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Peter Steinberg | USLHC | USA

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CERN Open Day

Sunday, April 6th, 2008


Fun, it’s CERN open day today – wish I could be there.  Open days at RHIC are a blast — especially when you can finally see experiments which you don’t work on — and the buzz at CERN is certainly getting louder and louder.  Anyone see anything new and great?   


Doomsday, in the Court

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

And speaking of black holes, right on cue, it’s 1999 all over again, from MSNBC’s Cosmic Log (via Slashdot…):

Some folks outside the scientific mainstream have asked darker questions as well: Could the collider create mini-black holes that last long enough and get big enough to turn into a matter-sucking maelstrom? Could exotic particles known as magnetic monopoles throw atomic nuclei out of whack? Could quarks recombine into “strangelets” that would turn the whole Earth into one big lump of exotic matter?

Former nuclear safety officer Walter Wagner has been raising such questions for years – first about an earlier-generation “big bang machine” known as the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider, and more recently about the LHC.

Last Friday, Wagner and another critic of the LHC’s safety measures, Luis Sancho, filed a lawsuit in Hawaii’s U.S. District Court. The suit calls on the U.S. Department of Energy, Fermilab, the National Science Foundation and CERN to ease up on their LHC preparations for several months while the collider’s safety was reassessed.

“We’re going to need a minimum of four months to review whatever they’re putting out,” Wagner told me on Monday. The suit seeks a temporary restraining order that would put the LHC on hold, pending the release and review of an updated CERN safety assessment. It also calls on the U.S. government to do a full environmental review addressing the LHC project, including the debate over the doomsday scenario.

It’s an obvious question to ask who is going to get to review the situation in the next four months. All, and literally all, of the people nominally qualified to evaluate this kind of thing still aren’t even slightly more afraid of this than they were in 1999, after studying billions and billions of collision events at RHIC. And Walter Wagner (“the founder of a botanical garden in Hawaii”, according to Robert Crease, commenting on a letter Wagner wrote to Scientific American in 1999 — the one which started the avalanche) has been through this before, to no effect. But it’s nice to learn a few new things in this piece:

  1. Someone thinks the “inner workings” of ATLAS is what I always thought was the outside. I should be nicer about this, but it’s a little funny. While a cheap shot, I admit, I consider this lapse fair game, since the phrase “inner workings” certainly was meant to have a sinister ring in this context.
  2. But speaking of (not being) funny, physicists’ attempts at being wry often misfire. Michio Kaku, whom Boyle seems to have used as a source, provides a reasonable, if blustery, dismissal of strangelets — “We see no evidence of this bizarre theory” — but then trips up: “Once in a while, we trot it out to scare the pants off people. But it’s not serious.” Unfortunately, this comes across as insulting to people who are seriously concerned about the effect of science on the environment, and does nothing to inspire their trust in us. If we keep making “jokes” like this to reporters, then we deserve to waste all of the energy that we do fending off folks like Wagner. So let’s stop intentionally scaring people, even in jest.
  3. I’ve always complained that these same folks haven’t updated the conceptual basis for their paranoia (b.t.w. there is literally no factual basis, not even a hint — we’d be shouting it to the rooftops if there was merely a hint of a hint, believe me). But CERN did make a good faith attempt to update things in 2002-3, two years into the RHIC era — and I’m embarassed to admit that I’ve never seen it (but that said, no-one has ever brought it to my attention, and it certainly doesn’t percolate up to Google’s notice — but “CERN doomsday” does yields up this gem.) Someone asked me recently to check out the “Safety Concerns” section of the Wikipedia article on the LHC, and…well, I was busy. Live and learn

Anyway, I’ll be following this closely on the physiblogosphere. Stay tuned.


Talkin’ Black Hole Blues

Monday, March 24th, 2008

Interesting week last, especially last Monday when I and a theory colleague were asked to chat with a documentary producer for the National Geographic Channel. The producer (who has previously worked on a series about exploring time) is working on a show about black holes, with more focus on what space-time looks like around (and even inside) a black hole. He had heard something about the connections between RHIC physics and black holes and wanted to see whether we had anything to offer. Given our spotty past in explaining these kind of things without freaking out people who would otherwise be interested, my colleague and I actually managed to put together an interesting story (none of which implying any danger to anyone not living in a higher dimensional space). Turns out that there are three almost-distinct pictures of “black holes” being used in connection with high energy nuclear collisions (and at the LHC, it’ll only get higher!):

  1. “Real” gravitational black holes – it’s been argued many times over that, for normal gravitational physics, energy densities at RHIC aren’t capable of producing enough matter in a small enough space to induce gravitational collapse, and subsequent decay via Hawking radiation. However, the presence of large extra dimensions has the effect of dramatically lowering the Planck scale and allowing this sort of phenomenon to occur, leading to spectacular isotropic decays of high mass black holes into the kitchen sink of particles from the standard model and beyond. I have relatively little experience bantering about this (i.e. one should check out Backreaction for more details on blackholology), but this is certainly the most “popular” conception of black holes at colliders these days.
  2. Hawking-Unruh radiation – my colleague in this interview, Dima Kharzeev, and collaborators have put forth an interesting analogy between “minimum bias” particle production, i.e. the many low energy particles produced in essentially every proton proton collision and, scaled up, every nucleus-nucleus collision. In this scenario, the process of the incoming projectiles “stopping” each other, and thus slowing down, by construction leads to acceleration (well, deceleration in this case). Einstein’s equivalence principle (remember that you can’t tell the difference between an elevator accelerating upwards at 9.8m/s^2 and the Earth pulling you down by gravity at 9.8m/s^2…) allows them to connect this slowing down to the Unruh effect in a gravitational field, which predicts the quantum tunneling of particles with an effective temperature of T=a/2Pi. When numbers are put in, out pops the famous freezeout (or Hagedorn) temperature we measure at RHIC (and in proton-proton collisions for years). So in effect, all strong interactions measured in the laboratory make a “black hole”, but not one resulting from gravitational collapse. As an onlooker, I find this connection curious, but not isolated — over the years I’ve noticed many authors make a variety of connections between gravitational physics and strong interactions, but they always feel mysterious, and thus it’s unclear where to go next.
  3. “Dual Black Holes” – this is something I and many others (both amateurs and pros) have found intrinsically exciting for a few years. The famous AdS/CFT conjecture suggests that strong interactions involving strongly-coupled quarks and gluons are really better (and more easily) described as a theory living on the boundary of a 10 dimensional gravity theory, with 5 extended and 5 compact dimensions. In this picture, again, every collision involves a black hole, which controls it’s microscopic properties (e.g. the viscosity), but one that lives in a larger dimensional space, and is thus again not the result of gravitational collapse in 4 dimensions. As people who have followed this thread (e.g. via my various blogs) over the years may be aware, this connection is allowing the development a striking number of techniques relevant to actual heavy ion phenomenology — and carries no risk to the 4-dimensional world (which someone should have told the BBC in early 2005…). Of course, we’re all hoping that the extra dimensions actually have some ontological status beyond being a mere mathematical trick, but time will tell.

Anyway, there we had it: three kinds of black hole physics, all of which are probably connected in some way, and all of which are potentially connected to RHIC or the LHC. (Recheck this post soon for more links…it’s bedtime – ok it’s wednesday, but done!)


ATLAS vs. Photoshop

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

My brother-in-law just sent me a link to this contest on Fark.com: “Photoshop this super-collider“. I’ve tried to highlight the least silly (thus most quasi-highbrow) although that’s a tough contest in itself.

OK so the ATLAS magnets aren’t exactly a collider, or even a working detector at the time the photo was taken (but you can see the calorimeters in the distance!). Nor is the LHC officially called a “super collider”. Quibbles aside, good signs that the LHC is lodging itself in our collective brain — imagine what will happen when there are actually results to talk about?


Atlas’ Globe

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

And for those curious what I actually want to do with ATLAS, here’s one hint (a somwhat detailed, but not exhaustive, summary). This is a link to the talk I gave in Jaipur, India a couple of weeks ago. It (briefly, almost cryptically) motivates the utility of “Global observables” in the study of heavy ion collisions, as well as the so-called “minimum-bias” proton-proton collisions we’ll soon be getting at the LHC, and ATLAS. While these observables — counting the number of particles, or measuring the amount of energy dumped into the collisions — sound “simple” on one hand (at least to measure), they are surprisingly resistant to ab initio calculations using the usual perturbative methods common in particle physics. Even weirder, they show surprising commonalities between different collision systems (nucleus-nucleus, proton-proton, even electron-positron), which can lead one (OK, me) in some interesting conceptual directions if you’re willing to follow your nose a bit. More on this later, if anyone’s interested (as if you need to ask!).

And just in case anyone didn’t notice the image, that’s the real ATLAS logo, Lee Lawrie’s status of ATLAS, which has been sitting in front of Rockefeller Center since the Great Depression. One comes up with these things working on talks late into the night sometimes.


Ends of the Earth

Friday, February 15th, 2008

Whew, it’s been a busy couple of weeks moving between what feel like two ends of the Earth: a week in Jaipur, India attending Quark Matter 2008, the “big” conference in Heavy Ion Physics (where I’m coming from), and a week at CERN (from where I write) at ATLAS week. Not that I didn’t consider blogging during these hectic days, but as I’ve mentioned before: Life + Blogging = const, and although it looks like we’re doing nothing but sitting around in meetings, talks, etc. all the day long, we’re also doing lots of important things in the quiet, like reading the Times and writing emails. OK, we’re also learning, plotting, strategizing, thinking — and listening. It’s really that pesky listening thing that gets in the way of constant, or even occasional, blogging.

Anyway so here we are, wrapping up two intense meetings (and getting ready for a couple of well-earned days in the Swiss Alps). Quark Matter was a nice time, even if I showed up 3 days late (only 2 of them by design, the third due to a fog bank in Delhi on Wednesday morning, and a little “mix-up” about my hotel reservation in Jaipur). Lots of interesting, if disparate, results and some excellent wandering around Jaipur and environs, and a fantastic banquet. For some record of this, have a look at my Flickr set. There are conference shots, Jaipur shots, and a lot of stuff taken by me hanging out the bus window.

ATLAS week was hectic as usual, with the usual 9-6 meeting schedule (plenaries, parallels, and impromptu). Things are really heating up here, something which I probably perceive more dramatically than my other colleagues on this blog since I have been at CERN so infrequently recently (something which should be changing, I hope!) The CERN cafeteria is simply buzzing these days, at all hours, with orders of magnitude more young physicsts than I ever saw in my old days here as a student. And it really seems like TV crews are crawling the place, although I only see them following people around as they eat lunch, which I hope isn’t the bulk of the footage. Anticipations — and tensions — are running high, mainly for the p+p program (the heart of the matter) and also for the heavy ion program, which is progressing more and more rapidly by the week.

Anyway, back to the listening thing. I should get to my Quark Matter rundown (especially the various LHC showdowns) soon.


No Mere Cog

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

This is a post that writes itself, since I already spent an inordinate amount of time writing it for publication. My friends at Symmetry Magazine (which is really one of the best — and best-looking — sources of information about nuclear and particle physics that you can explain to your grandmother — in fact, I just signed up my grandmother for a subscription!) asked me to write a short essay about this blog in the context of the run-up to the LHC turn-on (what does one call compounds like “run-up” and “turn-on” anyway?…) Have a look if you have a minute.

As an aside (to which I’m clearly no stranger), this isn’t my first contribution to Symmetry. This is, although that time I was more of a subject, or at least my Dad’s old “relativator” was (and don’t think I made that Wikipedia entry — I just found it. Gee.)


Kaffee Klatch (or Cafe Clash?) at BNL

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Pam’s recent post reminded me to post about a fantastic development at BNL: our own dedicated “Brookhaven Cafe”, expressly intended to import as much of the CERN model as we can muster on this side of the pond. While it may take years, generations even, to self-generate even a fraction of the atmosphere of drinking coffee and chatting at one of the CERN cafe’s (Cafeteria 1 remains my favorite, although I’ve done serious time in Bat. 40, not having an office at CERN…), it’s already changing the work landscape of lots of people I’ve spoken to (of course as I was sitting there with my laptop, latte at my side). It’s a widely known, but poorly documented, phenomenon that scientists get their best ideas when they stop working for a minute, sit down with a cup of coffee etc, bump into someone else doing the same thing, and chat — leading to new thoughts. Go figure. In this light, a cafe is most likely a good investment in a lab’s future.

What amazes a lot of us is that the whole thing sprang from the minds of actual lab users (at my last official meeting of the RHIC/AGS users group), developed into a serious presentation (which I strung together, and my colleague Carla presented to management), resulted in a labwide poll — and 1.5 years later, we have real espresso and a nice place to sit and drink it.

And it has a little fountain that gurgles in the background. Surprisingly relaxing — and unique to BNL, as far as I know. Hey, these Cafe’s can use some competition, right?– even if they are separated by thousands of miles. From Kaffee Klatsch to Cafe Clash, eh?



Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

No it’s not the golden age of rock and roll — in effect the pre-history to the continuing rock era — but the crazy pre-history of the LHC era. Here at BNL, the high energy folks are hosting the (for now) twice-yearly “US ATLAS Analysis Jamboree”, and there are ATLAS people all over the Physics department this week. While being a nuclear type keeps me a bit on the sidelines, I’m playing the fly-on-wall and listening excellent updates on many aspects of the physics analysis effort. There are also interesting talks on how experience at previous collider experiments (especially the Tevatron) will point to early physics topics at the LHC. Of course, some of us (ahem) are taking their cues from experience at RHIC and are thinking about first hour physics topics, rather than first year.  But that’s just us; the early physics in the first year LHC will be essential to serious searches for new physics, clearing the way to the Higgs and SUSY and extra dimensions by bread-and-butter measurements of top quarks, jets, photons, taus, etc.  More importantly, it’s a little-mentioned but widely-understood phenomenon that a precise measurement of something “basic” can often yield anomalies that point the field in new directions.

USATLAS Jamboree at BNLBut another important subtext here is the ramp up to hundreds of people getting their hands on the first data, and access to the software tools is the key. One of the real struggles is the tension between the incessant drive to develop new features and tools to keep up with new ideas, and the need to maintain some stability in the interfaces and functionality such that people can develop sophisticated codes over longer time scales. As usual with this kind of thing, the tension is inevitable, but meetings like this do make a huge difference, putting many of the interested parties in one place to sit in rooms with each other. Much better than EVO, if you ask me.


Tackling Easterbrook

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

I know I’m pretty late to the party on this, Chad Orzel having already tackled Gregg Easterbrook’s bizarre outburst just before the thanksgiving holiday. But there are connections here both to the LHC (my future), RHIC (my present), and US funding of both of these that justify some further discussion. Now, for those who don’t read ESPN’s website (hand raised!) people might wonder why RHIC and the LHC turned up there.I had seen Easterbrook’s writing over the years in the New Republic, New York Times, etc. so I was thrown (ha…) by his ESPN gig at first, until I checked out his Wikipedia entry.  I’m not sure he ever recovered from the Kill Bill incident (worth reading about).  So it seems he writes 4000 words about football every week for ESPN, but then gets another 10000 words to rant about whatever he feels like — strange. Anyway, the November 20 column (the one referenced above), buried a long rambling outburst about government funding of large science projects, the LHC and ILC pointed out in particular.

Scientists Discover That If You Slam Members of Congress Together Under Pressure, Money Is Released: High-energy particle accelerators cost taxpayers large sums but stand little chance of discovering anything of practical value. Promoted as quests for understanding of the universe, particle accelerators serve mostly as job programs for physicists, postdocs, and politically connected laboratories and contractors. Yes, abstract experiments of bygone days produced great discoveries, and yes, the quest for abstract knowledge is inherent to human nature. But most experiments from the bygone golden age of physics were done at private expense, not using tax subsidies. Albert Michelson and Edward Morley did not demand that Ohio taxpayers provide them with a decade of luxury while they refined their ideas.

and so on. If this guy had any idea how science worked, e.g. where the money comes from, or didn’t do this at the end of a football column, I might try and take him more seriously:

The National Science Foundation budget for the fiscal year that just ended contained about $135 million in tax dollars to operate the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a facility to which federal taxpayers forcibly have contributed about $1.1 billion total.

That’s the Department of Energy who funds these things, and this guy is nominally a reporter. Of facts. And I’m not sure why he indicts money for big science in particular, considering he’s not terribly interested in the outcome unless it would play well on ESPN. Maybe it’s his interest, nay, obsession, with a man-made Doomsday? About RHIC:

Privately funded atom-smashers would be perfectly fine — unless one inadvertently transforms the Earth into “an inert hyperdense sphere about 100 meters across,” as this book by British astronomer Martin Rees claims is possible.

And about LHC doing for European science what he thinks the ILC will do for the US:

The superconducting magnets of Europe’s 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider, near Lake Geneva, are scheduled to turn on in 2008, and we can hope that a sizable chunk of the France-Switzerland border does not dematerialize at that instant…Set aside whether $15 billion should forcibly be removed from taxpayers’ pockets in order to cause proton beams to move a bit faster. Are we really sure it is history’s greatest idea to be re-creating the conditions that existed when the universe exploded?

I don’t mind people questioning the purpose and outcome of the upcoming generation of megascience projects. I do mind the scaremongering which now seems to accompany every big machine (and always has, it seems — more on this later). For quite a while now, I’ve been suspecting that doomsday is less of a scientific concern for various observers, than an efficient way for nominally-concerned morally-driven people (Rees and Posner among them) to get wide public attention for their books, and for reporters like Easterbrook, farther down the food-chain, to fill a few gripping paragraphs in Wired Magazine. I mention Rees and Posner in particular since they are both highly credible public intellectuals, but ones who made these particular arguments based on what other people were thinking and saying — and ignoring any and all relevant scientific information which may have been gained in the meantime. Has either Rees or Posner considered updating their thinking after 7 years of perfectly safe RHIC operations? I’ve made this argument on TV — ok, Voice of America TV — but I’m sure now that I and others will have to make it again.Whether or not one agrees with the aims, or even the methods or cost, of scientific endeavors, mere appeals to common sense, and citing rapidly-outdating literature, just don’t cut it anymore. And even if you are sure that they should, I’m sure can find far, far more deadly and expensive things to worry about well before the LHC turns on.