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Archive for January, 2011

Soccer teams and science fairs

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Google asked me to write a few lines about why I became a judge for the Google Science Fair, and they asked that I talk about what inspired me to go into science. When I was young I remember being passionate about two things. One was my local football team, VfB Stuttgart, and the other was a desire to know what things are made of at the smallest scales.

I’m not the first to ask that question, far from it. The idea of atomism – that there’s a smallest possible piece of any given substance – goes back to Leucippus and Democritus in ancient Greece.  That people have been asking such questions for so long makes me think that this kind of curiosity is not just the preserve of scientists, but is part of what makes us all human.

My intuition is backed up by evidence: whenever we ask people what they think of us at CERN, they always say that while our science is sometimes hard to follow, our mission to understand the fundamental nature of the universe is an important one.  People support curiosity-driven science.

When I was young, I never thought of myself as a junior scientist, I was just curious. The ‘research tools’ I chose to satisfy my curiosity were construction sets like lego. I would spend hours experimenting with them. Most of the time, I’d fail to produce what I was aiming for at the first attempt, but with perseverance I usually got there. Again, I have the impression that I was not alone. For others, chemistry sets or microscopes took the place of my construction sets, but it seems to me that most of the children I grew up with were behaving scientifically one way or another. I think that all children are natural scientists, but as we grow up, many of us seem to disengage. That’s one good reason why I’m judging the science fair: I think it’s a great way to promote and sustain interest in science at a crucial age.

The thing that inspires me about the Google Science Fair is that it’s all about encouraging young people around the world not to forget how to think and behave scientifically. It’s about science bringing people together, and it’s about encouraging young people to design a scientific procedure and follow it through from start to finish. As a judge, I’ll be looking out for projects that push the limits. If there are setbacks along the way, I might well consider that to be a plus, because just as I discovered with my construction sets as a child, it’s through such experience that we progress.

One of my greatest dreams is for science to play a much bigger role in society. Of course it already does in terms of the gadgets we use and the things we all take for granted, but I also want people to talk about science the way they talk about football. If I walk down the street and ask people what inspires them it would be great to get the answer ‘soccer teams and science fairs’ on equal footing. Science deserves to be up there at the top of the popular agenda. Am I dreaming? Maybe, but I think that initiatives like the Google Science Fair can do much to make this dream a reality.

Rolf Heuer


The TeVatron conspiracy theorists thought it may have been a hoax to blind-side their own running aspirations, but today CERN announces that the LHC will continue apace into 2012. The run in 2011 will soon be upon us and this ambitious plan to continue well into 2012 shows great faith in the LHC’s ability to deliver and provides a clear path for the detectors to make serious inroads into new physics parameter space in the upcoming 18 months. Improved constraints on new physics are already coming out from the impressive suit of papers and conference notes either public or surely in the works for an exciting winter conference season which will be with us soon.

The decision to run into 2012, was taken by CERN management following their annual skiing trip/winter getaway planning workshop held in Chamonix last week.
Not only will the LHC continue to run, but the beams will remain at their now accustomed 3.5TeV, providing a 7TeV center-of-mass. In my opinion this is a wise choice. The potential gains in pumping the energy from 7 to 8TeV were there, for certain channels, but in many/most cases a steady and progressive increase in luminosity at this lower energy is more than sufficient to provide the necessary sensitivity. Perhaps the big-wigs also decided to err on the side of caution and thought that even if the machine could operate well with 4TeV beams is it really worth the risk?
We’ll find out soon enough as the management usually do an excellent job summarizing their decision making to the rest of us doing our day-to-day work.

You can read for yourself the full press release regarding the decision to run and energy choice. From an experiments perspective we just want to know as soon as possible. Changing energy means rerunning Monte Carlo’s, perhaps reevaluating triggers and checking cross sections again. Running into 2012 impacts the timing of the shutdown and activities related to that. The long shutdown, now in late 2012 and 2013, is required to replace the splices needs for the LHC to able to approach her 14TeV design center-of-mass energy. But not only that. The experiments have extensive upgrade activities planned for these months and need to arrange manpower, equipment and resources required to safely and successfully delve back into their detectors to replace or tweak the parts in need of a tune up. Knowing this news will provide a clearer path to the exact nature of the early upgrade work.

But before 2012 running we have 2011 running. And even before that, we have lots to do analyzing the 2010 data. Now we can push ahead doing that, safe in the knowledge it will not be the last data that we take at 7TeV!


News from Chamonix

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Last week, CERN held its annual workshop at Chamonix to consider the LHC run plan for this year and future years. The results of the workshop, and thus the new run plan, were announced today by CERN management. Over the past few months, there has been much speculation about what the findings would be. One significant rumor turned out not to be true, while another one is true.

Many people had expected that the center-of-mass energy of the LHC would be increased from 7 TeV to 8 TeV in 2011; indeed, experimenters were already starting to make plans for such a scenario. The 1/7 increase in energy would also increase the rate of the production of potential new particles, like the Higgs boson, by something like an equivalent amount, and one thing (among many) that we’ve learned from the Tevatron is that a ten percent-ish improvement really can have a significant impact. However, this will not be happening — the LHC energy will remain at 7 TeV for this year. The accelerator physicists studying the issue came to the conclusion that while the probability of failures that could cause damage to the machine are still low at 8 TeV, those failures could be catastrophic enough to wipe out the run for the entire year. Thus, the overall risk was considered too great.

Now, this non-change in the energy actually changes a lot of things for the experiments! It had been possible that the 2010 run was going to be the last run ever at 7 TeV, and thus the last word on some topics. “Is there a Higgs boson?” is a question that you can attack at any energy, but “What’s the production rate of particle X at 7 TeV collision energy?” can be answered only at, well, 7 TeV. Thus, many topics that appeared to be closed have now been re-opened, and by the end of 2011 can be addressed with at least 30 times more data than we had in 2010. This might make it worth revisiting some questions that were not answered well enough with the 2010 data, and thus might change the plans of some researchers for this year.

Then, there is the rumor that turned out to be true: the year-long shutdown of the LHC that had been planned for 2012 has now been moved to 2013. This is good news for all of us: if you want to discover something, you need as much data as you can get your hands on, and now that data is going to come sooner rather than later. Now, it is true that we’ll still be at a collision energy of 7 or 8 TeV during 2012, rather than the 14 TeV that we’ll have after the 2013 shutdown, and of course that big energy increment is going to help. But at the same time, it is looking more and more like we can “make it up in volume.” The detectors are working very well, the collaborations are turning out results quickly, and it seems likely that the experiments should be able to squeeze every last bit out of the data in the search for new physics. Of course this change of plans does have further implications. We had been figuring that we would need less operational staffing in 2012 because we wouldn’t run, and also that we wouldn’t need to buy so many more computers that year because there wouldn’t be any data to analyze them on. Now this is not true, and we already have to start thinking about a period of operations that’s “only” a year away.

But for now, the focus is on 2011 — with much higher collision rates this year than last year, we are going to be very busy!


Mercredi, je sortais de ma première séance à Davos et je dois dire que j’ai trouvé l’expérience très positive. Le thème de la séance était « L’agenda de la science en 2011 » et je faisais partie des quatre invités chargés de représenter la recherche médicale, la recherche fondamentale, la recherche et le développement en entreprise et les sciences de la vie. J’ai tout d’abord été frappé par l’affluence. Il y avait déjà une file d’attente vingt minutes avant le début et le public devait rester debout. Les organisateurs du Forum économique mondial aiment à dire que l’esprit de Davos consiste à remettre en question les idées reçues des participants. Justement, voir que la science tient une place aussi importance dans le programme du Forum m’a amené à réviser une de mes opinions, et dans un sens très positif, avant même l’ouverture du débat.

L’animateur avait choisi de faire passer les intervenants dans l’ordre croissant des montants du budget de leur organisation. Je suis donc passé en premier. Parmi les organisations représentées, c’est en effet le CERN qui a le budget le plus modeste, et de loin ; je crois que beaucoup en ont été surpris. À mes yeux, cela ne fait que confirmer le fait que le modèle de financement de la recherche fondamentale adopté par le CERN représente un rapport qualité-prix extraordinaire.

Prendre la parole en premier m’a permis de faire passer d’entrée de jeu mon message le plus important : nous n’avons pas à choisir entre la recherche fondamentale et la recherche appliquée. L’innovation dépend d’une approche large de la recherche, avec une interaction constante entre recherche fondamentale et recherche appliquée. Tous les intervenants sont d’ailleurs allés dans le même sens. La recherche médicale, par exemple, serait dans une impasse sans la recherche fondamentale menée dans les sciences de la vie.

L’importance de la collaboration à l’échelle mondiale a également été au centre des débats. J’ai été surpris que ce message émane du secteur privé, car j’avais tendance à penser que ce secteur aurait une vision beaucoup plus étroite sur la question. Nous avons conclu qu’aucune organisation ne peut assurer à elle seule toute la chaîne de l’innovation, de la science fondamentale au produit fini. Une approche fragmentaire de la science ne peut être efficace : seule une solide coordination entre les secteurs public et privé peut produire les résultats scientifiques auxquels nous nous efforçons tous d’arriver.

Cela n’a pas été la seule surprise pour moi. Les participants ont également discuté de l’importance de la liberté intellectuelle dans un environnement de recherche. La notion paraît évidente pour un laboratoire comme le CERN, mais l’est peut-être beaucoup moins pour l’industrie. Il était encourageant de voir les grands noms de l’industrie reconnaître qu’il est essentiel de laisser une place à la créativité, au lieu d’enfermer la recherche dans des carcans. De même, nous avons tous convenu que le libre accès avait du bon : l’innovation basée sur un système de propriété intellectuelle a ses limites et cette approche peut même entraver le progrès.

Deux exemples pris dans l’histoire du CERN illustrent parfaitement ce constat. Tout d’abord, si nous avons un seul World Wide Web aujourd’hui, c’est parce que le CERN a opté, en 1993, pour une stratégie de libre accès, en mettant cette technologie à la disposition de tous. Pourtant, vingt ans plus tôt, cette politique n’avait pas connu le même succès. Notre technologie d’écran tactile élaborée dans les années 1970 était apparue trop tôt. L’investissement nécessaire de la part de l’industrie pour développer cette technologie de façon à pouvoir l’utiliser en dehors des salles de contrôle d’un laboratoire était sans doute trop lourd pour qu’une entreprise prenne ce risque sans bénéficier de la protection de la propriété intellectuelle.

Si Davos a pour but de remettre en question les a priori des participants sur des sujets extérieurs à leur domaine, alors on peut dire : mission accomplie ! Pour ma part, j’ai découvert que toutes ces valeurs importantes aux yeux du CERN, notamment le libre accès et la collaboration au niveau mondial, semblent être essentielles pour le secteur privé. De mon côté, j’espère avoir bousculé aussi quelques idées reçues.

Rolf Heuer



Sunday, January 30th, 2011










Inside ALICE

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

I am currently at CERN to work on getting the electronics for the electomagnetic calorimeter working now that the rest of it is installed.  I got to see the ALICE detector in person for the first time on Thursday, which was very exciting.

This is a picture of me in front of the detector:

But that was part of a tour and to work in the detector I needed a lot of training.  I needed to take

  • Radiation safety training – there can always be residual radiation from things that have been activated by the beam and there may be radioactive sources in the area.  I have to recognize the appropriate placards and understand any dangers that may be present.
  • Working at heights training – the electromagnetic calorimeter is not at ground level and working on the electronics requires me to work well above ground.  I have to know how to use a harness properly.
  • Confined space training – the doors of the magnet are closed now so that they can start replacing the shielding around ALICE and I need to work inside the magnet.  This is a confined space.  There is a risk of oxygen deficiency – the amount of oxygen can drop rapidly and I have to to be aware of potential dangers and ready to respond.
  • Biocell training – The biocell is a small container of oxygen which I have to carry with me at all times in case the oxygen levels rapidly drop.  I have to be trained to use this properly because I may need to use it to save my life.

I also have to wear a dosimeter (which measures how much radiation I’ve been exposed to), a hardhat with a headlamp (in case the power goes out), and safety (steel-toed) shoes.  No shorts are allowed.  Inside the magnet there are high voltage sources, risks of falling, risks of falling objects, and detectors using flammable and/or toxic gases which could leak.  We are required to have at least two people working inside the magnet at a time – so that if someone gets hurt, the other person knows and can get help – and to have a 3rd person outside the magnet as a watcher keeping track of who is inside and where they are so that if anyone gets hurt or there is an emergency there is someone who can call the fire brigade and tell them how many people are inside and where they are.

I haven’t had the opportunity to take any pictures inside ALICE yet – and safety always has to come first so I may not be able to – but this is the hole we use to enter the magnet:

It is about 60 cm in diameter.  To get down to ALICE, you first have to go through this door:

(This is Soren Sorensen, my boss, coming down to see ALICE.) To go through this door, I have to scan my dosimeter on a card reader.  This says who I am and whether or not I have access to “the cavern” – the space underground where the detector is.  Then the outer doors open, I walk in, and I’m closed inside.  They scan one of my eyes and weigh me to make sure that I really am the person who owns the dosimeter.  Only then am I allowed in.  Inside there’s an elevator that takes us the 70m down to ALICE.  (It is easier to go down to see the cavern as a visitor than to work on the detector – one does not need training but must be supervised.)

This is why we tested as many components of the electromagnetic calorimeter  as possible before the EMCal was installed.  However, there will always be something which doesn’t work quite right and we want to fix it if we can.  It’s really exciting work, but we have to stay alert and stay safe.


Hi everyone! I’m going to make a brief digression from my Feynman diagram posts because there are a few important ideas that I wanted to explain before I get to the Higgs and more speculative scenarios. I’ve been meaning to explore some of these ideas in the context of meson physics for some time, but my draft post ended up getting longer and longer until I decided to cut it up into shorter bite-sized pieces; this is the first piece.

Recall that mesons are bound states of a quark and an antiquark (a kind of quark ‘atom’).  They are interesting because they capture a lot of “known unknowns.” Quantum chromodynamics can, in principle, tell us everything we would want to know about the meson system, but it’s very difficult (in many cases practically impossible) to calculate anything from these first principles. We already know why: non-perturbativity.

But here’s the funny thing: we’ve known about mesons for a very long time, much longer than we’ve known about the fundamental quarks and gluons that make up a meson. Instead of discovering the “fundamental” objects first and then observing the complicated dynamics that the “fundamental” theory (QCD) generates, physicists at early colliders found a plethora of these funny particles and had no idea where they came from and why there were so many of them. They knew that these particles could interact with one another, for example by looking at bubble chamber tracks (image from BNL):

In these posts we’ll explore a little about how past generations of physicists developed some theories of mesons. Even though this type of physics is more than half a century old, it represents a fantastic time when new particles being discovered every month. There are lessons from that time that will carry over to the interpretation of new results from the LHC. Further, we’ll see how some of the theoretical ideas developed at the time have continued to develop in surprising new ways.

The Eightfold Way

One of the first things that physicists wanted when they found all of these new particles was to find a way to classify them.

Jim’s inaugural post gave a nice example of the “Eightfold Way,” a sort of periodic table of hadrons originally developed by Murray Gell-Mann (and independently by Yuval Ne’eman) in the 60s. Jim showed the baryon table showing the proton, neutron, and some of their more exotic cousins. Here is the analogous meson table:

Before explaining what’s going on here, we can learn a few things just by staring at this picture.

  1. Each dot represents a meson. There are three types of particle names: the pions (?), the kaons (K), and the etas (?).
  2. Evidently there’s some meaning to the placement of each particle relative to the others.
  3. The mesons each have an electric charge: +, -, or neutral (0).
  4. It looks like opposite points of the hexagon are antiparticles of one another since we expect antiparticles to have the opposite charge. (This is indeed the case.)

So we’ve met our first nine mesons. These turn out to be the lightest mesons, and in fact the pions are the very lightest mesons. There are actually many, many, many mesons out there, but for now let’s focus on the lightest ones. The pions are all made up of up and down quarks, the kaons contain a strange quark, and the etas are quantum superpositions up–anti-up / down–anti-down / strange–anti- strange quarks.

Just like the periodic table of chemistry, however, the peculiar arrangement of this diagram is also trying to teach us something. You might think that it would be useful to arrange these mesons according to the quark content. There are two problems with this:

  1. The eightfold way was developed before quarks were experimentally discovered. (Actually, the eightfold way provided and important part of the theoretical structure that led people to suspect that quarks might be real!)
  2. As we saw for the etas, some mesons are not well defined in terms of individual quark/anti-quark pairs but rather as quantum superpositions of several types of quark/anti-quark pair. In fact, this is true for the neutal pions and kaons as well.

So the Eightfold Way is not quite organized according to quark content, at least not directly. The structure of the diagram is actually based on the symmetries of the mesons. The branch of mathematics that describes symmetries is called group theory (in particular, representation theory) and is now a staple in the education of every particle physicist. Back in the 1960s, however, the field was not so well known to physicists and Murray Gell-Mann essentially re-invented the relevant mathematics for himself. (Historically this has happened fairly often between mathematicians and physicists.)

On the horizontal axis of the diagram is something called isospin, I. On the vertical axis is something else called hypercharge, Y.  For now all that matters is that the usual electric charge is given by Q = I + Y/2 (Edit 31 Jan: thanks to reader Stan for pointing out the factor of 1/2 that I originally missed!). This is indeed the pattern that we see: mesons that are higher and further right tend to be positively charged, while mesons that are lower and to the left tend to be negatively charged. By the way, at this point we don’t need to know very “deeply” what these things mean, but they are properties which particles have. Just as we can describe a circle simply by specifying its radius, we can describe particles by listing some set of properties that include isospin and hypercharge.

I should say that the diagram above shows what is called the pseudoscalar nonet (or octet + singlet) because they describe nine particles. (“Pseudoscalar” tells us about the angular momentum of the particle.) These are mesons which do not have any intrinsic spin. There are also heavier versions of each of those particles, for example the vector nonet of spin-1 particles. This is analogous to the component quark and anti-quark having some angular momentum, just like the excited states of electrons in the hydrogen atom.

You can see that the spin-1 pions are called rhos (?), the spin-1 kaons are called K-stars (K*), and the spin-1 versions of the etas are called the phi (?) and omega (?). In fact, there are even higher spin copies of these guys, not to mention analogous mesons formed out of the heavier quarks. Indeed, now you can see why the 1960s were “boom” years in experimental physics where new particles were being discovered almost weekly.

Relation to modern ideas

This has an interesting relation to very modern ideas for of physics beyond the Standard Model. Models of extra dimensions predict an analogous “tower” of copies of known particles, the so-called Kaluza-Klein tower. Because this KK tower looks just like the tower of mesons. We understand that the meson tower comes from the fact that they are composite particles, so it looks like theories of extra dimensions mimic theories of composite particles like mesons. This is one of the key observations underlying the so called holographic principle or gauge/gravity correspondence in which theories of extra dimensions are “dual” to strongly coupled theories.
In a broader sense, the discussion above represents a deep theme in particle physics where symmetry became the central principle for how we understand nature (I’ve mentioned this before!). These days one of the fundamental tools of a theoretical physicist is group theory (the mathematical description of symmetries) and models of new physics aren’t described so much by the individual particles but by the symmetry content of the theory.

Munich main station, early morning: My train to Frankfurt (continuing to Dortmund) is getting ready for boarding.

A post from a slightly unusual location: I’m sitting on the train from Munich to Frankfurt Airport. Instead of flying, I went for the train because in terms of travel time, it makes almost no difference, considering that you have to be at the airport quite a bit in advance to go through security. And then, Frankfurt is only about 400 km away. Without all the hills in southern Germany that get in the way, and the many stops (even this super express train stops at almost every medium-sized town on the way), it could beat the plane by a very comfortable margin. And then, there is winter, where air travel is always a bit more prone to delays. But this winter, the Germain Rail lost most of its advantage, with (if I remember correctly) less than 30% of the trains more or less on time over Christmas, when we had quite a bit of snow.

I’m going to Frankfurt today for a meeting where the plans for a continuation of the Alliance “Physics at the Terascale”, which unites all German high energy particle physics groups in common projects and with shared infrastructure, will be discussed. The next few months will be well filled with events like this: Also the Excellence Cluster “Universe”, which funds my research group, is discussing plans for the next funding round beginning in fall 2012.

Frankfurt airport is a perfect (although quite pricey) location for the meeting today: Easy to reach from all over Germany, it means this is just a day trip for everybody. But it still means getting up early, certainly for me. I’m just not a morning person, getting up a bit after 5:30 is not something I do if I can help it. I know people who do this voluntarily all the time, but I don’t get that… Well, I guess everybody is a bit different in that respect… But now that I am awake, I can at least use the time, to write a short post, and to prepare my lecture on Supersymmetry on Monday…


The spirit of Davos is alive and well

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

This time yesterday I’d just come out from my first session at Davos and I have to say it was a very positive experience. The session was entitled ‘The Science Agenda in 2011’, and I was one of four panellists chosen to represent medical research, basic research, corporate R&D and life sciences. My first impression was just how popular the session was. People were queuing 20 minutes before we started and it was standing room only. The World Economic Forum says that the spirit of Davos is all about challenging its participants’ perceptions. The fact that science seems to be so high up the Davos agenda challenged one of mine in a very positive way before we even started.

The session’s moderator chose to order the talks in ascending order of budget.  That put me first. CERN’s budget is the smallest of the organizations represented by a very large margin, and I think that came as a surprise to many. To me it just reinforces the fact that the CERN model for basic research funding represents extraordinarily good value for money.

Speaking first gave me the chance to set the scene with my main message that we can’t choose between basic and applied research. Innovation depends on a broad based approach to science, with constant interplay between the applied and basic ends of the spectrum. All of the panelists reinforced this message in different ways. Medical research, for example, without basic research in the life sciences would soon reach a dead end.

The importance of global collaboration also played a large part in the discussions. It surprised me that this message came from the private sector, which my prejudice would have led me to assume would take a more insular point of view. That no single organization can assure the complete innovation chain from basic science to end product was the conclusion we drew. A piecemeal approach to science won’t work: only strong coordination between public and private sectors can deliver the scientific results we all strive to achieve.

This wasn’t the only surprise in store for me. Participants also discussed the importance of academic freedom in a research environment. That’s obvious in a lab like CERN, but perhaps less evident in industry. It was refreshing to see captains of industry acknowledging the importance of leaving room for creativity, rather than putting a straight jacket on research. Similarly, there was a consensus that open access has its merits: that the intellectual property approach to innovation has limits and could even hinder progress.

Two examples from the history of CERN illustrate this very well. Firstly, the reason we have a single World Wide Web today is that CERN took an open access approach to the technology in 1993 by putting it in the public domain. Two decades earlier, however, the same approach didn’t work. Our touch screen technology of the 1970s came too early for an open access approach. The necessary investment from industry to develop it to a standard that could be used beyond the control rooms of a particle physics lab was perhaps too much for a company to take the risk without knowing that the intellectual property was protected.

If Davos is supposed to be about challenging peoples’ perceptions of fields that are not their own, it succeeded in this session. My views were certainly challenged by the notion that things that are dear to CERN, such as open access, and global collaboration also appear to be important to the private sector. For my part, I’d like to think that I did some perception challenging of my own.

Rolf Heuer


How to Get Started

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning & Communications

This morning, I left my office at 8:55am and walked through six puddles along the sidewalk, turned a corner, and went up a short flight of wooden stairs.  I opened the door to Trailer Hh and went inside.  (Trailers are the bread and butter of science laboratories; never is there sufficient time and energy and funding to support real office space for all the things that happen on site.)  I followed the sounds of laughter and, to my surprise, the smell of donuts.  (If you’re from Canada, you know they were Tim Horton’s).

And then I arrived.  The end of the long hallway with its trailer offices into the “meeting room” that was about 20′ x 20′ and 10′ tall.  I joined 15 other people and the meeting began. RD stood next to white board, donut in one hand and alternating between coffee and a dry-erase marker in the other.  We went around the room giving 3 minute summaries of what happened yesterday and what was going to happen today. About 40 minutes later, RD thanked us and said, “Well, that’s our third meeting!  See you again tomorrow morning.”

This is called getting started.  For real. Getting the Advanced Rare-IsotopE Laboratory (ARIEL) started at TRIUMF.  A $63 million investment by federal and provincial governments in a next-generation electron accelerator for the production and study of isotopes—isotopes for science and isotopes for medicine.

Now, the project started on July 1, 2010, and the final pieces of funding were announced June 22, 2010.  So why is THIS week called “getting started?”

Because we put 30 people in one trailer who are working almost 100% full-time on the project.  Because we have had three daily morning meetings in a row to discuss the project.  Because we stand up to have those meetings because there is so much going on, sitting down would be a waste of time.

And that’s how projects get started.  An idea gets batted around, someone offers to “write it up” or “do some calculations.”  Then someone “drafts a proposal” or “forms a team.”  And then funding comes into place.  And then the team is truly formed and then, sometime later and yet still absolutely essential, there starts to be a daily meeting about how the project is going and what’s going on.  And it is almost always a standing-only meeting and it involves a whiteboard, coffee, and its always kept as short as possible.  People come to this meeting to find out what is happening even if they are not directly involved in performing the work.  It’s like the control room or the command centre; you go there to see how its’ going. When that type of meeting starts to happen, you KNOW the project started.

And these meetings are generally low-tech.  You’d think we would use high-definition video conferencing and laser pointers and maybe 3-D imaging to visualize where we are and how its going.  You might even think we’d use an e-mail list or a hypernews forum or a twitter feed to distribute the action items. But the #1 rule in project management is “keep it simple.”  Paper, pencil, whiteboard, coffee.  That’s simple.  The physicality of a schedule cannot be denies when its printed on ArchE paper and hung up on the wall with thumb tacks.  The most technology we used is an iPhone; someone photographed the whiteboard and e-mailed THAT around.  That’s a real project and that’s a project that is really moving.

I remember when I was at SLAC in California, part of the assembly and commissioning team for the BaBar particle-physics experiment. I went to the morning meetings; not every day, but at least once a week.  I would go often and I’d learn a little bit about everything that was coming together.  And sometimes, I’d have to say something.  As a graduate student that was a bit scary because the director of the laboratory could be there and he was famous having a brain whose razor sharpness was only exceeded by his aptitude for finding the error in your report.

So there I was, eating a donut (courtesy one of the project leaders out of her own wallet) and in the presence of the ARIEL project moving from “we’re working on it” to “it’s really happening and we don’t have time to sit down.”  Soon, everyone would be wearing hard hats and soon the meetings would take place outside near the construction site on a semi-regular basis.