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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

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Summer conferences: the people colliders

The raison d’être of this blog is to tell continuing story and science of the LHC, and this story would not be complete without a glimpse of the human infrastructure behind the world’s largest science experiment. To this end, I’d like to share a few vignettes from this past summer conference season. (For those who want more technical posts about the Standard Model, don’t worry, I’ve got a long queue of those to write.)

Particle physics: as much about people as it is about particles

There are a lot of scientists working on the LHC: the general purpose detectors (ATLAS and CMS) have thousands of experimentalists, LHCb and ALICE add another thousand or two, and there’s a slew of theorists who are not officially affiliated with any particular experiment. (And this isn’t even accounting for the accelerator physicists who manage and improve the beam quality (and work on R&D for future colliders), the support staff, and partners in industry.)

A photo mural at CMS showing a small subset of its members.

What’s even more impressive, though, is that the vast majority of the several thousand of scientists behind the LHC are specialists. A given person might be an expert on a particular analysis, a particular part of a particular detector, or a particular class of theories and how they might be manifested in data.

Ultimately, however, everyone relies  on one another to make progress. New data spurs new models, which in turn suggest new search strategies. (Recent examples of this include many of the recent anomalies at the Tevatron.)

It is crucial in such a large, co-dependent community that researchers are able to communicate with one another. This is the reason why flocks of physicists migrate over the summer to conferences and workshops around the world to discuss the latest experimental and theoretical results. Just as new particles are produced when you collide protons at the LHC, new ideas are generated when you bring together researchers in one place to discuss experimental and theoretical developments in the field.

No, it’s not summer vacation…

After bumping into each other an LHC workshop in Santa Barbara, Robin and I found ourselves discussing how difficult it is to convince friends and family that spending part of the summer somewhere with nice weather is actually a crucial part of your research and is not a vacation. To be fair, we were a the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, which is so close to the beach that you could walk down there to catch a breath of fresh air (and work out some kinks in a calculation):

This is actually a physics pun: "penguins on the beach."

Of course, no matter how nice the scenery, it’s difficult to call it a “vacation” if you’re busy busting your butt trying to tie up lose ends in your research in preparation for an upcoming talk while simultaneously bouncing ideas off colleagues for new ideas to play with over the next year.

The people colliders

H. Haber's opening slide at SUSY 2011 in Fermilab. Images from the Particle Zoo were very popular this year... as were jokes about the Higgs boson being available for $9.75.

So once several physicists have gathered, what actually goes on during summer conferences? A glance at one of the official programs will show a schedule that is packed with presentations. This is one way that researchers can promote new results and get a broad view of what’s going on in the field. It’s a great chance to see where your own work fits into the “big picture” and what the next steps forward ought to be.

Some conferences, such as this year’s Lepton-Photon and EPS-HEP, are also venues where big experiments announce results their latest  data. With the LHC now entering the regime where it has enough data to seriously search for the Higgs and new physics, each of these talks are big events.

Given all the programming dedicated to presentations, one might think that this is the whole point of summer meetings. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The real value of these events occurs in the time between talks: the question and answer sessions after a tantalizing plot, the scribbles over napkins, the discussions at the espresso machine, and the sleepless nights working out ideas that were generated during the morning sessions—that is where the magic happens.

Outside the conference rooms you’ll find people huddled over their laptops, forming little communities around power outlets. They’re putting finishing touches on talks, Skyping with colleagues to let them know about an interesting result, or perhaps checking up on an analysis that they’re running on a computer cluster at their home institution. There are also the groups of old friends who became buddies as grad students attending the same summer school and spent much of the rest of their careers collaborating with one another. In between catching up with their latest ideas, one might overhear them planning an excursion into a local dive or (depending on their age) reminiscing about past exploits. There are the debates after talks about the merits of one idea versus another, the grumblings over coffee about how early the morning sessions are, the grad students trying to make a good impression as they nervously count the months before graduation.

Overall, there’s a lot of physics—but there’s also a lot of personal interactions. Despite the size of the high energy physics community, it is still small enough that you regularly bump into old friends. Amidst the debates about whether or not the Higgs might have a low mass or whether or not SUSY is in trouble, people will ask about each others’ families, share humorous stories about colleagues who couldn’t make it, and will implore one another to come visit their local institution to give a talk so that they might properly catch up.

The people behind the US LHC blog

Speaking of the personal aspect of summer conferences, I was especially delighted to have the opportunity to bump into a few US LHC blog members and alumni. Since readers of this blog mostly know us from our words rather than our faces, I thought I’d share a few photos with familiar bloggers.

With US LHC blog alum Mike in Madison, Wisconsin for the Phenomenology ("Pheno") conference

A mini bloggers meeting at a pizza place near CERN; Lauren R. (US LHC intern), Burton, Aidan, and Anna. Not pictured: Matt, Kathryn (US LHC Communication), and me.

With Katie Yurkewicz, formerly US LHC editor and now Director of the Office of Communication in Fermilab. (I was at the SUSY 2011 conference and swing by to visit.)

With Robin at the Adler Planetarium during part of the SUSY 2011 conference. Not pictured: Robin's youngest child, who's been to more physics conferences than most grad students.

Judging from this pictures, it seems that I only have one nice shirt for conferences. 🙂

I also wanted to highlight the two Katies: Katie Yurkewicz (Director of the Office of Communications in Fermilab) and Kathryn Grim, this US LHC blog editor and US LHC communicator at CERN. If you’re a regular on this blog then you already have an idea of some of the ways that the Fermilab Office of Communication connects the US high energy physics community to the rest of the world. Besides organizing this blog, the Office of Communication puts out Symmetry magazine, interfaces with the press, coordinates with other labs, makes all sorts of multimedia available through VMS (e.g. the Fermilab Wine & Cheese seminars during big announcements), and writes all sorts of brochures/flyers/summaries of the physics going on at the LHC. They don’t get enough credit for how much they’ve served the high energy physics community and everyone who is interested in particle physics.

Speaking of the blog, over the summer regular US LHC readers noticed that we’ve moved to the revamped Quantum Diaries aggregate blog. This has been part of an experiment to aggregate a few official laboratory blogs together to try to collectively broaden our audience. We’ve all appreciated your comments and feedback during our transition—for example, comments from US LHC readers about the font size and color contrast have been implemented for the whole Quantum Diaries site (thanks to Kevin of Xeno Media and Chris of Quantum Diaries). We’ll continue to strive to provide great content from the frontiers of particle physics.

As I tried to give a glimpse of here, the mission of the LHC is not just about particles—but it’s very much about people. And it’s not just about the scientists and the staff associated with the labs, but it’s also about people like you who read blogs like this and are excited about pushing our knowledge about fundamental science. For all the kind feedback we’ve gotten about this blog, I think we—and the broader science community—appreciate you many times more.


There are a couple of random silly things that I can’t help myself from mentioning:

I really enjoyed meeting other grad students and young scientists over the summer. I was particularly amused/embarrassed on those occasions when someone would mention the blog (since our intended audience is more towards the general public rather than other scientists). But a special shout out goes to Sandeepan and Andrea of the CERN theory group who excitedly asked me if I was going to blog about the food at Restaurant 1 after I’d remarked how yummy it was. Well, there you have it.

I think academia is still trying to figure out what to make of blogs beyond vessels for outreach, and this past summer we’ve really seen some blogs do a lot to parse and highlight the exciting results from conferences. It will be interesting to see the evolving role of blogs in this regard. One reason why the community is still unsure about the role of blogs has been the role of blogs in spreading rumors (especially given the size of LHC collaborations). As an outreach blog supported by the particle physics community, the US LHC blog does not post rumors… but somehow I ended up in a discussion about this with a CMS experimentalist and can’t help but sharing his reply:

“Rumors? Okay, I’ve got a really good one. Okay? Listen up. Here it is. [Dramatic pause.] I heard that CMS is awesome and is way better than ATLAS.”

CERN stretches across both sides of the Switzerland–France border. As such, the CMS vending machines take Euros while the ATLAS vending machines take Swiss Francs. The main cafeteria, Restaurant 1, is on the ATLAS side but will begrudgingly take Euros. The real currency of CERN, however, are jeton (French for “token”), which are used to pay for espresso.

Many thanks to all of the friends and colleagues that I met (and re-met) over the summer!