I’ve been absent for a while on account of switching jobs: from “graduate student/research assistant” to “plot-slash-table-making automaton.” The cynical among you may argue that these are essentially the same thing, but it helps me sleep at night to believe otherwise. Well. At any rate, I’ve had several blog post ideas sloshing around in my head for months now, and rather than age to perfection, they’ve gotten all… mushy. Here is your first serving of mushed thought.
I went home to Michigan for Christmas. Things were pretty much the same, modulo the effects of prolonged regional economic distress and the strange sensation that everything and everyone was larger than they should be (cars, portion sizes, distances to points of interest, family members). Naturally people wanted to know what I’d been up to, but I was mostly at a loss for words: How does one condense high-energy physics and la vie CERNoise into a quip or anecdote that connects with non-physicists?
“I work a lot.”
Surprisingly, that seemed to satisfy most questioners. Also: “Haven’t managed to destroy the world yet.” For more thorough and eloquent answers, I turned to CERN’s visitor center and gift shop, bringing home a few CERN/physics books as both gifts and conversational references. When a friend asked about “the Higgs Bassoon,” I pointed her to a fully illustrated children’s book showing the basics of the Standard Model and how physicists are able to study it. “No, it’s not a woodwind instrument, it’s a hypothetical fundamental scalar boson.” This was the same book I gifted to my mom; tomorrow, on her 50th birthday, I will be sending her a quiz to assess what she learned. I am a terrible son. My dad had mentioned to me a drinking buddy who fancied himself a physics enthusiast, so I gave my dad a more advanced but still brief introduction to particle physics in order to impress this guy and, one hopes, get a free drink or two out of the exchange. See? My field has practical applications. In related news, my grandma found the Higgs Boson.
The whole experience has underscored the importance of accurate, accessible communication between scientists and the general public. This US LHC blog is a nice venue for such conversations, right? But as for a much wider scale, let me just say that I’m incredibly thankful for all the science journalists and other folks out there engaged in outreach (Daisy, Bryan, Katie, …). We all benefit from your excellent metaphors.
I went home to New York for New Years. I was surprised to find that people in bars really like hearing about the LHC; I was not surprised to hear some call it the “Large Hardon Collider.” Emergency physics lessons ensued.
It’s easy to forget about (or at least willfully ignore) my institution, Stony Brook University, when it’s so far away, but since I was in the neighborhood, I swung by to say hello to my advisor and physics friends who don’t work at CERN. This was a dangerous move: advisors are pretty much obligated to request plots and tables from their advisees, and I quickly reverted to the automaton existence I’d left behind. Sigh. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder — will keep in mind next time I consider visiting.
Oh, one more thing before I get back to making last-minute plots for the ATLAS note I and my colleagues have been working on for some time (and will soon be submitting!) : Let’s please have a moment of silence for the Tevatron, a pioneer and workhorse in high-energy physics for the past two decades, whose funding won’t be extended beyond 2011.
It’s time for the LHC to really, really shine.