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Archive for August, 2013

Higgs Hunting in Progress

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

ParishiggshuntingLast month I was at the annual Higgs Hunting workshop, in Orsay and  Paris, France.  Starting less than a week after EPS, it didn’t have much in the way of new results.  What it did give us is an opportunity to talk through where we are and where we’re going.  What do we know about the Higgs so far?  What do we still need to find out, and how do we go about it?  Why aren’t the coffees stronger, or at least larger?

It’s true, the last question isn’t about the Higgs, but it does reflect that a lot of the learning and discussion went on during the coffee breaks.  (I should stress in case the organizing committee reads this that the drinks and snacks at the coffee breaks were, on the whole, quite excellent.)  But of course we had talks too, and you can see both the slides and videos here.  I should warn you, though, that the talks are very technical — even more technical than might be usual for a Higgs conference, because it was generally assumed that participants already know the strategy for hunting the Higgs.

My talk was about the CMS search for Higgs decays to bottom quark pairs.  It covered four analyses, which are different from each other not because of what the Higgs decays into but because of what it’s produced in association with.  Without extra particles, we can’t see the Higgs in this decay channel because of all the bottom quark pairs from QCD.  But this direction of looking at different production mechanisms is also where Higgs searches as a whole are going, because ultimately Higgs production tells us as much about what the Higgs interacts with as Higgs decay.  And what we really hope to find is some difference from the Standard Model in those interactions.

From what we’ve seen so far, it looks like we’re hunting precisely the Standard Model Higgs.  But we are far from an exact answer; we haven’t even officially established evidence for the Higgs to bottom quark pair decay at all, yet.  So we’ll keep hunting, and hope the Higgs Beast turns out to be subtly different from the one we’re expecting.


Women at CERN

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

My pal got chatting to a drunk fella in a bar a few weeks before he started a new job at CERN. When he mentioned the identity of his future employer, the drunk fella guffawed with a “well you’re not going to find a girlfriend there!”.

Now, either this intoxicated chap was implying that my pal is inherently unattractive to particle physicists (which seems unlikely as he’s a very handsome man) or he was insinuating that there aren’t too many women working at CERN. I think it was more likely the latter and to that my response would be – not so!

I’m not sure of the exact figures but from a cursory glance around the lecture theatre there seems to be a roughly equal number of women and men on the CERN Student Summer Programme this year. Moreover, a significant proportion of our lecturers are female, with Daniela Bortoletto, Tara Shears and Magdalena Kowalska proving to be fantastic communicators as well as scientists.

Women are prominent at CERN. For example, the observation of the Higgs, one of the most important discoveries in modern science, was partly announced by Fabiola Gianotti as spokesperson of the ATLAS detector.

Fabiola Gianotti appears on the cover of Time magazine.

Fabiola Gianotti appears in Time magazine.

Now, that’s not to ignore the reality that the ratio of sexes at CERN more generally is still tipped in favour of males but, nevertheless, particle physics isn’t solely a man’s world. A CERN website specifically states that:

“CERN hopes to… send a clear message to all young women interested in particle physics and high technology that they are welcome in the field as physicists, engineers and computer scientists… Particle physics is a field where women play an active role at the forefront of experimental research.”

CERN even has an official and very active Women’s Club to provide an additional support network for females working at CERN. 

So, if you are female and hoping to break into particle physics, the opportunities, support structures and role models are there for you to get your foot in the door and progress to the pinnacle of your field.  So no excuses – get the application in…


Contrary to the predictions of an inebriated man in an Oxford drinking establishment, my pal is now dating a very lovely female particle physicist. So ha!


The ILC site has been chosen. What does this mean for Japan?

Credit: linearcollider.org

The two ILC candidate sites: Sefuri in the South and Kitakami in the North. Credit: linearcollider.org

Hi Folks,

It is official [Japanese1,Japanese2]: the Linear Collider Collaboration and the Japanese physics community have selected the Kitakami mountain range in northern Japan as the site for the proposed International Linear Collider. Kitakami is a located in the Iwate Prefecture and is just north of the Miyagi prefecture, the epicenter of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake. Having visited the site in June, I cannot aptly express how gorgeous the area is, but more importantly, how well-prepared Iwate City is for this responsibility.

Science is cumulative: new discoveries are used to make more discoveries about how nature works, and physics is no different. The discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider was a momentous event. With its discovery, physicists proved how some particles have mass and why others have no mass at all. The Higgs boson plays a special role in this process, and after finally finding it, we are determined to learn more about the Higgs. The International Linear Collider (ILC) is a proposed Higgs boson factory that would allow us to intimately understand the Higgs. Spanning 19 miles (31 km) [310 football pitches/soccer fields], if constructed, the ILC will smash together electrons and their antimatter partners, positrons, to produce a Higgs boson (along with a Z boson). In such a clean environment (compared to proton colliders), ultra-precise measurements of the Higgs boson’s properties can be made, and thereby elucidate the nature of this shiny new particle.

credit: li

The general overview schematic of the International Linear Collider. Credit: linearcollider.org

However, the ILC is more than just a experiment. Designing, constructing, and operating the machine for 20 years will be a huge undertaking with lasting effects. For staters, the collider’s Technical Design Report (TDR), which contains every imaginable detail minus the actual blueprints, estimates the cost of the new accelerator to be 7.8 billion USD (2012 dollars). This is not a bad thing. Supposing 50% of the support came from Asia, 25% from the Americas, and 25% from Europe, that would be nearly 2 billion USD invested in new radio frequency technology in England, Germany, and Italy. In the US, it would be nearly 2 billion USD invested in coastal and Midwestern laboratories developing new cryogenic and superconducting technology. In Asia, this would be nearly 4 billion USD invested in these technologies as well as pure labor and construction. Just as the LHC was a boon on the European economy, a Japanese-based ILC will be a boon for an economy temporarily devastated  by an historic earthquake and tsunami. These are just hypothetical numbers; the real economic impact will be  larger.

I had the opportunity to visit Kitakami this past June as a part of a Higgs workshop hosted by Tohoku University. Many things are worth noting. The first is just how gorgeous the site is. Despite its lush appearance, the site offers several geological advantages, including stability against earthquakes of any size. Despite its proximity to the 2011 earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, this area was naturally protected by the mountains. Below is a photo of the Kitakami mountains that I took while visiting the site. Interestingly, I took the photo from the UNESCO World Heritage site Hiraizumi. The ILC is designed to sit between the two mountains in the picture.


The Kitamaki Mountain Range as seen from the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Hiraizumi, Japan. Credit: Mine

What I want to point out in the picture below is the futuristic-looking set of tracks running across the photo. That is the rail line for the JR East bullet train, aka the Tohoku Shinkansen. In other words, the ILC site neighbours a very major transportation line connecting the Japanese capital Tokyo to the northern coast. It takes the train just over 2 hours to traverse the 250 miles (406.3 km) from Tokyo station to the Ichinoseki station in Iwate. The nearest major city is Sendai, capital of Miyagi, home to the renown Tohoku University, and is only a 10 minute shinkansen ride from Ichinoseki station.


The Kitamaki Mountain Range as seen from the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Hiraizumi, Japan. Credit: Mine

What surprised me is how excited the local community is about the collider. After exiting the Ichinoseki station I discovered this subtle sign of support:

There is much community support for the ILC: The Ichinoseki Shinkansen Station in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. Credit: Mine

The residents of Iwate and Miyagi, independent of any official lobbying organization, have formed their own “ILC Support Committee.” They even have their own facebook page. Over the past year, the residents have invited local university physicists to give public lectures on what the ILC is; they have requested that more English, Chinese, Korean, and Tagalog language classes be offered at local community centers; that more Japanese language classes for foreigners are offered in these same facilities; and have even discussed with city officials how to prepare Iwate for the prospect of a rapid increase in population over the next 20 years.

Despite all this, the real surprises were the pamphlets. Iwate has seriously thought this through.


Pamphlets showcasing the Kitakami Mountain Range in Iwate, Japan. Credit: Mine

The level of detail in the pamphlets is impressive. My favourite pamphlet has the phrase, “Ray of Hope: Tohoku Is Ready to Welcome the ILC” on the front cover. Inside is a list of ways to reach the ILC site and the time it takes. For example: it takes 12 hours 50 minutes to reach Tokyo from Rome and 9 hours 40 minutes from Sydney. The brochure elaborates that the Kitakami mountains maintain roughly the same temperature as Switzerland (except in August-September) but collects much more precipitation through the year. Considering that CERN is located in Geneva, Switzerland, and that many LHC experimentalists will likely become ILC experimentalists, the comparison is very helpful. The at-a-glance annual festival schedule is just icing on the cake.


“Ray of Hope” pamphlet describing how to each different ILC campuses by train.  Credit: Mine

Now that the ILC site has been selected, surveys of the land can be conducted so that blue prints and a finalized cost estimate can be established. From my discussions with people involved in the site selection process, the decision was very difficult. I have not visited the Fukuoka site, though I am told it is a comparably impressive location. It will be a while still before any decision to break ground is made. And until that happens, there is plenty of work to do.

Happy Colliding

– Richard (@bravelittlemuon)



Visiting my high school in Arkansas

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

This week I will be going to visit my high school in Arkansas.  It was 20 years ago that the school first opened its doors and I was part of that Charter class.  The Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science & the Arts is a bit unusual, it is “one of only fifteen public, residential high schools in the country specializing in the education of gifted and talented students who have an interest and aptitude for mathematics and science.”  And this was a state-wide school, so it was a lot like leaving for college two years early.

Arkansas is not particularly well known for its educational system — as a kid we would joke “thank god for Mississippi” when Arkansas would come in 49/50th in some educational ranking.  My brother attended Little Rock’s Central High, which is famous for its history in the civil rights movement and the desegregation of the school system).  I’m happy to see that Arkansas is doing better in the educational rankings, but there is still a long way to go.  For those of you not from the US, I’ve included a map showing this rural state in the southern part of the US.

View Larger Map

Kyle Cranmer with Bill Clinton in Arkansas Governor's office in 1991.

Kyle Cranmer with Bill Clinton in Arkansas Governor’s office in 1991.


The school has an interesting history, it was created in 1991 by an act of the Arkansas Legislature.  Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas at the time, and I happened to get a photo with him that year in his office (wearing my friend’s hideous sweater, since my clothes were all dirty while playing at his house).

 While the school is more closely modeled after the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, one of the other early schools of this type was the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.  Here’s a tidbit from Wikipedia:

“Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, director emeritus of nearby Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, was among the first to propose the Illinois school in 1982, and together with Governor Jim Thompson led the effort for its creation. Thompson has noted with pride that he chose to build IMSA instead of competing for the ill-fated supercollider project.”


This school changed my life.  I learned calculus and calculus-based physics from Dr. Irina Lyublinskaya, a Russian-educated Ph.D. physicist that had left Russia due to religious persecution.  I took an organic chemistry in high school with awesome labs where we extracted DNA from plants and ran gel electrophoresis.  I was frustrated by the lack of activities, so I got involved in school politics. But probably the most important aspect of my time there was learning from my friends and taking on all sorts of projects.  I learned some basic electronics from my electronics guru friends Colin and  Stephen (who made a TV from a scrap oscilloscope), my friend Thomas made a pretty nice Tesla Coil, we used to get in trouble making potato guns and I almost lost an eye with a rail gun trial.  I remember making a binary half adder out of some huge old telphone relay switches, and when I connected the current the you could hear the simple computation proceed knock-knock-knock until the lights at the end of the big piece of plywood I was using lit up to confirm 1+2=3.  My friend Sean taught me about programming, my friend Colin taught me about Neural Networks and Fast Fourier Transforms.  I spent weeks soldering together an EEG for my science fair project to identify different classes of thought by using brain waves and identifying them by analyzing their characteristic frequency spectrum with a neural network — an idea I got while watching a documentary of Stephen Hawking.  And we were all on-line and exposed to the world wide web in its formative years (93-95).

Tomorrow I leave to go visit the school 20 years later.  We will meet with legislators, parents, alumni, students, and supporters.  I look forward to telling the students about the tremendously exciting career I’ve had in particle physics, culminating in the discovery of the Higgs boson.


This article appeared in Fermilab Today on Aug. 21, 2013.

Craig Hogan

Craig Hogan

Craig Hogan, head of the Center for Particle Astrophysics, wrote this column.

Everyone knows that Fermilab builds accelerators, fabulous machines that boost elementary particles to almost the speed of light. But Fermilab accelerates more than just particles: It propels the advancement of our nation, and our technical civilization, into the future.

Fermilab’s basic mission is to understand the nature of matter, energy, space and time. Since everything is made of matter moving in space-time, startling inventions often spring from innovations in physics. Surprising technologies emerge all the time from newly invented ways of measuring and manipulating matter, forces and data.

The sooner we get the knowledge, the sooner we get the inventions. The faster we learn new physics, the faster humanity advances. That’s acceleration: It moves everything faster.

The most direct acceleration happens when physicists take their techniques out into the world and build all kinds of new things, not just physics experiments. Around the lab, we see this happening all the time in the careers of our close colleagues.

A couple of years ago I stood on a festively flower-festooned Stockholm stage, dressed in an elegant Swedish tuxedo, with an experimental team that celebrated the award of the Nobel prize in physics to two of our team members, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt. The team had worked together in the 1990s to discover a unique kind of acceleration: the speeding up of the cosmic expansion, sometimes called “dark energy.” Our two youngest team members had been physics graduate students at the time of the discovery; at our Nobel reunion feast 13 years later, they talked with excitement about their jobs at a Seattle biotech company, where they apply techniques they learned in experimental astrophysics to develop machines that study close details of living systems.

Last year, a brilliant postdoc from MIT who had helped us create Fermilab’s Holometer experiment surprised everyone on that team when he chose not to become a physics professor at the University of Chicago but decided instead to join Elon Musk’s SpaceX company and develop new ways of going to space. He’s already developed a ranging system that the Dragon space capsule uses to dock with the International Space Station.

And just this summer, a senior Fermilab physicist, James Volk, left the lab and our Holometer team, not to retire, but to join a private biomedical company. He now develops magnets for accelerator beams—not for physics research, but for new kinds of cancer treatment.

These close-up stories show the substantial contributions that our colleagues make beyond basic physics research. They create things that did not exist before and make them happen better and sooner because of their physics training, experience and creative insight—just one of many ways that Fermilab accelerates our nation.


Can String Theory predict stuff?

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

What’s the deal with string theory? Why do people claim string theory is nonsense? Can we predict anything with it? As a theorist with too many experimental friends, these questions are thrown at me all the time. So today answering these will be my challenge.

Dislaimer: In the following I might have wiped too many ‘details’ under the doormat in order to keep everything readable. But feel free to post any comment if you would like me elaborate on specific parts.

Basically string theory says that the tiniest bits of matter are in fact little strings, in contrast to for example the Standard Model, where every particle is considered to be a point. This has a lot of interesting consequences, but I will only address the essential points that we will need along the way.
For this it is sufficient to believe that as soon one wants to quantize this string (with ‘to quantize’ I mean “to write a quantum mechanical theory of this string”), one quickly gets to the result that this theory we are talking about actually has to live in 10 dimensions (or 11 for M-theory, but let’s not talk about that).
I think the best way to look at this fact is to say ‘We need 10 dimensions to make the mathematics work out’. For people with a physics background: One way to look at it, is that we need 10 dimensions to make some anomalies vanish.

Anyway, we are now with a 10-dimensional theory. How should we look at these extra dimensions?
Mathematically it is simple: While you would usually work with (x,y,z) coordinates, we now instead work with (x1, x2, x3, … , x10 ) as coordinates. Physically it is more difficult, since the world as we observe it has only 4 dimensions (three spatial dimensions and we count ‘time’ as a dimension as well, adding up to 4). The question then arises: Where did the other six dimensions go? The theory should at least take into account why we can not see those six extra dimensions in our everyday live (or even in high energy experiments like the LHC at CERN until now).

The answer is that we think that these extra dimensions are ‘compactified’. So what does this mean?
Consider for example a circle. If I’d be walking along this circle long enough, I will end up at the same point again. Such a ‘rolled up’ direction we call a compactified dimension.
The reason why we can not see these extra dimensions in our everyday live and experiments, is that they are simply too small for us to notice.

Now, for our string theory, we need to compactify six dimensions. Stuff gets interesting when we are trying trying to compactify more than one dimension. For example, let’s roll up two dimensions. It is not hard to imagine that the surface of a sphere is an example of a compact two-dimensional object (we usually call these objects ‘manifolds’), but another option we have is to compactify the two dimensions in the form of a donut, or even a pretzel. It is already clear that we can make a huge amount of different objects, and the amount of choices we can make increases radically when we try to compactify six dimensions.
(The above is actually a bit oversimplified, string theorists for example like to compactify the extra dimensions on so-called ‘Calabi-Yau manifolds’)

Now the funny thing is, that for every different way you compactify the extra dimensions, the laws of Physics, as in the coupling constants, interactions and even the particle content in our four known dimensions will be different. Every such possibility we call a ‘vacuum’ of string theory.
The challenge is then, to compactify the extra dimensions in such a way that the theory we end up with would look like the Standard Model like we know it now ( + perhaps some extra particles that we have not discovered yet). People have actually found quite a lot of those configurations that look like our Standard Model.

Sidenote: One of the physical constants that varies from one vacuum to another, is the Cosmological constant, and I’m currently trying to find a way to make this one work out.

Now, the problem lies in the amount of vacua (or ‘different ways to compactify string theory down to four dimensions’) string theory has. Its exact number will depend on who you ask, but it is usually quoted as around 10500. That’s huge! This is more than there are particles in the universe. And every single one of those vacua will correspond to a different kind of universe, most of them that do not even look like the Standard Model at all! But then, what would it mean if we would find just one vacuum out of those 10500 that would correspond completely to the world and laws of nature we know? If we can just chose the one we like, how can the theory predict anything?

Honestly, at the moment, nobody knows. Some people have ideas: Perhaps there exists some dynamical principle that points to exactly the right vacuum of string theory in which we live, and the universe did not have a choice. Perhaps there is some anthropological principle going on: If the universe would have chosen to live in another vacuum of string theory, the laws of nature would be very different and would not allow for example for stars to be formed, so that we would not have been here to ask this question.

Instead of going all philosophic on this, let’s address the question: Why do you do string theory anyway? String theory has one big power, namely its mathematical machinery. In fact, string theory has taught us a lot about quantum field theories, like the Standard Model, in general. Also, it has shed light on the quantum mechanics (and entropy) of black holes. But perhaps the coolest thing that came out of string theory would be the AdS/CFT correspondence.

Very vaguely, the AdS/CFT correspondence states that there is a relation (‘duality’) between a theory of quantum gravity in some space, and a field theory (without gravity) that’s living only on the boundary of this same space. So, not only does it manage to relate a D-dimensional theory to a (D+1)-dimensional theory, but it relates also a theory with gravity to a theory without gravity. This idea, born in string theory, has been used to calculate stuff in a lot of other branches of physics, going from QCD in heavy ion collisions to superconducting materials. So even if it would turn out in the end that the elementary particles are not little strings, string theory already had its victories, purely by its mathematical machinery, what it has thought us about physics and how we can use this in other branches of physics.



(Note: This is an updated version of a post that I originally made on my personal website theoryandpractice.org.)

Recently I’ve been more involved in communication, education, and outreach activities via the “Snowmass” Community Summer Study.  One of the goals we discussed was to get to the point that the public is more aware of the fundamental particles.  Ideally, we’d like something as iconic as the periodic table (which is rotated from Mendeleev’s original).

The periodic table


Our standard graphic for the standard model builds on this tabular format, which is not unreasonable with the three generations of fermions for the columns and rows pointing to the up/down pairing of the SU(2) symmetry in the weak force.  It’s a cute graphic, but it has a number of problems for communicating with the public

  1. the Higgs is absent
  2. the 3-d effect is meaningless and is second only to our notorious use of Comic Sans for painting physicists as being inept in the graphic design department


standardmodel standard


It seems easy enough to add the Higgs to this table, but there seems no agreement on where to put it as you can see from Google’s image search.


From a physicists point of view there are some other problems that actually harm those starting to learn the standard model in detail

  1. there symmetry for the strong force (the RGB colors of the quarks) is not reflected at all leading to the idea that there is only one type of up quark.
  2. the complications about the left- and right- handed parts of the leptons in the weak interaction
  3. the mixing between the quarks
  4. the rows and columns don’t mean anything for the force carriers, and any sort of group-theoretic structure for the gauge bosons is missing

In June, I went to the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival for the premiere screening of Particle Fever.  It’s a great film that humanizes fundamental particle physics in an emotional, funny, and romantic way.  It also has some great graphics.  One of my favorite graphics was a new way of representing the fundamental particles.  During the after party of the premiere, the director Mark Levinson gave me the back story (which I forgot about until he reminded me)

It was actually our brilliant editor, Walter Murch, who had been obsessing about finding an iconic representation for the Standard Model equivalent to the Periodic Table. He wanted something that was accurate, meaningful, elegant and simple. One morning he came into the edit room and told me he had had a “benzene ring” dream – an idea for a circular representation of the SM. I think David [Kaplan] and I may have suggested a couple of small modifications, but essentially it was the “artist” who trumped the physicists in devising what I hope becomes an iconic representation of the fundamental particles of physics!


Particle Fever Standard Model Graphic


Here’s what I like about it

  1. it looks complete (which the standard model is in a certain sense), unlike like a table that can keep being appended with rows and columns
  2. it has a fresh, flat design that lends itself way to an iconic image (stickers, t-shirts, etc.)
  3. It’s round, which evokes notions of symmetry
  4. it is minimal, but it still has some basic structure
    1. rings of fermions, vector bosons, scalar (Higgs) boson
    2. quarks/leptons are top/bottom or red/green
    3. families are still there in the clockwise orientation
  5. the Higgs is central (I’m kind of kidding, but the Higgs is a unique, central part of the theory and it has gathered a huge amount of attention to the field)

Of course, the graphic is not perfect.  I’ve thought about variations.  For instance, rearranging the fermions from a clockwise oriented flow to a left/right and top/bottom symmetry for the quark/lepton and weak force (SU(2) doublet) structure.  One could play with color a bit so that the up/down-type quarks and leptons have a common coloring in some way.  However, all of these changes also can be given the same criticism I gave the standard standard model graphic at the top.  For instance, focusing on the weak interaction over the strong interaction.

After the  original post I got a few comments on the graphic.  Some didn’t like the idea that it looked complete, because we know the standard model is not the full story (Dark Matter, baryogensis, neutrino masses, etc.).  While it is certainly true fundamental physics is not complete, the standard model is.  Near the end of this trailer for Particle Fever, you see this standard model graphic dressed up with a Penrose tiling and some supersymmetric friends.  The other complaint was that it suggested that the force carriers only interact with specific particles (g with d,s,b; γ with u,c,t; Z with neutrinos; and W with charged leptons).  I guess so, but that same kind of geometrical/semantic connection was also there with the standard graphic that we use.  Any graphic will be prone to these types of criticisms from the experts, so we must weigh those objections against the gain in communicating a more streamlined message.

In the end I think it would behoove the physics community to popularize a fresh, iconic image for the standard model and use the public’s excitement of the Higgs discovery as impetus to educate the general public about the basics of fundamental particle physics.


EDIT: You can now buy a shirt or poster with the Particle Fever Standard Model graphic here:


Mother-hunting at CERN

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

The Summer Student Webfest 2013 was held at CERN during the first weekend of August. The objective of the weekend was for student web enthusiasts to work together in teams to design web-based applications that will encourage the public to learn more about science, and in particular CERN, the LHC and particle physics.

The Webfest is modelled on events called hackfests which bring together computer aficionados for intense periods of web-based creativity that energize many open source communities.

The opening session saw fifteen brave souls pitch their ideas to an auditorium full of eager students. The ideas included games, volunteer computing projects, educational tools and open source platforms. Twelve of the pitches found sufficient support to proceed and the competition commenced.

To be successful each project required a range of skills including coding expertise, graphical design, writing skills and physics knowledge. It was only those teams that could combine their skills and work together effectively that would succeed in creating engaging applications.

Webfest partakers with John Ellis (central with red t-shirt).

Webfest participants with John Ellis (front row with red t-shirt).

Many of the students worked almost solidly through the weekend, only taking breaks to top up their mugs of coffee or to attend some of the workshops which were interspersed throughout the event. The workshops provided introductions to various online tools including the citizen science site crowdcrafting.org.

Sunday afternoon arrived as all twelve teams rushed to prepare slides for their presentations at the judging session.  On the judging panel was John Ellis, an eminent CERN-based particle physicist – so nerves were jangling.

After the unveiling of twelve innovative entries, the creators of ‘Mother-hunting’, a game in which a fundamental particle explores CERN to try to trace its family history, were crowned winners. Along the way the particle meets famous physicists – including John Ellis – who give it clues to its origin and the ‘mother-particles’ from which it decayed.

Another successful entry was the Antimatter crowdcrafting.org application which invites members of the public to analyse real experimental data to help CERN scientists work out how antimatter interacts with gravity.  (See here for further details on this application or here to measure antimatter.)

The Webfest is a testament to what can be achieved with enthusiasm, creativity, teamwork and caffeine. The teams produced twelve sophisticated scientific applications which have undoubtedly enriched the online scientific environment.

The Crowdcrafting.org antimatter application team.

The Crowdcrafting.org antimatter application team.



This post focuses on the social aspects of life on the CERN Student Summer Programme. Gathering hundreds of 20-somethings from around the globe and plonking them in Switzerland is inevitably going to lead to some shenanigans – right?

CERN has approximately 10,000 people on site each day and a plethora of clubs and societies to cater for their wide ranging interests – from amateur radio to Zumba.  The students are also proactive in setting up their own clubs and sharing their special interests. We’ve had student-led salsa, acroyoga, Balfolk dancing, French and Spanish lessons running throughout the programme.  I’ve even taught a bit of Capoeira.

At the epicentre of a CERN summer student’s social life are the parties in the Pump Room – a large multi-function room on the Meyrin site. The loud techno music, strobe-lighting, cheap booze and lads dancing topless on a table to YMCA makes the parties feel like the illegitimate lovechild of a German rave and American frat party.  The students love’em though.

Village people wannabes

Physicists in their spare time.

If you’re into live music then there’s lots to keep you entertained. The Montreax Jazz Festival runs through most of July and attracts some big acts. There are also loads of smaller festivals close by which students come back from looking bleary-eyed on a Monday morning. The Fete du Geneve turns Geneva into party central and concludes with a firework display of epic proportions while the Lake Parade in July is Geneva’s answer to the Rio carnival – although my mate Bruno from Rio wasn’t so impressed.

If the great outdoors is more your thing then Geneva is well situated. The Jura mountain range (from which we get the word ‘Jurassic’) are within cycling distance. I’ve had a few great days hiking in the Jura. If you’re feeling slightly more adventurous then you can hop on a bus to the French Alps to tackle some high peaks including Mont Blanc. There’s also white water rafting, bungee jumping and downhill mountain biking nearby for the adrenalin junkies.


Jura a bunch of eejits – summies frollicking in the hills.

Lots of the students, particularly the non-Europeans, take advantage of Geneva’s central location to see some of Europe with Paris, Nice and Zurich being popular destinations. Closer to home the Swiss towns of Lausanne and Gruyere are popular destinations for a dose of Swiss culture and fondue.

One of my favourite activities has undoubtedly been chilling out at Lake Geneva. You can have a swim, drink a beer and (beautiful) people watch. Then stay put at Perle du Lac to catch a free outdoor film – I saw ‘Shaun of the Dead’ which was accompanied by an obligatory zombie invasion.



However, the undeniable best entertainment to be found in Geneva is in Charly O’Neils Irish Bar on a Thursday night where my mate Cian’s traditional Irish band -The Emigrants – busts out the jigs and reels. Slainte!

The mighty Emigrants.

The mighty Emigrants.


Snowmass Came and Passed. What have we learned from it?


Skyline of Minneapolis, home of the University of Minnesota and host city of the Community Summer Study 2013: Snowmass on the Mississippi.

Hi All,

Science is big. It is the systematic study of nature, so it has to be big. In another way, science is about asking questions, questions that expands our knowledge of nature just a bit more. Innocuous questions like, “Why do apples fall to the ground?”, “How do magnets work?”, or “How does an electron get its mass?” have lead to understanding much more about the universe than expected. Our jobs as scientists come down to three duties: inventing questions, proposing answers (called hypotheses), and testing these proposals.

As particle physicists, we ask “What is the universe made of?” and “What holds the universe together?”  Finding out that planets and stars only make up 5% of the universe really makes one pause and wonder, well, what about everything else?

From neutrino masses, to the Higgs boson, to the cosmic microwave background, we have learned  much about the origin of mass in the Universe as well as the origin of the Universe itself in the past 10 years. Building on recent discoveries, particle physicists from around the world have been working together for over a year to push our questions further. Progress in science is incremental, and after 10 days at the Community Summer Study 2013: Snowmass on the Mississippi Conference, hosted by the University of Minnesota, we have a collection of questions that will drive and define particle physic for the next 20 years. Each question is an incremental step, but each answer will allow us to expand our knowledge of nature.

I had a chance to speak with SLAC‘s Michael Peskin, a convener for the Snowmass Energy Frontier study group and author of the definitive textbook on Quantum Field Theory, on how he sees the high energy physics community proceeding after Snowmass. “The community did a lot of listening at Snowmass. High energy physics is pursuing a very broad array of questions.  I think that we now appreciate better how important all of these questions are, and that there are real strategies for answering them.”  An important theme of Snowmass, Peskin said, was “the need for long-term, global planning”.  He pointed to the continuing success of the Large Hadron Collider, which is the result of the efforts of thousands of scientists around the world.  This success would not have happened without such a large-scale, global  effort.  “This is how high energy physics will have to be, in all of its subfields, to answer our big questions.”

Summary presentations of all the work done for Snowmass are linked below in pdf form and are divided into two categories: how to approach questions (Frontiers) and what will enable us to answer these questions. These two categories represent the mission of the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. A summary of the summaries is at the bottom.

What is the absolute neutrino mass scale? What is the neutrino mass ordering? Is CP violated in the neutrino sector? What new knowledge will neutrinos from astrophysical sources bring?

What is dark matter? What is dark energy? Why more matter than anti-matter? What is the physics of the Universe at the highest energies?

Where are the new particles that modify the Higgs, t, W couplings? What particles comprise the dark matter? Why is the Higgs boson so light?

The growth in data drives need for continued R&D investment in data management, data access methods, networking. Challenging resource needs require efficient and flexible use of all resources HEP needs both Distributed High-Throughput computing (experiment program) and High-Performance computing (mostly theory/simulation/modeling)

Encourage and enable physicists to be involved in and support local, national and world-wide efforts that offer long–term professional development and training opportunities for educators (including pre-service educators), using best practice and approaches supported by physics education research. and Create learning opportunities for students of all ages, including classroom, out-of-school and online activities that allow students to explore particle physics

Our vision is for the US to have an instrumentation program for particle physics that enables the US to maintain a scientific leadership position in a broad, global, experimental program; and develops new detection capabilities that provides for cutting edge contributions to a world program

Is dark energy a cosmological constant? Is it a vacuum energy? From where do ultra high energy cosmic rays originate? From where do ultra high energy neutrinos originate?

How would one build a 100 TeV scale hadron collider? How would one build a lepton collider at >1 TeV? Can multi-MW targets survive? If so, for how long?

To provide a conduit for untenured (young) particle physicists to participate in the Community Summer Study. To facilitate and encourage young people to get involved.
Become a long term asset to the field and a place where young peoples voices can be heard

Several great posts from QD (Family, Young, Frontierland), Symmetry Magazine (Push, Q&A, IceSlam, Decade), and even real-time updates from QD’s Ken Bloom (@kenbloomunl) and myself (@bravelittlemuon) via #Snowmass are available. All presentations can be found at the Snowmass Indico page.

Until next time, happy colliding.

– Richard (@bravelittlemuon)

Community Summer Study: Snowmass 2013 Poster

Community Summer Study: Snowmass 2013 Poster