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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

My “Workbench” (2011 edition)

Hi everyone! Today I wanted to share something that is less about physics, but more about what it’s like to be a physicist. For those who have been asking for more “Physics through Feynman Diagrams” posts, don’t worry: I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how to explain the Higgs mechanism, and this is something I’m looking forward to typing up.

One of my first blog posts on US LHC was titled “My Workbench,” following the style of the regular column in Seed magazine. This semester our group finally moved to a new building, so I wanted give a snapshot of my research environment. So, without further ado, here’s my annotated office.

Before going into details… yes, it’s an office. I don’t have a lab, I don’t wear a lab coat, I don’t even wear closed-toed shoes. (When indoors I’m usually shuffling around in comfy Birkenstocks.) This is partly because I’m a theorist and my experimental colleagues wouldn’t let my clumsy hands anywhere near lab equipment—but actually most experimentalists have very similar offices where they do much their analysis work (Christine’s rappelling onto the ALICE detector notwithstanding!).

1. One important feature is a nice window that gets natural lighting (it looks into an atrium with a skylight, which is why the immediate view is the building next door). It may sound a bit superficial, but we often work long hours and getting some sunlight makes a big difference. My officemates and I also have several plants, which brightens the atmosphere a bit. (You can tell that my plant has grown since my original workbench post!)

2. Penguins. This is a bit of an inside joke, but two of my first projects as a graduate student had to do with the calculation of a particular process called a ‘penguin diagram.’ I seem to have collected various penguin-themed posters and stuffed animals from friends who were amused by my odd paper and talk titles (most recently, “Warped Penguins”).

3. Headphones. It’s nice to have some ambient background noise when concentrating. Some of the other students in my group swear by pink noise, but I’m usually listening to something silly like this spoof from PhD comics. These headphones are also very helpful when having Skype discussions with collaborators who are far away.

4. Here you can see my basketball shoes. I haven’t played basketball in a while (these days I spend more time swimming), but as a student it is really important to maintain some balance in one’s life otherwise it’s easy to go off the deep end. Other common recreational activities in our group include foosball and ping pong. I’ve found that many of my most interesting physics discussions have happened while during non-physics recreation with other physicists.

5. This is my trusty messenger bag, which I carry with me everywhere I go like Linus and his blanket. I usually carry a notepad with the current research idea I’m obsessing over, my laptop, and several journal articles which I’m supposed to read. Most of the latter get skimmed over on the bus in the mornings. During the winter (which seem to last forever here in upstate New York) I usually have an extra pair of gloves and a pull-over packed in case of inclement weather.

6. This is my messy desk. Usually various bits of scratch paper, print outs, and reference books find their way strewn about. I’m a relatively tidy person and clean up every other night or so, but my style of working is to sprawl everything out as I use them. (I’m sure my officemates get annoyed by this, but thus far they’ve been very accommodating.)

7. In my upper storage units I have several reference books. You can also see my ping pong paddle peeking through. When I’m confused with my work I’ll start pulling down books to try to sort things out… and when that doesn’t work, I’ll try to work through the problem with a colleague over ping pong. 🙂

8. This is my officemate’s desk. There’s a total of three of us in the office, which I think is a good balance of having company while not becoming too distracting. It’s nice to be able to have other people around when you have “stupid questions” about physics… especially since more often than not these “stupid questions” can have surprisingly profound answers. You can see that my neighbor is much neater than I am. 🙂

Here’s a close-up of my desk:

9. This is an old t-shirt from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. I fell in love with particle physics as a undergraduate at Stanford and got my first taste of research at SLAC as a summer student. I highly recommend the experience to all undergraduates interested in particle physics.

10. Unlike some of the other students, I don’t usually have lots of work on the tack board directly in front of me. Instead, I’ve put up several photos of other physicists, mostly graduate students whom I have gotten to know over the past few years. (If you’ve spent any appreciable time doing particle physics with me, I probably have your photo up here.) This is more than just nostalgia; a large part of doing physics is collaboration. The best way to generate and test new ideas is to bounce them off of colleagues and work with people with complimentary skill sets. As such, there is a strong sense of camaraderie in the particle physics community. The people whom you get to know in grad school tend to be the same people you keep bumping into and working with the rest of your career.

11. This is my laptop. I spend a lot of time on it. These days we access all of the latest research papers directly from the Internet, we communicate with collaborators using video conferencing, we correspond via e-mail, we run simulations over computing farms…. all through our computers. That being said, I’ve also been working on knowing when to turn off my computer (and its associated distractions) when I need to bunker down and do an old-fashioned pen-and-paper calculation.

12. Here are some of my most commonly used books. Apparently you can tell a lot about a physicist by what kinds of books are on his or her bookshelf… so for those of you who care, here’s a short summary of what I keep at arm’s reach:

  • The QFT books by Peskin, Ryder, Weinberg, Zee, and Srednicki
  • Aspects of Symmetry by Coleman
  • Current Algebra and Anomalies (an old volume of reprints)
  • The particle physics books by Cheng & Li and Mohapatra
  • The SUSY texts by Terning, Bailin & Love, Wess & Bagger, and Binetruy
  • Some mathematically-oriented reading: Anomalies in QFT by Bertlmann, the text by Nakahara, and the monograph by Gockeler and Schuker
  • Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Path, a collection of Richard Feynman’s letters. This isn’t a physics book, but I find it inspiring to skim through it when I’m having a rough research day.
  • Just for fun: on my desk I also have two volumes of PhD comics, the “Scientific Progress goes Boink” Calvin and Hobbes collection, and Our Dumb World by the Onion

I have a bunch of other books… but they’re hidden behind the plush versions of the Standard Model, via the Particle Zoo:

13. This is a plush dog that I picked up during a Guy Fawkes carnival at Cambridge University. It’s followed me through my postgraduate studies. (There’s a lot of silliness in my office; would you believe me if I said that it is balanced by a very serious focus on my research? Well, that’s what I tell my adviser, anyway…)

14. When I finish up a project I have several sheets of hand-written notes and calculations. I’ve collected these into large binders, initially as “trophies” of past work, but I’ve since found that there are times when one has to refer back to a subtle detail long after the project is done.

15. I should note that this sheep is not part of the Standard Model. I think I picked it up during a wine tasting trip with one of our seminar speakers. 🙂 Below are random fridge magnets which I’ve stuck to a large filing cabinet containing several more papers: mainly saved documents, important references, notes for old talks, and material related to teaching.

Before I sign out, there is one very conspicuous omission: my office doesn’t yet have any chalkboards! (These are in the process of being installed.) Chalkboards are really useful since so much of our daily work involves explaining ideas to one another; though there’s a bit of a divide in the particle physics community between theorists who love chalkboards and experimentalists who (for reasons I don’t really understand) tend to prefer whiteboards.

Well, that’s my office! I don’t expect MTV to visit for an episode of Cribs any time soon, but at least now you know where I am when I’m typing up blog posts every couple of weeks. 🙂