looking, but no luck. They were all very disturbed by the news. Guillaume and Michel asked at the information desk hoping it is there, but it was not. So, my last hope to find my documents at least was gone. I knew that I had to wait until Monday in Paris to get to the US embassy and ask for a new passport and I knew that I need a police report to show that the passport was stolen. I also knew that it will take several days to do it. It was bad. But  it would be much, much worse, if the kindness and care of my DC colleagues did not instantly start pouring on me. Maury gave me cash and offered to pay for my hotel stay in Paris. Guillaume took cash from the ATM machine and gave it to me. Both him and Michel offered to go with me to the police station to file a report, which I could never do by myself, since I do not speak French. Michel missed his train and a non-refundable ticket in order to help me with the police report. Thierry offered me to stay with his family in Paris until things get resolved and notified my husband back in US about the event. They all gave me their cell phone numbers and addresses to contact them in Paris if I need anything else. All this care and kindness that my collaborators showed HELPED immensely. Instead of feeling alone and desperate with no money, documents and place to stay, this looked like a solvable straightforward inconvenience that will just take a few extra days. AND THIS IS A DIFFERENCE THAT ONLY TRUE FRIENDS CAN MAKE! At that point I was not even seriously upset, and only thing that I still felt really bad about was the fact that my children Una and Luka will have to wait even longer to see mommy again in spite of my promise that they would see me in just one more day. Deceiving children is a very bitter feeling even when it is not your fault.

And then things turned around. While sitting in the police office and listening to Michel describing to the police officer the unfortunate event, and appreciating his presence even more (I understood almost nothing and police officer spoke no English at all), Michel’s phone rang. It was Guillaume calling from the train. He was just notified by the lady at the information desk at train station that my backpack was found with everything in it. We rushed back and it was there indeed! I was so happy and grateful that my lucky star shown on me that day so strongly. The rest of the afternoon, Michel and I spent in a pleasant chat while waiting for the next train to Paris.

In the end, the only way I can explain things is that all of my colleagues (10+ of them) looking for the backpack at once scared the thief and he decided to leave it rather than risking to get caught. I will never find out, but I do not wish to question my luck. I was so fortunate that day: fortunate to get all of my things back and fortunate to have such great friends and collaborators on Double Chooz  that  cared and helped me when it was really needed. It seems, that sometimes it takes being in trouble to discover all the greatness and kindness of the people  you know.


The Beam is Back!

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009
Beam in the LHC!

First beam in the LHC since last year!

As reported by the BBC, last weekend particles were injected into the LHC for the first time in over a year.  This confirms what we’ve known all along — the scientists, engineers, and technicians working on the LHC are making steady progress toward restarting the machine — and it’s an excitingly concrete reminder of how close we are to taking data!

Last year’s big startup event was focused on circulating a beam around the entire ring, which hasn’t happened again yet.  This year’s really exciting milestone will be when beams are not only circulating in both directions, but actually colliding: that’s when we can start to do physics.


Returning to my Home Institute

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

This last week I got to go back to the home of the fight’n Texas Aggies (Texas A&M) my home institution. Similar to Homer’s blog entry I spent my time meeting with people that I only get to chat on the phone with or see over video. Needless to say this gets our analysis moving much faster and helps to fix all those little bugs in our code when we are trying to reproduce each other’s numbers.

Texas A&M

Texas A&M

While I could dedicate an entire blog post to just the intricacies of my analysis and all the interesting and fun things I learned from meeting with our new post-doc, (Daniel Goldin) who is joining our Delayed Photon Team on CDF, or the endless discussions with my adviser and other professors; I’d instead like to talk about the second (but really first) reason I went all the way to College Station, Texas for a week.

This wasn’t my own wedding but rather a dear friend and colleague of mine (Vadim Khotilovich) and his lovely new wife (Karen Trainor). Vadim has worked in our group at CDF since before I was a graduate student and after receiving his PhD has continued on with us as a post-doc working on CMS. Vadim and I have had a lot of fun times together since we both enjoy the sport of rock climbing and even managed to live close to one another while I was in College Station.

Vadim and I returning from a rock climbing trip with too much gear and not enough room in the car

Vadim and I returning from a rock climbing trip with too much gear and not enough room in the car

There are lots of fun memories from Vadim and Karen’s wedding but by far was their first dance. Now an important thing to know about Vadim is he is no ordinary physicist. Not only is he an amazing rock climber (a sport I tend to love myself) but he is also a well trained dancer. Likewise Karen is also formally trained in dance and that is how those two love birds met, so of course their first dance was INCREDIBLE!

I was lucky enough to serve as a groomsman for Vadim’s wedding along with another Texas A&M professor. Along with Vadim and I’s mutual friends from physics, a list of talented and

Vadim and Karen

Vadim and Karen

brilliant people from all disciplines of science and art were there to attend this wedding. The night was filled with wonderful food, fascinating discussions, outstanding dancing, and an atmosphere of love and friendship.

Standing in a crowd of so many wonderful people at such a beautiful event really reminded me of how great it is to be in a field like physics. Never mind the interesting things we study and the brilliant people we meet in our own field, there is also an entire book to be written on the other people, activities and talents that being part of this community plugs us into.

In closing as part of this wonderful particle physics community I would like to extend a big congratulations to Vadim and Karen. I realize that while our world of particle physics is big and growing, it is also closely related and tight knit. So if you know Vadim be sure to congratulate him and if you ever get the chance pick up some dancing pointers…he has a lot to teach all of us!


It is almost 40 minutes past midnight.  I just came back from my last CMS DAQ (Data Acquisition) trainee shift.  Strangely, I still have a lot of energy, so the first thing that comes to mind, after eating something (shifts make me hungrier than usual), is to keep doing something productive.  However, I need to get up early in the morning (well, it is effectively the morning already) to cover my first solo shift at 7 am, so I know I need to get some rest.  The problem is not the amount of rest needed, however, it is just that I am not used to waking up that early!

It won’t be easy to fall asleep though.  It seems that sometimes I get these bursts of energy out of air, particularly during the night.  Maybe that is why I do not drink coffee like every other physicist I know (besides it makes your teeth yellow).  Then, I think I should write while the energy “euphoria” lasts.  Write in a more natural way, that is; in a more spontaneous way.  Maybe it will be fun to read this entry again when the sun is up… I’ve been thinking about doing that for a while….

DAQ shifts are fun: you have the “control” of all the CMS detectors; everything passes trough DAQ’s hands. I liked them at the Tevatron and like them now at the LHC.  Besides, it is nice to be at P5 (point 5) where the CMS detector is located (in Cessy, France).  There, in the control room, I feel at home.  I like the excitement, and I can only imagine it being multiplied by 100 times, once first collisions come.

Then I think about neutrinos.  Those sneaky neutrinos that have been making me think a lot during the weekend.  Those sneaky neutrinos that we, at CMS, cannot detect directly but simply infer their presence by the imbalance of transverse energy in the detector.  I’ve been thinking about them because of this recent and excellent article about relic neutrinos, and how much closer to us they seem to come from compared to the relic photons. Those sneaky and skinny (their mass is really tiny) relic neutrinos, almost as old as the Universe.  I am sure they have great stories to tell about the past. They are like the grandpas of the Universe. If we could only get them to like us, to interact with us somehow.  But no, trillions of them pass through my body without me even noticing.  Maybe they keep the secret of the origins, the answer to the question that drove most of us into this, apparently, endless quest.

Edgar Carrera (Boston University)


CERN hotels

Monday, October 26th, 2009

This is probably where the real blog begins. I have come to understand that most people blog on something specific they do. Like how they cook all the recipes in a cookbook in one year. Or their trial and error while practising for the marathon without any hope that they will ever finish one.  I have a different, nonetheless ambitious, goal: I will move to Geneva in three months and work at CERN for a year.

Within a couple of months, everybody who wants to move to CERN can use my blog as a reference. I will write about our search for a house, what to bring for work and what books on Geneva are good. But, my first piece of advice is on hotels. My colleague R and I travelled to CERN last week for the ATLAS software tutorial. The tutorial was to begin on Wednesday at an inhumane 9 am. Coming from Amsterdam, you will need to take the plane before 6 am to make it in time. There were no flights available at that time, so we flew in on Tuesday. Tuesday evening, to be more precise. And here is the tip: phone the hotel if you are arriving between 5 pm and 6 am. Basically all French and Swiss hotels are fermé at “night”. With some luck, you are assigned a no-show and your room has been booked by a random CERN person.

We arrived at the hotel, romantically situated next to a high way, and found nobody at the reception. In the agenda we saw “no show” next to our names. By that time it was 11 pm and we already saw ourselves sleeping on the bathroom floor, our head resting on the reception carpet, because the bathrooms are tiny. We were saved by a CERN physicist, who phoned one of the other hotels in the village and drove us there. We spent the night in a real bed, and on Wednesday morning we could check in our rooms. Who says the LHC is cursed?

It is time to go to sleep in the high way hotel. There is a meeting of the local government in the restaurant, so I can dream about French cuisine while not training for any long run.


Theory: Women in Physics

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

There are many reasons for the lack of women in physics – all correctable. I’ll highlight some of the arguments below, some coming specifically out of physics, some from science in general, and others coming out of social-psychology studies. While almost all of it is focused on the United States, similar cultures would share these effects. I want to point out that many of these effects also apply to underrepresented racial minorities, whose numbers in physics are far lower than for women [6].

(Unconscious) Bias

We are not too far from an era where female graduate students were asked to double as babysitters or when female physicists had a hard time getting a paid job at CERN[1]. We aren’t far enough for all experimental buildings to have women’s bathrooms. While there are still a few giant jerks left, most of the problems are from people who wouldn’t think they are doing anything to disadvantage women in the field, including women themselves.

We’re scientists, so what can actually be measured? Studies can be done on how decisions are made and what the field actually looks like. Studies have been done (not specific to physics) showing that white names favored over African-American names in otherwise identical CVs for interview callback (3:2), “Brian” was preferred over “Karen” (2:1) using identical resumes, and that women had to be 2.5 times more productive to rate equally in scientific competence as the average male for a postdoc fellowship [4]. The people making these decisions may not be consciously racist or sexist, but have picked up unconscious bias from societal messages [7].

Perhaps you want to believe that these studies – done in labs or outside of physics – don’t actually relate to what we experience. A study was done on members of D0 (an accelerator experiment at Fermilab) to look at male and female post-docs. There was evidence that the female post-docs did more “service work” (40% more) than their male peers and had to work on twice the number of internal physics analyses papers to go to the same number of conferences[3]. In physics, recommendations and supervisors’ support are necessary to advance a career, and women are again disadvantaged. According to Prof. Urry, a physicist who has written about these issues, [2] (and I have certainly witnessed it for years), “Young men are talked about as superstars, while young women are described as “very good”.” There are many ways in which recommendation letters for female students aren’t as impressive as those for males, including shorter length, more gender-stereotypical adjectives, lack of use of title, and more negative language or irrelevant comments that could raise doubts. [8]


Our society socializes men and women to like different things and behave in different ways. This can disadvantage female physicists (or women who could have been physicists otherwise) in many different ways, including

  1. Trained to not have personality traits beneficial to being a physicist
  2. Not encouraged to participate in activities that would foster an interest in the physical sciences
  3. Not encourages to pursue technical careers

I think the first point is often ignored, and perhaps one of the most important. Many physicists (perhaps this is just in the US, but I doubt it) are egotistical, hard-headed jerks. In some groups, meetings seem to be a contest to either talk the most or interrupt each other the most. These are habits that society discourages far more in girls than boys. Urry writes that “To succeed as a physicist, one must not only do good work but also aggressively promote one’s ideas and accomplishments.” and

Men who are highly aggressive, intrusive, peremptory, and obnoxious still enjoy the confidence and respect of their colleagues. Women with even a fraction of the same toughness are characterized as “difficult” (there are other words for this) and demoted or told to play nice.[2]

Obviously there are some ‘nice’ men who have succeeded in physics and numerous women that have. But the majority of the women I have met who entered physics in the 70’s and 80’s are absolutely tough as nails. They didn’t succeed by playing nice.

There is much that could be said about exposure to and encouragement in technical fields, but I don’t think it is a dominant problem. Freshman physics is hard and boring, but you would still expect both male and female students to quit. About 50% of high school physics students are female, while only 22% of bachelor’s degrees are [9]. Much of this can be attributed to the students entering physics culture – with all of it’s problems – and being discouraged by the issues I am discussing.

If socialization and familiarity with technical fields and the physical sciences was simple, we’d expect to see similar gender breakdowns in other sciences, math, and engineering. Not only does physics have fewer female PhD’s than other technical field, but the improvement over time is also slower [9]. One argument is that physics has an ancient history of being tied to the clergy [10], and that particle physics still has much of the same mentality. While it isn’t the whole story, it does provide one reason why particle physics has the smallest percentage of female PhD’s [9].

Stereotype Threat and Solo Status

When a department or field lacks women or minorities, the problem is much deeper than young people not having role models. While it is important for people to have mentors who can give helpful advice, there are extensive psychological challenges for both the minority individual and those belonging to the majority. Some of this relates to bias: “As the ratio of women to men, or racial minorities to Whites, increases, women and racial minorities receive lower evaluations and are less likely to be promoted than White males.”[5]

The idea of “stereotype threat” and “solo status” is that self-perception of being in a disadvantaged group decreases ones own performance. In research discussed in [5], a math test is given to subjects in two different circumstances. If told it measures their ability and given the test, men outperform women. If told beforehand that it is a “special” type of test that has no gender bias, women perform the same as men. This is the same test- the difference is only stereotype threat! Additionally, if a person thinks they are the only member of a marginalized group in an evaluation, the person performs worse than if they are in a group with the same race or gender. Research has shown that women have lower expectations of their performance if they are in a solo situations, and these expectations lower their actual performance [5].

Research into these issues is extensive. Believing that you are representative of your group has been shown to hurt performance in a multitude of ways.

Low-status groups engage in different communication styles when interacting with high-status groups… Women tend to use more tentative language (e.g. weakening the strength of a statement by using phrases such as “sort of” or “maybe”) when interacting with men. Solos … may say only what is neccessary, without elaborating on answers, in order to provide less room for error.[5]

With the culture of physics being what it is, these effects can be debilitating to someone facing stereotype threat and solo status. Urry says that “To succeed as a physicist, one must not only do good work but also aggressively promote one’s ideas and accomplishments.” This is in great conflict with tentative communication and lowered expectations of one’s performance.


Often the “leaky pipeline” – women leaving academia after each stage – is discussed with regards to the lack of women in physics. Pointing to family or child-raising issues is sometimes just a cop-out – many issues apply. This can’t be solved by “fixing” the women. The environment and mentality must be changed. Perhaps you have never experienced these issues in physics – perhaps that explains why you have made it as far as you have. Yes, there are some amazing women in physics- but there are plenty of mediocre men in physics! If some of the women who would be good (but not amazing) physicists could make it, they would still be improving the field.

For an excellent summary, see this excellent APS article written by Prof. Urry. For some interesting stories on the bias female professors face, I recommend reading through the archives at FemaleScienceProfessor

[1] Report On Women In Scientific Careers At Cern Gaillard, M. K. 1980

[2] “Are Photons Gendered: Women in Physics and Astronomy” Urry, C. M. In Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering.2008

[3] Title: A Case Study of Gender Bias at the Postdoctoral Level in Physics, and its Resulting Impact on the Academic Career Advancement of Females Towers, S. 2008

[4] “Nepotism and Sexism in Peer-Review” Wenneras,C. and Wold,A. Nature 337, pp 341. 1997

[5] “When Being Different is Detrimental: Solo Status and the Performance of Women and Racial Minorities” Thompson, M and Sekaquaptewa, D. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy Vol 2 No 1 pp 183-203, 2002

[6] Diversity in Science Association 2007 Report (Nelson Diversity Survey)

[7] Implicit Association Test

[8]”Exploring the Color of Glass: Letters of Recommendation for Female and Male Medical Faculty “, Trix, F, Psenka, C, Discourse & Society, Vol. 14, No. 2, 191-220. 2003


[10] “Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars” Wertheim, M. 1995


Sunny Sunday

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

This weekend the weather has been playing tricks on me in New York. I intended to go camping upstate with some friends, but after a valiant attempt on Friday evening/Saturday morning, we decided to take our soggy sleeping bags and head back to Long Island. It literally rained all day, night and the next morning – which being from Colorado – I’ll never get used to. I decided to share this with you on a Sunday afternoon sitting in my apartment looking out my window at this:

A room with a view

A room with a view

The gods must be conspiring against me to make sure I get work done this weekend :).  So I thought I’d update everyone as to the status of the LHC. My email’s been a buzz with information. So far all the repairs have been completed and the entire ring is back at the operating temperature of 1.9 K. The schedule is still on to start circulating beams in mid November with low energy collisions soon to follow. Although we probably won’t be at the full energy this year, any collisions would be an amazing milestone.

There’s also a new LHC First physics Physics Website that you will probably want to check out. It will have the most up-to-date information. Happy reading on a beautiful Sunday!


The Sunshine State

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

The curse of jet lag: Waking up at 4 in the morning in some hotel room.

I am in Florida for a few days, for a change… The so-called sunshine state. Right now that does not quite fit, it is still very early in the morning, just after 6 am local… And I can’t sleep. In fact, I’ve already been awake on and off for a few hours. Usually I don’t suffer much from jet lag, let’s see how this trip works out. I’m not really an early riser if I can avoid it, so on trips to the west I usually sleep longer than that… I arrived in Orlando last night from Munich, via Charlotte, and have not seen daylight in Florida yet. But at least there is a palm tree right outside the window of my Motel room, and it is quite warm out, so there is that promise of a pleasant climate. Very attractive, given that fall has really started in Munich two weeks or so ago…

Why am I here? Not for fun, obviously… Although I am hoping to sneak some of that in today. I’m in Orlando for the IEEE Nuclear Science Symposium, a very big conference on technology in nuclear and particle physics. Here, I am giving a talk about results from the CALICE experiment later in the week. I’m sure it is going to be an exciting conference, with lots of new things to learn about developments in detector technology. And also a chance to meet other Quantum Diarists. I know that Ingrid will be here, anyone else? There will definitely be more about the conference in future posts here…

Well, before I dive into work again, today is (at least almost completely) a day off, and I’m planning to see some of the surroundings… Something that is all too often missing in my trips…

Going tropical: A palm tree outside my window.

Going tropical: A palm tree outside my window.


Your Tax Dollars at Work at 2 AM

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

It’s two in the morning here in Geneva and I just got home.  While walking back, I had some ideas about how to understand the impact on track jets from tracking lower-energy particles, and how to better understand the efficiency of finding those track jets as a function of what part of the detector they hit.  So time to fire up the Internet and get back to work!  — Seth


Cost of Living Near CERN

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Americans are becoming poorer!

Most graduate students I know are paid enough to live fine in France. I do occasionally, however, hear about a grad student who isn’t being paid nearly enough and is digging into savings just to get by.

That is why it is important to know how much it will cost for you to live somewhere before you agree to move there. If a professor (or boss) isn’t offering you enough compensation to move you should make them aware of this and negotiate a higher pay.

For reference to potential future students moving to France to work or do research at CERN, here are some costs to think about. (more…)