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Archive for October, 2012

Women in physics: Are we there yet?

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Many efforts have gone into addressing the gender gap in science. Physics is a field where women are still outnumbered. Is the situation evolving? Yes, very encouragingly, but numbers are not the only thing.

CERN is an international organization where exactly 15000 people (at least on September 11, 2012) were working. The vast majority, about 11200 scientists are so-called “users” paid by their home institute and coming from 69 different countries.

With about 2000 scientific authors coming from 176 institutes from 38 different countries, the ATLAS collaboration is a good place to look at the situation of women physicists. It gives a flavour of how the situation is evolving in its member countries.

In 2008, the fraction of women in the ATLAS collaboration was 15.6%. Four years later, we now account for 19.9% of the 1952 authors signing scientific papers and still active members of ATLAS. Half of these women are 36 years or younger, whereas only 33% of all men in ATLAS belong to this category. Below the age of 30, women account for 30% of all physicists in that age group, showing that more and more women are joining the field.

I also looked at the fraction of women according to nationality and affiliation. The numbers speak for themselves: some countries have many female physicists while others have very few. Some hire more women then there are women from this nationality, which seems to indicate that these countries are less successful at attracting them to the field. Here are the statistics for all countries participating in ATLAS. Only those shown with about 1.0% of all ATLAS authors (20 people) are statistically meaningful. I also included CERN and JINR (Joint Institute of Nuclear Physics) from Dubna, two large international laboratories.

The second column shows what fraction of ATLAS authors is hired by an institute from that country. The third column gives the fraction of women hired by all institutes in that country. The last column lists the fraction of women out of all people with this nationality. For example, I am Canadian and I am working for Indiana University, an American institute. So I go under USA for affiliation but under Canada for nationality.

It is also very interesting to reorder this list to see which countries hire the highest fraction of women. In the second table, I only included the countries having at least 14 people working on ATLAS. Many European countries make the top of the list: Romania, Spain, Greece, Poland and France. A female Turkish physicist used to explain it by salaries: in countries where physicists salaries are modest (including France, Italy and UK), men are less attracted into this field and women are more easily welcome.

For example in Ukraine, when the salaries in computer science started to drop significantly, the fraction of women in the field increased proportionally. On the contrary, countries where the salaries were higher such as Japan, Germany and Switzerland tended to have much less women, but this trend has fortunately greatly decreased since 2008.

So the representation of women is increasing steadily and encouragingly. But are women physicists getting a fair share? Judging by the appointed tasks in the ATLAS collaboration since around 2000, the situation is also improving there. While women account for only 19.9% and appointed tasks are usually offered to more senior people, women occupied 19.2% of all appointed task since 2008, slightly less before. More importantly, we now find women in all categories, including the decision-making posts. For example, Fabiola Gianotti has been ATLAS spokesperson now for the last four years, the first woman to be elected in this position in a large particle physics experiment. Only one other woman, Young-Kee Kim, had been elected co-spokesperson of CDF, another large particle physics experiment.

While the situation for women in ATLAS is improving on all fronts, a worldwide study launched by the American Institute of Physics involving 15000 physicists revealed that there is still a substantial gender gap in terms of access to opportunities. The survey showed that female physicists are invited speakers less often than their male colleagues. They get fewer opportunities to travel abroad, fewer resources (grant money, office space, hired staff) and fewer students to supervise. They are also less likely to serve on important committees, thesis committees or conference organizing committees. This held for all women, from developing countries as well as very developed countries. The differences were statistically significant in all cases given the large pool of respondents.

Will having yet more women in physics help fill that gender-based difference? Possibly. It is therefore worth checking this study that showed what might help bring more women to physics.

The researchers from the PRiSE study showed that students, both male and female, need to have a strong “physics identity” to pursue a career in physics. This means being good at it but most importantly, believing in their own ability which can be reinforced with encouragement from peers, teachers and family.

Several classroom activities had a positive influence on building a strong “physics identity” such as having discussions on cutting-edge physics topics, being encouraged to ask questions or teaching peers.

Of all the common strategies used to attract more young girls to scientific careers, such as providing role models or talking about female scientists, the only factor that was found to help according to this study was having a discussion on why there are so few women in scientific careers. This alone had the most impact on strengthening the girls’ physics identity while having no effect on boys. This claim is questioned by many women physicists who feel that having a role model greatly influenced their career choice.

So just in case: here I am, talking about it. Let’s hope that young women will keep coming into physics and that their presence will help achieve equality in numbers and opportunities. To paraphrase Maureen Reagan, I strongly believe we will have achieved equality the day an incompetent woman will be elected to a high position.

Pauline Gagnon

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Bien des efforts ont été déployés pour réduire l’écart hommes-femmes en physique, là où elles sont encore en minorité. Mais est-ce que la situation évolue ? En fait, oui, et de façon très encourageante.  Mais le nombre de femmes n’est pas le seul aspect à considérer.

CERN est une organisation internationale où très exactement 15000 personnes y travaillaient, du moins le 11 septembre 2012. La grande majorité, soit environ 11200 scientifiques sont des « utilisateurs », des gens payés par leur propre instituts et venant de 69 pays différents.

Avec près de 2000 auteur-e-s scientifiques issus de 176 instituts et 38 pays différents,  la collaboration ATLAS offre un bon échantillon pour étudier la situation des femmes physiciennes. Cela donne même une bonne idée sur comment la situation évolue dans les pays membres.

En 2008, la fraction de femmes dans ATLAS était de 15.6%. Quatre ans plus tard, ce pourcentage atteint 19.9% des 1952 auteur-e-s et membres actifs signant les publications scientifiques. La moitié de ces femmes ont moins de 36 ans tandis que seulement le tiers des hommes sont dans cette tranche d’âge. Et sous la barre des 30 ans, on retrouve 30% de femmes, ce qui montre bien que de plus en plus de femmes entament une carrière en physique.

On peut étudier les proportions de femmes suivant leur nationalité ou leur affiliation. Les chiffres parlent d’eux-mêmes : certains pays membres d’ATLAS comptent beaucoup de physiciennes, d’autres beaucoup moins. Certains embauchent en proportion plus de femmes qu’on en trouve venant de ce pays. Ceci semble indiquer que ces pays n’arrivent pas à attirer autant de femmes vers la physique.

Voici la liste pour les pays membres d’ATLAS. Seuls ceux comptant plus de 1% de tous les gens d’ATLAS (20 personnes) sont vraiment représentatifs, l’échantillon étant trop petit autrement. La deuxième colonne donne la fraction d’auteurs embauchés par ce pays. J’ai aussi inclus le CERN et JINR (Joint Institute for Nuclear Research) de Dubna, deux grands laboratoires internationaux. La troisième colonne donne la proportion de femmes embauchées par tous les instituts d’un pays et la dernière colonne la fraction de femmes parmi tous les gens de même nationalité. Par exemple, je suis Canadienne mais je travaille pour l’Indiana University, un institut étatsunien. Je suis donc classée sous Etats-Unis pour l’affiliation et sous Canada pour la nationalité.

Il est aussi bien intéressant d’ordonner cette liste par pays où l’on embauche la plus grande fraction de femmes (par affiliation). Je n’ai inclus que les pays ayant plus de 14 personnes travaillant sur ATLAS. Plusieurs pays européens se retrouvent en tête  comme la Roumanie, l’Espagne, la Grèce, la Pologne et la France. Une collègue Turque m’a un jour expliqué qu’à son avis les pays où les salaires étaient historiquement modestes (ce qui inclus la France, l’Italie et la Grande-Bretagne), attirent moins d’hommes en physique et du coup les femmes y sont plus facilement acceptées.

Par exemple en Ukraine, une étude a démontré que lorsque les salaires en informatique ont commencé à péricliter, moins d’hommes étaient attirés et le pourcentage de femmes s’est accru proportionnellement. Au contraire, là où les salaires sont plus élevés comme au Japon, en Allemagne, aux Etats-Unis ou en Suisse, la fraction de femme était nettement plus basse. Heureusement, cette tendance a nettement diminuée dans ATLAS depuis 2008.

La proportion de femmes augmente donc de façon très encourageante. Mais est-ce que les femmes sont traitées de façon égalitaire ? Oui, du moins pour ATLAS, si on juge par la fraction des postes élus où on retrouve non seulement les femmes en grand nombre mais aussi dans tous les types de positions, autant les tâches de physique que les postes décisionnels. De 2008 à 2012, 19.2% de tous les postes ont été attribués à des femmes alors qu’elles sont 19.9% de la collaboration.

La situation est en fait beaucoup plus balancée qu’elle ne l’était entre 2000-2008 comme le montre le graphe suivant. Ces chiffres sont d’autant plus éloquents que ces postes sont en général attribués aux membres plus âgés et expérimentés, là où il y a moins de femmes dans ATLAS. Par exemple, Fabiola Gianotti a été la porte-parole d’ATLAS pendant les quatre dernières années, la première femme à atteindre la plus haute marche dans une grande expérience de physique des particules. Seule Young-Kee Kim avait précédemment été nommée co-porte-parole dans l’expérience CDF.

Alors que la situation des physiciennes d’ATLAS s’améliore sur tous les fronts, une étude lancée à l’échelle mondiale et touchant 15000 physiciens et physiciennes a révélé qu’il existe encore et toujours une grande disparité au niveau des opportunités entre physiciens et physiciennes. L’enquête a montré que les femmes sont moins souvent conférencières invitées que leurs collègues masculins. Elles ont moins la chance de travailler à l’étranger, moins de ressources (subventions, espace de bureau, personnel etc.) et moins d’étudiant-e-s à superviser. Elles participent moins aux différents comités (organisation de conférences,  revues de thèses, comités décisionnels). Cette différence était observée tant dans les pays en voie de développement que dans les pays très développés. L’écart des réponses était aussi statistiquement très significatif.

Est-ce que cette disparité pourrait disparaître si plus de femmes continuent à venir grossir les rangs des scientifiques ? C’est facilement envisageable. Il vaut donc la peine de se pencher sur ce qui peut attirer plus de femmes en physique.

Des chercheur-e-s de l’équipe PRiSE ont montré que les étudiants, tant hommes que femmes, ont besoin d’une forte « identité scientifique » pour entreprendre des études en physique. Si la personne se sent bonne en physique, si ses ami-e-s, sa famille et ses professeur-e-s l’encouragent, il ou elle aura d’autant plus envie de se lancer en physique.

Plusieurs activités scolaires aident aussi à renforcer cette « identité scientifique » comme discuter des sujets d’actualité en physique, être encouragé à poser des questions et pouvoir servir de tuteur à d’autres élèves.

De toutes les initiatives utilisées pour encourager les jeunes femmes à étudier en physique, comme parler des accomplissements de physiciennes, donner un modèle ou rencontrer des  physiciennes, selon cette étude, la seule qui s’avère avoir un impact net est le fait d’amorcer une discussion sur pourquoi il y a moins de femme en science. Ce genre de discussion renforcirait l’identité scientifique des filles sans affecter celle des garçons. Cette conclusion est contestée par plusieurs physiciennes pour qui le fait d’avoir eu un modèle à suivre avait grandement influencé leur choix de carrière.

Alors voilà, juste au cas où : j’en parle ! Espérons que les jeunes femmes vont continuer à embrasser une carrière en physique et que leur présence contribuera a établir l’égalité en nombre et en opportunités. Pour reprendre une phrase de Maureen Reagan, je crois sincèrement qu’on aura atteint l’égalité le jour où une parfaite incompétente sera élue à un poste clé.

Pauline Gagnon

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Zombies at CERN!

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Some friends of colleagues of mine made a zombie movie here at CERN. It looks pretty neat, and will be available for free soon online, so here’s the trailer:

Now, then. There are some things I should probably clarify:

1. This film has not been authorized or endorsed by CERN.

2. The Higgs boson obviously cannot turn people into zombies. Never mind the biology, it’s enough to know that the Higgs decays instantaneously into more ordinary particles, and never leaves the detector. If any LHC collisions could make zombies, the earth would already be filled with zombies created when ultra high-energy cosmic rays hit the atmosphere.

3. Zombies do not really exist, and they will not eat your brains. Really. I promise.

4. The LHC cannot be operated when anyone is in one its tunnels or experimental caverns. The safety systems that prevent this are quite a bit more sophisticated than the trailer seems to imply.

5. The tunnels in the film aren’t the LHC tunnels — which are continuously being used for science rather than cinematography — but they do appear to be real steam tunnels from some of the buildings here at CERN. Rather interesting and spooky, but maybe not as polished and high-tech as you were expecting.

In conclusion: it’s always fun to see zombies in cool places, especially in your own back yard. I look forward to the movie coming out. For more information, you can look at decayfilm.com, facebook.com/decayfilm, or twitter.com/decayfilm


La semaine dernière, j’ai participé à Mumbai, en tant que conférencier invité, à la réunion annuelle de l’association indienne ABCI (Association of Business Communicators of India), car on souhaitait savoir comment le CERN est parvenu à mettre la physique des particules sur le devant de la scène. C’était la première fois que je me rendais en Inde, et cette visite restera longtemps gravée dans ma mémoire, pour de bonnes raisons uniquement. Un des moments forts de la manifestation a été la cérémonie très « bollywoodienne » de remise des prix annuels de l’ABCI, où je me suis vu décerner un magnifique trophée en cristal, récompensant la stratégie de communication du CERN. J’étais évidemment honoré de recevoir cette récompense, qui trône maintenant fièrement sur mon bureau au CERN, mais, surtout, ce prix montre que le nom CERN est connu du monde entier depuis que nous avons pris la décision, en 2003, de faire connaître notre science au grand public et de tirer parti des possibilités exceptionnelles offertes par le LHC en termes de communication pour promouvoir la cause de la science. J’ai toujours cru au potentiel du LHC comme un moyen pour la communauté des physiciens des particules de mettre la science à l’ordre du jour de la société civile, à une époque dominée par la science et la technologie, mais je n’aurais jamais imaginé que notre discipline allait autant se démocratiser. On me disait : « tu sauras que tu as réussi quand tu commenceras à apparaître dans les dessins des journaux ». Des dizaines de dessins nous ont fait rire depuis. On m’a dit ensuite que, pour savoir si l’on a vraiment réussi, il faut que les Muppets parlent de nous. Et les Muppets ont pensé à nous. Notre Directeur général m’a même appelé de Berlin, à l’occasion du 20e anniversaire de la chute du mur, pour me dire que le CERN faisait là-bas la couverture des journaux. Tout cela est bon pour la science, et pour la société, mais le plus important c’est de voir à quel point les gens ont de plus en plus soif de science et, par ailleurs, de comprendre comment on parvient à des résultats scientifiques. Les médias prennent le temps d’expliquer pourquoi nous avons besoin de cinq sigmas pour annoncer une découverte, et le public est de plus en plus nombreux à s’intéresser à nos séminaires scientifiques – près d’un demi-million de personnes ont suivi la réunion du 4 juillet durant laquelle le point a été fait sur la recherche du boson de Higgs. Il y a toutefois encore beaucoup à faire. Certes, il ne fait aucun doute que le nom CERN est aujourd’hui connu dans le monde entier. On sait qui l’on est et on jouit d’une grande réputation, mais notre identité doit encore être renforcée. Au sein de la communauté des physiciens des particules, tout le monde sait évidemment ce que nous faisons et pourquoi nous le faisons, mais, en dehors de ce cercle, les gens ont une idée assez vague de nos activités. Pour reprendre les mots du Time magazine, à propos du séminaire du 4 juillet : « Dans un monde où tout va très vite, nous nous sommes arrêtés un instant pour contempler quelque chose qui nous dépasse. » Le défi à relever maintenant, tant pour les scientifiques que pour les personnes qui communiquent pour eux, consiste à faire de cet instant un sujet de conversation quotidien. La conférence de Mumbai, ComFest 12, a été un régal pour le professionnel de la communication que je suis ; j’ai eu la chance de rencontrer des personnes représentant diverses entités, comme Coca Cola Inde ou plusieurs entreprises du groupe Tata. Je suis honoré que la communauté scientifique dont je fais partie reconnaisse la valeur de toutes nos réalisations, mais ce qui compte le plus, c’est que la science soit au premier rang des préoccupations, pour apporter de l’aide aux gens dans leur vie quotidienne et permettre à la société de prendre les bonnes décisions sur les questions d’actualité politiques et scientifiques complexes. Faisons en sorte qu’il en soit toujours ainsi.


Making particle physics mainstream

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Last week, I was in Mumbai as an invited speaker at the annual meeting of the Association of Business Communicators of India (ABCI), who wanted to find out what CERN had done to make particle physics mainstream. It was my first visit to India, and one that will remain long in my memory for all the right reasons. The event included the ABCI’s annual awards night, a Bollywoodesque affair from which I emerged with a handsome crystal trophy in recognition of CERN’s communications. Honoured though I am to receive this, and it now takes pride of place on my desk at CERN, the real significance of the award is that it shows just how well known the CERN brand has become since we took the decision back in 2003 to do our science in public, and leverage the unique communications opportunity of the LHC to further the cause of science.

I have always been optimistic about the opportunity that the LHC gives particle physics to move science up the popular agenda, where it needs to be in a science and technology dominated age, but I never imagined just how mainstream our field would become. Over the years, people have told me, “you’ll know you’ve made it when you start to see yourself in newspaper cartoons”. Since then, we’ve laughed at dozens of them. Then someone suggested that the real barometer of success was being featured by the Muppets. We’ve been there too. I even had a call from our Director General in Berlin on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall to tell me that CERN was on the cover of the newspapers there, on that of all days. All this is good for science, and for society, but more significant is the way that people are developing a thirst for science and the way science is done. Media channels are taking the time to explain why we need five-sigma to announce a discovery, and ordinary people are tuning into our scientific seminars – close to half a million of them on 4 July for the latest update in the quest for the Higgs particle.

We’ve still got a long way to go, however. There’s no doubt that CERN has become established as a global brand. We have brand recognition and a strong reputation, but our brand identity remains a work in progress. Everyone in particle physics knows what we do and why it matters, but in the world at large when you really ask people what it is we do, they’re not really sure. As Time magazine said of the 4 July seminar: “Despite our fleeting attention span, we stopped for a moment to contemplate something far, far bigger than ourselves”. The challenge we still face, both scientists and those who communicate on their behalf, is to turn that fleeting moment into everyday conversation.

The Mumbai conference, ComFest 12, was a feast for a communications professional, giving me the chance to listen and learn from people representing organizations as diverse as several Tata companies and Coca Cola India. I’m honoured that the industry I’ve made my home recognises all our achievements, but what really matters is that science is on the agenda, helping people with their everyday lives and equipping society to make the right decisions on the complex political/scientific issues of the day. Let’s keep it that way.

James Gillies


One of the questions that gets asked to most often is about the folks who run the IceCube experiment over the winter. Who are these folks? What does it take to spend fourteen months at the South Pole? Six of those months in darkness with the sun set below the horizon. So I’ll try to answer some of these questions, mostly by linking to what the winterovers themselves say. (And to their amazing aurora photos.)

Each year, the IceCube project advertises for the two IceCube winterover positions:

Winter Over Positions
Winter-overs deploy to Antarctica continuously for 14 months, mid-October to mid-November. Individuals participate in a wide range of activities and must pass physical and psychological evaluations of their ability to live and work in remote and high altitude locations. Degree requirements: M.S. in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Physics, or a related field; B.S. with substantial related field experience (equivalent to a Master’s Degree) will be considered.

Sometimes the person is already a collaborator, or affiliated with IceCube, perhaps a recently-completed graduate student, but most often the person is from a different science field. The winterover is responsible for keeping the detector running through the winter with some help/supervision from the Northern Hemisphere, but mostly independently. The laboratory is about two kilometers away from the South Pole Elevated Station, so it’s a good cold walk out to the experiment…

But the views are astonishing!

And you can see some of Sven’s aurora shots here. Sven and Carlos are this past year’s winterovers for IceCube, their reports can be seen at the IceCube website news listings. There’s a good “What is a Winterover” there as well.

At Pole there are two seasons, Summer and Winter. In the Summer, there is sunshine and a population of at least a 150 people at the station. The weather is relatively warm, from -40C (= -40F) up to an all-time record high temperature of +10F last Christmas. This is when the work is done building new experiments, when most of the scientists and engineers who work down there visit for a few weeks, or six weeks, or eight weeks. During IceCube construction, the drill teams would core down a mile in the ice for each of IceCube’s 86 strings during the Summer. The Winter is defined by the departure of the last aircrafts (jet fuel starts to gel as it gets too cold), the setting of the sun, and truly cold (-70C, -100F) temperatures. In the Winter, the South Pole Station is down to about fifty hardy souls.

I recently found this interesting Winterover Statistics page that gives some insight into the folks who have wintered for a record number of South Pole winters (five in a row! nine total times!). Not for me! Though had I known about it, perhaps back when I was twenty and single…



Are the Higgs Rumors True?

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

What Higgs rumors, you may ask? Well, there aren’t any that I know of, yet. But there might be soon…

There might be rumors soon because we are about to do another round of updates, for the 2012 Hadron Collider Physics Symposium (HCP). There aren’t any yet because our results (at least on CMS) are still “blinded,” which means that we haven’t actually looked at the “places” in the data where we see signs of our new boson. What we’re doing instead is looking at simulated data to see how much our results might improve when we add in the collisions we’ve recorded since ICHEP. We’re also putting in a few new analysis techniques, and checking them in the same way. And of course we are looking at data in other “places,” and we’re comparing it to simulations to make sure they’re doing a good job.

There will be several weeks between the moment we “unblind” — that is, look for the first time at what our signal looks like with the new data — and when results are shown at HCP. This is just as things were at ICHEP, and during those few weeks there were a lot of rumors around. It’s not possible to confirm or deny rumors when you know the status of ongoing work but haven’t yet agreed with your colleagues that it’s finished and ready to talk about publicly. So this time, I’m going to get in some general comments about rumors before I know anything at all about actual results. These comments will apply just as well to future updates.

What are we doing during the gap between unblinding and the conference? We’re checking our results, and putting them in a final presentable form. This is already compressed into a very short, hectic time, as I’ve written about before.

Are the rumors true? They are definitely not our official results, but they might turn out to be close. Or they might not. Specifically, the possibilities are:

  • A rumor is pretty much right. It’s no secret that particle physicists are bad at keeping secrets, and we really don’t want to be good at it. If one in 3,000 physicists decides to tell the Internet what our first-pass internal results look like, we can’t really stop them. Of course they’re breaking the rules, and we wish they wouldn’t, because it’s a collaborative effort and we’d prefer to agree together that we’re finished before announcing our results — because we want to make sure we did everything as well as we can. But still, our first-pass results are usually pretty close to final.
  • A rumor isn’t quite right. This could happen if we do find small mistakes or make refinements in the last few weeks of analyzing the data. This changes the answer by a bit, so the rumor is out of date. You could also make up a “not-quite-right” rumor just by making an educated guess based on our last results and how much new data we’ve taken!
  • A rumor is just plain wrong. Nobody says rumors have to be based on anything. Or they could be based on a misunderstanding of far-from-complete internal results.

We physicists working on this stuff don’t find it easy to wait for the answers either, and as Jon Butterworth has pointed out, rumors of other experiments’ results are actually dangerous for our work! For everybody else who’s tempted to indulge in rumors, just remember: you might be getting part of the picture early, or you might not. The only way to be sure is to wait for the next real update.


Well, this is a bit of a late posting for me, but it’s been a crazy few months with a house sale, house purchase, daughters starting high school, and a frantic build of two stations for the ARA (Askaryan Radio Array) experiment that we’ll deploy at the South Pole this Austral Summer. More on most of those topics soon, but a little report on the PACIFIC 2012 conference and some biology that I learned while I was there. (Any and all biology in this article is as reported by myself, an astroparticle physicist, so apologies to actual biologists, this is posted out of “hey, that’s neat” intellectual curiosity and not some sort of physicist supremacy theory.)

So, the PACIFIC 2012 conference was held in early September in beautiful Moorea in French Polynesia. I felt pretty guilty heading to a meeting in paradise, so I did my best to bring back some gifts… It’s an annual, small meeting on particle astrophysics and cosmology, held at the Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station run by the University of California-Berkeley. The meeting was especially interesting to me with the small group of scientists there, in a relatively isolated environment, and with a good mix of experimentalists and theorists. I gave a talk on the IceCube experiment (talk is post here, NB: large file and somewhat technical), including some recent results on the gamma-ray bursts and also a few of the first bright (PeV) events seen by the telescope.

I did manage to find some time to go snorkeling during the meeting. There were a lot of fish and sea creatures in the protected reef waters of the lagoon, and in fact Moorea featured in a recent National Geographic magazine article exploring the living content of a cubic foot of the coral reef. It’s a ridiculous variety and density of life, teeming life in great numbers of species and individuals, in every corner, every niche of the Earth. But, if you read why Moorea was chosen as one of the locations (in work performed at the Gump Center) you find it’s because the isolated French Polynesian islands (it’s a really long flight, and look at it on Google Earth, far from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and Hawaii) have the least biodiversity on Earth.

Basically, it’s a really long way from everything else, and relatively few species (comparatively!) got there, established themselves, and evolved in place. So, in a manner that a physicist would approve of, Moorea can be used as a simple model of an ecosystem for systematic study. It’s far simpler than most other ecosystems, and many of the species present have their time and method of introduction to the island known. Some arrived with the Polynesian voyageurs, others with colonial masters, and others as accidental tourists in the jet age.

Okay, so you have simple system that you’re going to use as a template for more complex systems later, and maybe one of the first things that you want to do is catalog the species present on the island, in the soil, and in the lagoon. The Biocode project at Gump tries to do just this. Identify all of the species. Since I last took a biology class of course this is not just a process of identifying the species by its characteristics (Wikipedia background on taxonomy) but also via the DNA characterization of the species. (I must put a call out here to the brilliant DNA analysis work on restaurant sushi. Check it out if you haven’t before.) In fact, increasingly the species being discovered aren’t being formally named, or even identified in the sense of “here’s a canary, you can tell by its song, and this brilliant plumage” but rather by the existence of a unique DNA sequence.

For example, you can identify all of the critters you can (in Moorea, down to about a couple of mm in length), record their DNA, and then take the contents of a fish stomach and sequence that DNA. In the stomach you find the DNA of species that you had not previously identified. In fact, it seems that many, or most, species do not have a catalog entry, a sample pinned onto a board in the basement of the natural history museum, they just have some DNA in the instrumentation in the laboratory. These are the dark taxa, genetic information without the classical context of the detailed, properly named, taxonomy entry. The name is nicely analogous to the Dark Matter. Most of the mass of the universe is not in ordinary, observed matter, but in a “dark matter” which interacts gravitationally but is otherwise not observed directly (yet).

The Dark Taxa was introduced by Roderic Page who was considering the entries in species catalogs and noting the explosion in the number of species identified only genetically, with no classical taxonomy. Estimates seem to vary, but perhaps 90% of the animals (let’s not even think about the bacteria) are unknown. The already plenty-amazing world is that much richer still. Most species are unknown, and in fact the definition of species and broader classifications are moving rapidly with the ability of genetic tools to make a more reasonable “a is closely related to b” based on evolutionary distance rather than appearance. The Biocode effort on Moorea was making use of large scale databases, sequencing everything biological that the researchers could find on the island, and working through the classifications via software. It’s a very different biology than I recall from class, more analytic and less descriptive. I hesitate to mention the perhaps somewhat similar division between classic descriptive astronomy (“twelve barred spiral galaxies”) and astrophysics (“we modeled the bar formation with a 3-D hydrodynamics code”) but it does have some of that feel.

Okay, so I went to a tropical paradise, talked physics, and got pretty excited about biology, in particular biological classification. It was a good trip.


I’m Going to Tell You…

Friday, October 19th, 2012

–by T.I. Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communication

Public science lectures, events, cafés: They are everywhere!  This past weekend, the ATLAS group at TRIUMF went to Science World in downtown Vancouver and gave a science talk about the Higgs, hosted a virtual tour of the ATLAS control room, and answered thousands of questions. Nearly 10,000 people passed through the doors that day.  This past Tuesday night, Perimeter Institute director Neil Turok presented his third CBC Massey lecture, this one in Vancouver at UBC’s Chan Centre.  The sell-out crowd was nearly 1,000 people.  Last night near the waterfront station, TRIUMF science director Reiner Kruecken gave a talk about nuclear astrophysics at the public session of the APS Northwest Sectional meeting.  And on November 1, the director of the NIH Human Genome Research Institute Eric Green will be giving a public talk about genomics and its future influence on clinical practice at GenomeBC.

Why is all of this happening?  Can’t people just get enough of science and technology from YouTube, university classes, and specialized television programs?  Heck, why did *I* go to some of these events?  Is it the same reason I choose to attend certain music concerts or watch a play in person in the theatre?

I thought about this for awhile, and this is what I started to see.

Humans are social creatures.  Maybe I am showing my age, but I still prefer being in a group and learning about something rather than sitting at home in a darkened room and just clicking and scrolling on my computer.  I actually have different brain chemistry when in a group and listening to someone.  At the Massey lecture, there was even something fun about my seatmate whispering questions to me during the talk (for instance, If the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, does that mean the Solar System is actually getting bigger right now?).  It would have been weird to have Neil Turok come over to my house and record his lecture in my living room with just me as the audience, right?

There’s something curious and fascinating about leading scientists and thinkers in person. I saw the Premier of British Columbia in a coffee shop this morning; she was just getting a cup of coffee like I was, and yet it was still “cool.”  Listening to Neil Turok was special because he peppered his discussion of “What banged (in the Big Bang)?” with personal anecdotes, with humor, and with observations about history.  I can get that same feel when I listen to the broadcasts on CBC Radio of course. I got to hear it “first” and “in the raw.”

There’s something neat about hearing something live, in the moment.  And I got to hear what was happening “right now” rather than waiting for the lecture to be broadcast or waiting for someone to write a Wikipedia article about it.


    What do you think?  Why do people still throng to gather ‘round and listen to and talk about science and particle physics?  What can we do to provide even more of what is needed and wanted?


    The coolest and hottest fluid

    Friday, October 19th, 2012

    In September, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) operators at CERN attempted a new trick: putting in collisions protons in one beam and lead ions in the other. Usually, the LHC operates with two beams of identical particles (protons or ions) circulating in opposite directions in the accelerator. Here is what is expected from this new setup.

    These ions are atoms stripped of all their electrons, leaving only the nucleus. Lead ions contain 82 protons plus 126 neutrons, all held together by the nuclear force.  Protons are also composite objects made of three quarks and bound together by “gluons”, the particles carrying the nuclear force.

    So when two such heavy ions collide at nearly the speed of light, I dare anyone to describe where each quark and each gluon will end up. Already, trying to predict where fifteen billiard balls go after breaking the pack is tough enough. But when each projectile is made of hundreds of particles, it becomes impossible.

    At first glance, it would seem all we could get out of this is just a mess. But this turns out to be the coolest and hottest mess one will ever see. From the most energetic collisions comes a new form of matter called the quark-gluon plasma.

    There are three very well known state of matter: solid, liquid and gaseous. Lesser known is the fourth state of matter called plasma. This is what one finds inside a neon tube when the electric current applied is strong enough to strip the gas of its electrons. Positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons float around freely, having enough energy not to recombine.

    The quark-gluon plasma is just one step above this. Imagine there is enough energy around that not only the atoms but the nucleons (the name given to protons and neutrons, the particles found inside the nucleus) break apart and coexist in some sort of an extremely energetic fluid. This is as hot as it got instants after the Big Bang. What is so cool about it though, is that this plasma exhibits collective behavior, meaning quarks and gluons do not float freely but have collective properties. The most spectacular of them is that this fluid has no viscosity and behaves as a perfect fluid. If you try to confine it in a container, it just flows up the container’s wall and spread all over the place.

    The ALICE experiment is dedicated to the study of the quark-gluon plasma. Each year, the LHC operates for a few weeks with lead ions instead of protons. ALICE collects data both during proton-proton collisions and heavy ions collisions. Even when only protons collide, the projectiles are not solid balls like on a billiard table but composite objects. By comparing what can is obtained from heavy ion collisions with proton collisions, the ALICE physicists must first disentangle what comes from having protons in a bound state inside the nucleus as opposed to “free protons”.

    So far, it appears that the quark-gluon plasma only formed during heavy-ion collisions since they provide the necessary energy density over a substantial volume (namely, the size of a nucleus). Some of the effects observed, such as the number of particles coming out of the collisions at different angles or momenta, depend in part on the final state created. When the plasma is formed, it reabsorbs many of the particles created, such that fewer particles emerged from the collision.

    By colliding protons and heavy ions, scientists hope to discern what comes from the initial state of the projectile (bound or free protons) and what is caused by the final state (like the suppression of particles emitted when a quark-gluon plasma forms).

    Already, with only one day of data taken in this new mode, the ALICE collaboration just released two papers. The first one presents the measurements of the charged hadrons density produced in proton-ion collisions and compares the result with the same measurement after proper normalization performed in proton-proton and ion-ion collisions. The second compares the transverse momentum distributions of charged hadrons measured in proton-ions and proton-proton collisions.

    The ultimate goal is to study the so-called “structure function”, which describes how quarks and gluons are distributed inside protons, when they are free or embedded inside the nucleus.

    More will be studied during the two-month running period with protons colliding on heavy ions planned for the beginning of 2013.

    A “snapshot” of the debris coming out of a proton-lead ion collision captured by the ALICE detector showing a large number of various particles created from the energy released by the collision.

    Pauline Gagnon

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