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Archive for April, 2010


Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Hi there!

Thought I’d put up today’s PhD comic, about research budgets in the US.

Budget Comic

Often we’re asked to justify the cost of our research, but it really is a pretty small fraction of the Federal budget. Although we often hear things like “The LHC cost $5 billion US”, that cost is spread over many years and is split between many countries. Anyway, thanks Jorge for the nice demonstration!



I wear many hats

Friday, April 16th, 2010

My name is Christine Nattrass and I’m a post doc on ALICE.  For my first post, I thought I’d talk about what I actually do on a daily basis.

First of all, what is a post doc?  Well, it’s something between a graduate student and a professor. Post doc is short for post-doctoral researcher or post-doctoral fellow and it comes after one’s doctoral studies.  The first couple years of graduate school are spent taking classes.  Afterwards, a graduate student has to do independent research that adds to our body of scientific knowledge.  Graduate students also usually have teaching responsibilities at least some of the time.  In the sciences, a graduate student is generally expected to present one’s work at conferences and to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals.  A professor* is expected to advise students, teach classes, sit on committees, publish papers, apply for grants (and actually get at least enough of these to support his or her research group), and attend conferences.  Most universities also require some form of outreach or community service of professors, although the amount of work can vary widely depending on the university.  A professor is generally in a pretty much permanent position – it may or may not be a lifetime job, but there is a reasonable amount of job security.  The average duration of a PhD in physics in the US is six years.  A post doc generally lasts 2-3 years.  A post doc has inherent job insecurity.

Two post docs are usually required to become a professor in heavy ion physics.  I spent five years getting my bachelor’s degree, six years getting my doctorate, and can expect to spend at least five years as a post doc before I could reasonably expect to get a faculty position or a permanent position at a national laboratory.  It is generally expected that someone will be at different institutes for his or her bachelor’s degree, doctorate, and each post doc, although there are exceptions.  A permanent position is also usually at a different institute too.  This means about five moves in about twenty years, often across the country or even to different countries.  My goal is to become a professor.  That means that, if I am lucky, in about five years I’ll get a tenure track position.  This mean the earliest I could reasonably expect to be able to live in one place for the next five years would be roughly at the age of 35.  Even then, competition for permanent positions is stiff – there is no guarantee that a position will even be open when I’m ready to apply.

My job responsibilities include a lot of the responsibilities of graduate students and professors.  Post docs do not usually teach classes, although sometimes this is sometimes an option.  I spend most of my time doing research.  This includes supervising graduate students.  Depending on the group, a graduate student may work closer with a post doc than with a faculty member.  A post doc is more likely to sift through a graduate student’s code to find a bug than a faculty member and often looks at the first draft of a student’s work.  “Doing research” can involve a lot of things, so let me list some of the things I’ve done this week:

  • Reading and commenting on two papers that will be submitted soon
  • Working on an expense report for a two month trip I just took to CERN
  • Discussing the aforementioned trip to CERN, future directions for research for the group, and the progress of graduate students with my faculty supervisor
  • Preparation of a poster for a poster session at our institute
  • Writing a paper
  • Three phone meetings with collaborators abroad
  • Preparation of a presentation for a paper discussion group I lead today
  • Finding and then reading papers on a topic I’ll soon start working on
  • Meeting with the author of a department newsletter to discuss an outreach project I’ve been working on (the Southeastern Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics)
  • Writing this blog post (which I consider outreach)

My job can vary a lot day to day.  Generally I do whatever has to get done.  If I don’t know how to do it, I have to learn.  This is the hard part and one of the best parts about this job.  It never gets boring.  I’m always doing something new.

Contrary to stereotypes about physicists, I actually spend most of my day communicating.  One of my responsibilities as a native English speaker in a highly international field is editing others’ English.  I draw a lot on the extra language training I got in my minor in German and auditing two years of Czech.  I also draw on my time in theater, orchestra, and choir.  The way physicists get known in the field is by giving talks and the way a physicist gets her next job is giving good talks.  In the last year I gave nine formal talks (either seminars or at conferences.)  In addition, I typically give at least twenty informal talks a year (in group meetings, at collaboration meetings, and in phone meetings.)  I am always performing.  I’ve been a system administrator for a computer system.  I’ve given public tours of a national lab.  I’ve done science workshops with middle schoolers and talked to students at several levels about being a physicist.  I’ve organized meetings and conferences.  I’ve tested electronics boards.  I’ve made ethernet cables.  I teach.  I write.  I mentor.  In short, I wear many hats.

And I want to hear from you – what do you want to know about physics, being a physicist, or CERN?  I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to everything, but I’ll try.

*I’m lumping together all ranks of professors.  Yes I’m fudging over details.


Physics operations

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Yesterday I (virtually) attended the CMS “physics operations” meeting, the first meeting of this sort in the 7 TeV era. We’ll be having a few of these per week for the foreseeable future (but I probably won’t attend all of them). The goal of the meeting is to check in on how everyone is doing in the day-to-day, hum-drum work of getting our physics business done. This includes everything from checking the reconstruction of the basic objects (leptons, jets, etc.) in the detector through full analyses that lead to publishable measurements. Does everyone have the simulation samples that they need? Have we learned enough about the data that it seems useful to reprocess all it with our new knowledge applied? What sort of problems are they running into with accessing the data or using the distributed computing system? (I came to get the word on the latter, which falls in my purview.) This meeting should be useful in helping us get work done efficiently, especially given the crush of activity that is occurring in the enthusiasm to study and understand our early data, and to prepare our first results from 7 TeV collisions.

That being said, the concept of “physics operations” sort of turns my stomach. Poking around on the Web, I found a definition of “operations management,” which was “the maintenance, control, and improvement of organizational activities that are required to produce goods or services for consumers. Operations management has traditionally been associated with manufacturing activities but can also be applied to the service sector.” This suggests the idea of physics as a factory — there is an assembly line, you put some raw materials into it, you make sure that all the machines run smoothly, and out come publishable papers at the other end. Of course this isn’t how physics research actually works — throughout the process of making a measurement, we need to apply plenty of human judgment and creativity, at least if we want to advance the field in a real way.

But perhaps this is just the way things have to be these days — when you have hundreds of humans being creative at the same time, you want to make sure that they don’t all collide with each other, that they are getting the resources that they need, and that the systems and tools that we have provided don’t hamper anyone’s creativity. And perhaps this was a natural evolution: I have certainly been among the people who talk about “physics commissioning,” the work you need to do to get data analyses up and going, in analogy to getting a detector up and going. And once you’ve commissioned a detector, you operate it, of course.

In other news: I’m supposed to be going to CERN in a week for the semi-annual CMS software and computing week, but the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced EY-ya-fyat-lah-YO-kut) volcano in Iceland and its impact on trans-Atlantic air traffic has me spooked. Apparently when the volcano last erupted, about two hundred years ago, it did so on and off for about two years. Will I make it over there? Will I be able to come home? Answers in my next post.



monster follow-up

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

After reading everyone’s comments to my previous post, both positive and negative, let me first say thanks to those who took it with a sense of humor.  And also, thank you to those who like to hear about the human side of doing science.

I will say my last paragraph there was a bit of a sucker punch.  I said it in jest, but it was unnecessary, and distracts from my initial point.  (A commentator reminded me are plenty of cool people in physics, and that is true!  Also, I like nerds, for the record.)

My initial point, the important one, was simply: as great as it is to be a part of such a cutting-edge project, it does have its downsides.  Those downsides not unique to CERN or France.  They exist for many jobs, in many countries.  And certainly, they are not anyone’s fault in particular.  I was just trying to explain some of the strains & complications that exist for those involved with CERN that aren’t as prevalent in other areas of physics research – which is what gives me hesitation when giving a recommendation for joining this field to potential new recruits.

C’est tout!

PS – To the readers who want only the facts and news about LHC status and science: I hear you!  I recommend:

There’s also a site called Meltronx, which combines a dozen live status pages for the beam and the detectors.  It might melt your eyes.



Monster Inc.

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

“This place eats relationships.”

He doesn't consume them so much as he crumbles them in his mouth and spits them back out.

Don’t get me wrong.  Working at CERN gives a student many unique opportunities.  This includes being able to live and work in a foreign country, to collaborate with scientists from around the world, and to help make discoveries on the cutting edge of physics.

Those advantages and others make it that much more unfortunate that I simply can’t bring myself to recommend this job to any new grad student who is in a relationship.

There are many other areas of research in physics where a new student can work on an interesting project for a PhD that don’t instantly create a conflict between their career and personal life.  Conflicts include:

  • Unless they are are married, their significant other won’t be able to get a VISA that allows them to stay & work legally more than a few months in France or Switzerland.
  • Not only are the experiments at CERN, but collaborators are here too – so a student is more efficient and useful when they are at CERN.
  • Even if they manage to spend most of their time in the US during grad school, what are they going to do after they graduate?  Are they going to want to continue working on a CERN experiment?

Basically, it’s a fantastic opportunity to be at CERN, but is always pressure to spend more time here – away from significant others.  So if a student is in a relationship and they want that to continue, then they’ve got some tough questions to face.

Ok, now, to all the single grad students out there: CERN is awesome.  Come to my singles-mixer Friday night!  Just kidding.  Actually, don’t expect to find that special someone at CERN – unless you are into dudes.  Dudes who are grown men that:

  • Haven’t had a real haircut since the last time they were in their home country.
  • Think their exercise for the day was taking the stairs.
  • Have discussions about stuff like this during work.



A Different Point of View

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

View from the physics building of NTU

View from the physics building of NTU

When I look out of the window from my office chair, I can see the world’s formerly tallest building.
Because this week, I am sitting in an office on the top floor of the new physics building of National Taiwan University (NTU), and what I see is Taipei 101, its top sometimes in, sometimes out of the low hanging clouds. (Yesterday, for once, I was looking the other way around.)
We are spending ten days in Taiwan, giving three talks between the two of us. Apart from NTU, we have also spent one day at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), which is walking distance from NTU, and later this week, we will spend some days at National Tsing-Hua University in Hsinchu.
So far, we’ve had a great time. Everyone has been extremely kind to us. It’s really true what people say about the Taiwanese (namely that they’re extremely nice). Further reasons to like Taiwan are the lush tropical vegetation, the dumplings, and very importantly, pearl milk tea!


Rediscovery! (kinda)

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

You’ve heard from us a few times that the first thing ATLAS (or CMS) will have to do is “rediscover” the physics that we’re pretty sure is there. ATLAS made a big step in that direction this week with the identification of the first W boson candidate events:

First candidate W boson decaying to a muon and neutrino

First candidate W boson decaying to a muon and neutrino

First W boson candidate decaying to an electron and neutrino

First W boson candidate decaying to an electron and neutrino

This is a pretty big deal for us. I think Flip will tell you more about the weak force in his next blog, but here’s the very quick version. A W boson can decay to an electron and a neutrino, or a muon and a neutrino, among other things (we have one of each!!). The electrons are those things that orbit a nucleus in an atom. A muon is, basically, a cosmic ray. They go through your body constantly (probably several thousand will have gone through you by the time you finish reading this sentence), and are one of the things that help evolution by kicking around your DNA. Neutrinos can’t be detected by ATLAS or CMS. They fly right out of the detector, completely unnoticed. Actually, they keep flying off into space. Neutrinos are produced by the billions in the sun, and several million will go through your body as you read this. They don’t do any harm – they basically do not interact with your body at all.

So what does a W boson look like?? We don’t see it directly – it decays too fast. We see the electron or muon in our detector, and we can measure that thing’s momentum. We see most of the other ‘stuff’ in the event, and add it all up. Once we’ve done that, the event doesn’t balance. The next trick comes from Newton: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The protons come into ATLAS going East-West. If something comes out going North, then there must be something that comes out going South as well! That’s how we can “see” the neutrino. We look for what’s missing when we add up the rest of the event.

In both of these events, there is some missing piece (the red dotted line) and an electron (in yellow) or muon (in red). We know that’s what the W boson looks like – they’ve been seen many times at LEP and the Tevatron. So if we guess that the missing piece is a neutrino, and that the neutrino and electron/muon came from the same particle, we can check what the mass of the particle was. And if that mass comes out close to the mass of the W boson, then we can say that this was probably an event with a W boson in it. It could have been something else – we can’t be positive – which is why we call it a “candidate.”

Why is this a big deal? Well, we only expect one W boson for every million events!! So that we managed to pick this up so quickly is a great sign for the way our detector is behaving!! At the very least, it’s a great first step!

The next thing on the list is the Z boson (I’ll leave that to Flip), and then the top quark after that. And probably in the meantime we’ll find some good high energy “jets” (quarks and gluons). Once we have all of those down (or maybe even a little before), you may start to see limits – or even discovery – of new physics!!!



Being Careful

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

Physicists try to be very clear about what they say (believe it or not!). If we claim to have “discovered” something, then millions, or even billions, of dollars could be put towards studying it. We’d better be sure!

Here are a couple of nice pictures we can talk about. Both are taken from the Particle Data Group. First is the neutron lifetime – how long it takes a neutron (with protons, neutrons make up the nuclei in every atom in the universe) to decay. Second is the W-boson mass – a boson that is a part of the “weak force” that controls some decays of nuclei, for example. And both of these are measurements as they have evolved with time.

Neutron Lifetime

Lifetime of the neutron

W boson mass

The mass of the W boson

You can see why I picked these two. It looks like the first measurements of the neutron lifetime were way off! And, contrarily, it looks like the W-boson mass measurements might even be too good! Either way, it is satisfying to see error bars on all these measurements. That part is really important! It allows the possibility that you’re wrong.

It’s a little easier to talk about this in terms of politics, since we’re all pretty familiar with “polls.” Take the latest Zogby poll that reported that “48.8% +/- 1.7%” (read 48.8 plus or minus 1.7 percent) of likely voters approve of the job President Obama is doing. In polls, that 1.7% error usually only reflects statistics (polling 10 people is less accurate than polling 1000). There are also systematic errors, like the differences in population between those responding to your poll and those voting, possibilities that people misunderstand the question or even lie when polled, and so on. Those are really important to include, although they’re really hard to justify sometimes – how much do you trust your work? But that “48.8 +/- 1.7%” really means one of two things, depending on your philosophy:

  • If you repeated this poll 100 times, 65 times you would get a number between 47.1% and 50.2%.
  • We are 65% confident that the “real” answer is between 47.1% and 50.2%.

When ever we physicists claim to discover a new particle, for example, we require that it be outside the expected error bar by at least five times the error bar’s width (called five standard deviations or five “sigma” – one “sigma” is 1.7% in this case). In other words, we would only have “discovered” something with this poll if we had predicted approval above 57.3% or below 40.3%. Three sigma is often called “observation,” two sigma is often called “evidence.” And we usually choose to consider something new “excluded” if it is ruled out by three sigma. In the case of finding a new particle, for example, we might expect to see 6 events that look such-and-such a way, and we could claim “discovery” only if we find more than 36+/-6.

This sounds complicated, but it’s all to ensure that we are very confident about what we’ve seen before announcing to the world that we have discovered a new particle! If you trust your error bars completely, five sigma means the chance we’re wrong is 0.00006%!! And this is also what we spend a huge amount of our time on: making sure those error bars are honest!

Next time I’ll talk a bit about what happens if we’re wrong!


Last week, on 30th March, I attended a debate on Science in the Media at City University, London. The invitation to the event came from my inquiry about a Science Journalism MA, and it had an interesting panel of speakers to discuss the recent “Science in the Media: Securing the Future” report.

I have to say that I found the report, though illuminating and fairly accurate, a little optimistic about the state of science journalism and where it is headed. The writers chose not to focus too closely on certain grey areas, and the debate saw these brought to the front of discussion. There is a key concern in the field that mainstream journalism is dying as internet media flourishes, and it is becoming less clear how to make a distinction between what is and isn’t journalism when bloggers and scientists are trying their hand at informing the public directly (and some are doing it very well). The debate focused heavily on this issue, with Ed Yong of “Not exactly rocket science” blogs defending the scientist/citizen journalism and the new way in which journalists can reach their audience with science. He made the point that I feel many journalists miss – people all over the world are reading with fascination about scientific news, with no previous knowledge or interest in science, and they are doing it without being patronised or given showy misleading headlines. The success of his blogs and variety of his audience is proof of this – when done well, this medium is very successful.

However, for every good science blog… In the same way that science news stories are fairly hit and miss, it will be tricky for the public to know whether they have found a reliable source on the internet. Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre and co-writer of the report, felt that a distinction needed to be made between “real” journalism and blogging, or even outreach/press officer activity, which she deemed “somewhat glorified PR”.  Fiona did, however, point out the benefits of outreach over writing for an editor – clear and direct communication. Her concern was that perhaps it should be clearly labeled who writers are working for, as they may be biased, (which journalists should not be). Successful investigative journalism, something all too rare in science, will be in real trouble if the line cannot be drawn.

In my opinion, making this distinction of what actually constitutes journalism can only be addressed if the main problem with science journalism – quality – has immediate action. Whilst Fiona coined the term “Scientists avoid the mass media at their peril”, something I do agree with as this is a window straight to the public, I turn the tables and say, don’t ignore scientists’ criticism. If journalists expect the science community to support investigative journalism, and if the public are to ever see mainstream media with a stronger reputation than their easy-access knowledge of the world-wide-web, then there is only one possible tool at trained journalists’ disposal: Credibility. Trust. Accurate, backed-up and transparently portrayed science. Unfortunately for them, bloggers with various backgrounds and minimal levels of financial reward (usually little to none) are doing this better than the majority of mainstream journalists.

One thing that was pointed out in the report that I was saddened did not get more focus from the panel (despite many questions directing towards it) was the issue of training journalists of a non-science background to think like scientists. There were other scientists in the room during the debate and they all had the same concern – quality of science reporting, which is sometimes done very well but often is done poorly. With around 70 full-time employed science journalists in the UK (and some hundreds of freelance writers), an ever-increasing interest in science news, and no further scope for expanding employment in the field, science journalists are left with less and less time each day to fact-check, and they are rarely required to have training in science. One good thing to come from the report is that a National Coordinator for Science Journalism Training will be appointed (providing the funding is secured) and online training will be available for these journalists.

A respected features editor asked the audience “what is quantum theory?” She had up until then failed to receive appropriate advice in order to edit a (fantastic) science journalist’s story. Natasha Loder of The Economist and chair of the British Science Writers’ Association (apparently of a scientific background herself) gave her an incorrect, unsatisfactory and inappropriate answer (when, in her defense, no-one else would respond). I spoke to the features editor myself afterwards and explained, as a scientist, that this is a far too open question. I gave her some better ideas of quantum theory in general but to adequately understand the article in question she would need to talk to scientists specialising in the research. Forgive me for being a complete scientist about this, but I actually think that every writer and editor who is likely to be responsible for scientific stories should be trained in basic statistics, risk, analysis…learn to interpret data, write (examined?) critical literary reviews etc. I don’t think they should all have had a degree in science but there are certain skills (as apposed to knowledge) that would allow them to criticise a story, understand its implications and ask the right questions in order to portray it correctly. It is important not to be misled and to ensure the public are not misled either, but are encouraged to investigate more for themselves.

What about scientists becoming journalists? The report pointed out that so far British Science Association’s Media Fellowships have been in place only to familiarise scientists with the media so that they can better communicate to them. If funding can be secured, there may be scope for courses to encourage them to consider a career in media. Surprisingly, Natasha lost the respect of many in the room when she pointed out that, far from her scientific background benefiting her, she had to “unlearn” some of her scientific skills in order to become a good journalist, stating “scientists are about facts, whereas journalists are about ideas”. I think many would disagree with this, and yet having seen what goes into some training for scientists talking to the media, I can believe it – we essentially learn damage limitation and the art of being interesting without accidentally being incorrect. So scientists are learning not to trust journalists and journalists are being taught that scientists can’t communicate (Natasha told the room she knew from experience that “most cannot communicate…many are borderline autistic”). I think something more constructive could be done here to ensure that communication between the two is more effective.

I think that it is disgusting that more is not being made of the talent hiding in the science community. Contrary to popular opinion, we are an eclectic mix of people with a variety of character traits with the sole common drive of curiosity. We love to solve problems, to unravel what we don’t understand. We don’t stop until it makes sense. That makes us fantastic critical thinkers, and many of us can pair that with great communication skills and a creative streak. Funnily enough, some of us also have the personality Natasha described was necessary for a career in journalism – an unshakable tenacity, a hardness and determination, the refusal to take no for an answer, “balshiness”. I attended the debate fairly curious, and have left it quite certain – whether or not I can ever be paid for it, and whether or not I will ever be able to call it “journalism”, I am now determined to bring science to the public. I, like many scientists, have the ability to rebuild the trust in science media, to produce truthful and clearly interpreted information, refer to sources and encourage its receivers to follow it further rather than take it on face value. The role of a journalist is to be a “truth teller”, and as long as there exists poor science journalism to destroy its reputation, and as mainstream media is gradually replaced by the internet, I am certain that there will always be scientists out there to do this job extremely well, whether or not they are paid to.


Hurry Up!!

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Preface: the folks over at the ATLAS control room blog are doing a great job too, so don’t miss their posts if you want more up-to-the-minute LHC news!

A lot of people ask me when we’ll start announcing discoveries of new physics (or exclusions of new physics). It could take a while. Even I don’t like the idea of waiting long before the really interesting new physics at the LHC gets published. So why does it take so long?? Well, for fun, let’s say ATLAS has found a new particle. And let’s say that you are the one who gets to say when the result is made public (in reality, that responsibility is shared among several people).

It's not quite that fast...

We have to write a paper about the discovery!! This is our chance to explain, clearly and carefully, what makes us think we have found something new. When the entire collaboration is happy with the paper, we send it off to a journal. The article we’ve written is then reviewed and, we hope, accepted in the journal. Finally, if all went well, the journal publishes the paper. If everything went perfectly, the review would all take a couple of months. No problem!

But it rarely goes perfectly. Usually, we find problems along the way, and those problems have to be corrected. And because it takes so long, the results are often presented in some “preliminary” form at a conference before they have been published. That’s one of the reasons we like going to conferences so much (and we get to go to some pretty sweet places). All those results get marked “PRELIMINARY” in big bold capital letters, because they aren’t published yet. There might still be some problems that shake out in the review of the work.

So now comes your job…

  • How long before work is ready to be published do you allow it to be seen outside the collaboration? If you wait too long, someone else might announce the discovery before you do! But if you move to quickly, then you might announce the discovery of a particle that doesn’t exist!! Both have happened a few times. It’s also hard to keep secrets (physicists like to gossip!!), so you may tip off someone else on where to look before you’re ready to announce your findings!
  • Who makes the announcement? Is it the person who did the analysis, and so knows the details best? Often that’s a graduate student or post-doc, and we like to protect them from the fallout if it turns out the announcement is wrong. Does the spokesperson make the announcement? Does the “physics coordinator”? The coordinator of the physics group that included the work?
  • In what journal do you publish the work? One of the most famous in physics is Physical Review Letters, but articles are not allowed to be more than four pages long. You could publish in a less well-known journal so that the page limit goes away – but do you need to publish a long article first?
  • The result might be more interesting if you can present it in terms of some particular theory. But do you want to share the information with a person outside of the collaboration? The information might get out – and long before you are ready for it to! (Of course, in ATLAS, we have quite a few experts in various theories, so this may not be an issue…).

In the past, there was some added pressure to publish first so that you could be recognized with a Nobel Prize. In many previous experiments, there was some person taking the lead who could be recognized (though in some cases that is debatable – or even resulted in picking the wrong person). Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t know of any obvious experimentalist to get it for a discovery at the LHC. How can you leave out the people who designed and built the machine? Or the people who designed and built the detector? Or the people who did the analysis? And no more than three people may receive the prize!! So the Nobel Committee will have its work cut out for them…

Good luck!!

Note: I’ll try to follow this with a blog about what happens when we’re wrong…