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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Strange goings on in Brazil

Around a week ago, I submitted the first paper to have me as the sole author. For someone working in such a large collaboration this is a pretty exciting moment, even if it is just proceedings 🙂

Last September, I was given the incredible opportunity to attend one of the most prestigious conferences in the world of quark-related research. The Strangeness in Quark Matter conference, held every few years, gathers physicists from around the world to an exotic location to discuss our current understanding of the strange quark, and the unusual behavior of the particles it creates. In September last year it was held in Buzios, a tiny fishing village on the coast north of Rio de Janeiro.  I was invited to give a talk at the conference, and I was lucky enough to get funding for the trip as I was also giving a talk on diffraction the week before in Rio (See Strong couplings: Tales from Brazil).


This was truly the most beautiful place I have ever seen (even compared to the stunning French snowy mountains I was falling down just a few weeks ago). It was also one of the strangest experiences of my life, and I am not attempting a pun. International conferences are a world unto themselves – indulgent in every sense. You feast frequently on a variety of delicious foods. You mingle with minds that are expertly extreme, taking various representations and interpretations of experimental analysis, sampling ideas and concepts from theorists from around the globe and across the field. Having never been to South America (or anywhere near as far as that) before in my life, the setting, for me, was entrancing and alien. Everywhere you looked there was a mango tree or a parasitic orchid hanging from a trunk. Our buffets and breakfasts were adorned with Papaya and Guava. We were even treated to an exciting boat trip to a nearby island (nicknamed “ugly island”), and got to dive into the salty waters and snorkel!



Outside scheduled talk time we were constantly supplied with Caipirinhas – cocktails with ice, sugar, lime and Cachaca (a spirit made from sugar-cane). In fact, after one long day, during a lively and late discussion that united the attendees with outstanding questions, drinks were brought round to encourage us to stay!


The topics under discussion, (and to some extent, debate), were just as unusual. At the start of my PhD, I had only known my own limitations in understanding data, theoretical concepts or predictions. Before the conference, discussion with many theorists to help me to understand the expectations for the LHC only served to confuse and excite me more. However, as well as answering a lot of questions for me, this conference demonstrated the true nature of being at the very front end of science – right now, we know very little for certain. Ask any scientist about what the LHC and RHIC heavy ion experiments are all about, and they will very quickly start to tell you about exciting things such as the “Quark Gluon Plasma”, and evidence to suggest its properties, like “strangeness enhancement”. Try saying either one of these phrases too loudly at a conference like this, however, and expect some funny looks. The fact is, there isn’t much you can say without a little skepticism (or careful rewording) right now.


One thing I know for sure is that my analysis area is not lacking in interest. Strange particle production in heavy ion collisions at RHIC, compared to pp collisions, can be explained quite powerfully by theory, but the phi resonance, which is not technically strange (made up of an s and anti-s quark) is somewhat more confusing. Asking what might happen to phi production in Pb-Pb collisions at the LHC is a tough enough question. However, begin to postulate what might occur in pp collisions with such high energy density that they become (in some ways) comparable to heavy ions, and you start to get some of those funny looks I mentioned. This was exactly what I did, and it sparked an argument between theorists of two extreme viewpoints, who eventually were asked to leave the room whilst the poor speaker continued. Of course, myself and another (very brilliant) ALICE physicist, Federico Antinori, who was keen to understand this issue, followed them out to take notes. 🙂


The conference was full of moments like this, and I am sure many of them are. Unusual data presented by experimentalists struggling to interpret it, theorists arguing passionately about the consequences. I’d like to make a rather controversial statement that there is probably an equivalent to the “Phlogiston” phenomenon at work in much of front-line science. (If you don’t know what I am talking about, don’t just Wikipedia it, you should also watch “Chemistry: A Volatile History”, presented by Prof. Jim Al-Khalili on BBC4 Catch up TV, and hurry as you only have a few days left!) What I mean is, wherever we are dealing with the unknown, there are many contradicting ideas and some of them have to be nonsense. Unfortunately what seems like nonsense can be exactly what we are looking for. You only have to look at the history and evolution of science to see how these red herrings can take a long time to unveil, and how what looks like a ridiculous mistake (parity violation, for example!) could turn out to be a curiously perfect answer.



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