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Rene Bellwied | USLHC | USA

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The public and physics – why can’t we get along ?

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Last night I was catching up on some of my favorite TV shows via the web and I came across this ‘Bones’ episode called ‘The Science in the Physicist’ which caught my eye. It aired two weeks ago so it’s quite recent, and based on the title this was supposed to be fun. And, oh yeah, it was !!

The dead woman had worked in an elusive secretive high level physics lab on the discovery of the God particle, i.e. the Higgs, using the Large Hadron Collider. Hmm. In addition she was the editor of one of the major journal publications in science. The lab was headed by a blind, good-looking dude working on super-conductivity, and the other main characters worked on garnering energy from earth quakes and cutting edge radioactive dating techniques. So this apparently was your run-of-the-mill typical physics lab. Hmm. All the people were young and extremely good looking and swapped sexual favors at leisure. Exactly how I would describe the LHC or Brookhaven ;-). The whole thing wouldn’t probably be worth mentioning if it weren’t for the extremely inventive ways how physicists kill each other. So she was working on destroying the earth via black hole generation, but that didn’t kill her. What did was that she refused to speed up the publication of an article in her journal. So the young and ambitious scientist decided to kill her by implanting highly radio-active material in her office chair. Hmm. That got things started, she developed a tumor at the right place in her body, but she didn’t die fast enough, and the publication date of the competition was looming. So he decided to kill her by ramming a pen in her throat (not very inventive), but in order to dispose of her body he freeze-dried her in liquid nitrogen and then blew her to bits and pieces by exposing the body in a high pressure vibration chamber (very inventive). The several thousand pieces of her body could then be neatly recycled in two standard garbage bags and only her engagement ring, made out of a piece of a meteorite that her physicist fiancee had discovered, gave away her identity. Hmm.

Oh my, that was quite a whirlwind tour through science, from the heavy metal geek students to the conspiracy loving black hole fanatic over LHC, Higgs, superconductivity, seismic oscillations, vibrations and radioactive dating. And all that in 60 minutes. Was it entertaining ? You bet ya ! But it also left that old feeling of consternation that for the general public there is actually no difference between a physics laboratory and a UFO convention. All these clichees were rolled up into this common approach of: we don’t understand what you’re doing, it might be cool, but we don’t care, and in the end you’re a bunch of freaks anyway. I always liked ‘Bones’ because it shows the nice dynamic interplay between science and a more hands-on societal approach, which is displayed in the interactions of the two main protagonists, she a scientist, he an FBI agent.  But this time they drove the ‘otherness’ of science to the breaking point and in my view made a little bit too much of a mockery out of serious science. 

I had a similar experience last week, right after the Quark Matter conference in Knoxville. Apparently the local TV station had sent over a camera team to catch the purpose and vibe of the meeting. Here is the clip, decide for yourself.

There is certainly an element of self-deprecating humor in our field. You won’t understand what we do, so we don’t even try and rather make fun of ourselves. On the other hand the reporter didn’t even try, and although ending the piece with a free-form rap from the wait stuff is funny and entertaining, they should have probably tried out our LHC rap instead.

In addition the LHC apparently  also made it into ‘South Park’ this week, when one of the parents stole a piece of the LHC to build a propulsion engine for a school race with toy cars. By accident he discovered a warp drive and was scolded by a bunch of aliens for it. Well, that’s funny, although I haven’t seen it yet.

With all this exposure some good might come out of our pop culture popularity, but we have to be careful and aware. And quite frankly I am not sure whether I should look forward to ‘Angels & Demons’ or not. We’ll see. Until then, nanu nanu.


When did fundamental QCD go out of fashion ?

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

There is a lot of buzz about the world’s largest ‘atom smasher’, the LHC, and rightfully so. And if you peel away the glamour of the machine itself, there is some of the most exciting science still to discover. We have predictions paving the way to new frontiers, such as the Higgs, supersymmetry, Dark Energy, extra dimensions, and the list goes on and on.

But after some weeks of reading article after article I can’t stop wondering: what ever happened to good old fashioned Quantum Chromo Dynamics ? Have we unraveled the mysteries of asymptotic freedom, of deconfinement and chiral symmetry restoration, and I just missed it ? Have we experimentally verified a nobel prize winning theory that still left much to be understood ? Have we indeed cracked the fundamental question of matter formation in the universe ? I would venture to say ‘no’ to most of these questions.

And you might say, wait a minute, doesn’t electro-weak symmetry breaking and the potential discovery of the Higgs solve all our remaining questions about matter and mass. Well, does it ? I am talking about the good old proton or neutron here. The building blocks of nature. How do these hadrons come about, how does hadronization occur, this extreme jump in mass, this unique principle of confinement ? Somehow high energy physics has largely turned away from this fundamental process in QCD. Too complicated, not calculable, not first principle, not fundamental (?) etc. etc. And there are at least some factorizable theories, such as fragmentation, or some neat lattice QCD calculations, to answer most of it. Yup, tell that to your first year graduate student. Well, there once was a quark, very energetic and then suddenly it decided to break up into many hadrons just like that. Pleeease. This is where the phrase ‘…and then a miracle occurred..’ enters into our fundamental understanding of nature.

And people will argue with me that much more is understood and on good footing, and they are probably right, but a.) we have stopped investing a lot into the experimental verification of the phenomenon of hadronization and b.) as long as constituent quarks, instantons, sphalerons and even more exotic states are allowed as explanations for the most basic process in the evolution in our universe I don’t feel that the book is closed and that we have achieved a really deep understanding.

Admittedly there are QCD physics groups in all the three major experiments at the LHC, but the buzz seems to focus more on exotica and smartly labeled ‘new physics’ rather than on the questions that should interest all of us the most. 

And let’s not forget that there were some recent experimental breakthroughs on QCD physics. Mostly from RHIC, which now has unambiguously proven that a deconfined state of matter exists at a sufficiently high temperature. It behaves weird though, more like a perfect liquid with strongly coupled degrees of freedom, rather than a weakly coupled plasma.  But it is deconfined, so it unravels one of the QCD pillars experimentally. Its preferred re-confinement method seems to be recombination of quarks, though, rather than fragmentation, which is in blatant disagreement with one of the oldest accepted models in elementary particle physics. So maybe the hadronization in medium is different than the hadronization in vacuum ? And if so, which one is relevant for the generation of matter in the evolution of the universe ? Was the universe a vacuum or a deconfined medium at the time of hadronization ?

And in addition there is still very little evidence for the other pillar of QCD, chiral symmetry restoration, which tries to convince us that a massive universe will turn into a state than can be described by a massless symmetry theory (QCD) above a certain temperature. Pretty dramatic, hmmm ? And still not experimentally verified.

So let’s turn part of our attention back to the basics. It’s true that verification of the chiral transition will likely require heavy ions and is thus the strong suit of ALICE, but also the more limited heavy ion programs in CMS and ATLAS as well as the proton-proton programs in all three experiments can make fundamental measurements to the question of generation of QCD mass, not Higgs mass, in nature. And to me that is more interesting than all the exotica that might or might not prove Gene Rodenberry and Isaac Asimov right. Just call me old fashioned.


Finally – a stimulus for science ?

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

The two chambers of the American Congress, the House and the Senate, are working their way through separate stimulus bills that total $819 Billion in each case. But the devil is in the details and if you look for funds to stimulate science, which would make a lot of sense in these days, because of the obvious link between science education, research and development on one side and the economy on the other side, the two bills are quite different. Effectively each package vows to support three science oriented funding agencies, the DOE Office of Science, NSF and NIST. Here I will only comment on the DOE and NSF proposals, because these are the agencies that predominantly support high energy and nuclear science.

In the house version, which passed yesterday amidst a very partisan vote, the DOE Office of Science can expect a $1.9 Billion increase, and NSF will receive a $3 Billion increase compared to last year’s continuing resolution. Now that budget was already considerably below the projected science funding agreed upon in the America Competes Act in 2007. So it might make more sense to compare the numbers to the projections of the America Competes Act. In this case the increase for the DOE would be around $700 Million and the increase for NSF $1.7 Billion, still sizable numbers that pass as real stimulus.

On the Senate side though, these allocations were seriously curtailed. The Senate proposes an additional $430 Million for the DOE and an additional $1.4 Billion for NSF compared to the continuing resolution. This is in effect an additional $141 Million for NSF compared to the America Competes level, but a de-facto reduction of $752 Million for the DOE compared to the America Competes Act. 

I think in general all my colleagues are very excited about the prospects of a stimulus package for science. But we also view our work in research and education as a central part of getting the economy back on track, and it is worrisome to see that these allocations, which should be at the heart of every stimulus or recovery package, are considered low priority and negotiable. The House numbers were reasonable and based on detailed input by large organizations such as the American Physical Society, the Association of American Universities and the Task Force for the Future of American Innovation. The relative cuts in the Senate bill seem less well motivated and one needs to see whether the House numbers could potentially be restored in conference. The DOE funding is of particular relevance to high energy and nuclear physics. The proposed $430 Million in the Senate bill are largely assigned to infra-structure projects and thus will not lead to additional grant money for research and educational groups or Frontier Research Centers as planned in the House Bill.

The American Physical Society initiated yet another letter writing campaign in order to convince your senators and house representatives that additional funding for science is well targeted and effective in getting the economy going. You can find pre-written letters at:



Let’s just hope that in all the partisan wrangling about who is serving the people best, one essential piece of actual sensible stimulus does not fall prey to ignorance. Money for science education and research is not ‘pork’, it never has been and it never will be.



Will the financial crisis cause a science crisis ?

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

The 700 Billion Dollar government bailout of struggling financial institutions in the U.S. will likely soon cast its shadow over government funded science projects. Steve mentioned in his blog last week that things are happening already ‘under the radar’ in Washington that might affect us greatly. As a first step the House overwhelmingly voted in favor of a continuing resolution rather than a real budget until March 09, when the new administration will be in place. The continuing resolution for science funding was frozen to the level of the 2008 budget without any provisions to include the supplemental funding that was late in the year appropriated in order to keep large projects such a Fermilab afloat. So it is expected that, by the beginning of 2009, some of the major U.S. National Laboratories will be in dire financial trouble again . The impact on beam times, experiment operation and new projects etc. can not even be estimated yet. 

There is very little chance that the America Competes act, which asked for doubling the NSF and DoE budgets over the next ten years, can be enacted in these times when presidential candidates are already indicating that their most pressing programs, such as health care, might take a backseat to finding 700 Billion Dollars in the budget that is already weakened by extensive war expenditures.

We need to mobilize the community. We need to make sure that Washington understands that a slowing down of scientific enterprises and government funded research and development will directly lead to a slowing down of the economy and in the long run to a halt of scientific ingenuity, which was the driving force behind much of the market boom in the 90’s, and for that matter throughout the past century. This is not the time to save on science. This is the time to make science innovation one of the pillars of the evolving re-structuring of the market economy.

If you want to help and you are a scientist in the U.S., please join a user group and stay in touch with their outreach efforts. There is, for example, the US-LHC users group (https://www.usluo.org) or the users group at RHIC (http://www.rhicuec.org). All major user groups are part of the National User Facility Organization (http://www.nufo.org), an outreach organization which has, in part, been formed to facilitate more communication between users at national science facilities and lawmakers in Washington. You can also volunteer to become part of a NUFO list that organizes meetings between congressional leaders and scientists in your specific congressional district. Just send information to [email protected]. If you are a concerned citizen please make yourself heard by communicating with your local representative in the House and the Senate. 

There might be difficult times ahead for federal funding of basic research. We need to get involved in the process and convince our politicians of something that many major business leaders know for a long time: There is no economic future without scientific innovation.  And this innovation often comes form the most fundamental research projects worldwide. The LHC will be a perfect example.


The Black Hole Come-On Line

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

Ok, we’re down until spring. This is for the standard winter shutdown plus fixing and understanding the helium leak. For somebody who has worked at the AGS and RHIC for the last two decades, this series of events is really no surprise. As was said before, these problems occur during a startup phase and are really not indicative of the quality of the overall project or the probability of success in the future. Next year’s long runs are still something to look forward to. But in the meantime we can shift our attention to other, similarly important, things. And because serious issues such as financial bailouts and presidential campaigns are on everybody’s mind, I thought about a more light-hearted topic for this week, which came to my mind during a gathering of physicists and non-physicists this weekend: Finding the right partner for life….

As we all know, it’s hard being a physicist. Let’s not kid ourselves, people often run away at parties when we start talking, they look puzzled, they don’t know how to respond, and quite frankly they don’t really care. That brings up the question: Can the Geek Squad ever score ?

Even if you unlock the mysteries of the creation of the universe, mostly the religious fanatics stay with you in order to prove you wrong, because God made the proton and not Mr. Higgs. So what’s a good physicist in search for a mate to do ? Well, lately I recognize a certain brashness in my younger colleagues by turning a bad thing into a good thing, a new approach which can be described as The Black Hole Come-on Line.

Here is how it works. In the middle of a rather benign conversation about the sub-prime mortgage crisis you start off by saying that you’re working on a project at the biggest atom smasher (or particle creator, although ‘smasher’ is always a winner) in the world (moderate interest ensues),  then you drop the possibility of creating a black hole (eyes widen, but still only slight interest), but then after a well timed pause you mention that it could potentially destroy the earth (unbridled attention and even slight admiration is a given at this point). You need to follow up with the obligatory disclaimer to put the person at ease: well, if we make a black hole that only one of the good kind, too small to break something but big enough for mankind to learn a lot. And there you have them hooked. You go off with them into Black Hole Wonderland, and if you don’t only know ‘Battlestar Galactica’ but also a little ‘Sex and The City’ you might even carry the conversation beyond the courtesy five minute mark.

Well, good luck Young Skywalker and God’s Speed !!


Yes We Can !!

Friday, September 19th, 2008

I happened to log in to Yahoo News last night around midnight and, to my surprise, the top story, again, was the LHC. This time due to the late reported transformer failure at CERN. But first the positive: this was the third time this week that we were the lead story on Yahoo. First the actual turn-on, then the hacker attack and now the transformer failure. You could turn that into the negative by saying that when we didn’t destroy the Earth we were at least fodder for the internet because of hacker attacks and equipment failure, but to all those naysayers I say: the word ‘atom smasher’ is by now engrained in everybody’s brain and that is a mighty good thing. First year undergraduate students come up to me after class and tell me that they have heard that I am working on this enormous physics enterprise, the world’s largest accelerator, and that we might unravel some major science mysteries. That is a great start, because we can capture them even further by telling them the details of our exciting field, and because we are professionals who know how to deal with the negative publicity. Equipment failures are common in the startup phase of such highly sophisticated machines and hacker attacks are our speciality. So we will find you, buddy ! And besides, our hack attack paled in terms of news coverage in comparison to the people who got access to Sarah Palin’s e-mail account. 

In a time of wall-to-wall political coverage, a major financical crisis, a war and two political campaigns spending several hundred Million Dollars each to capture your vote, it is reaffirming to see what human beings are are capable of when it comes to creative applications of their strength. So let’s celebrate the purpose and resolve and ingenuity of this project in this time of wastefulness. Yes we can. 



Spontaneous Combustion

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

The Big Day is nearing and the reports are piling up. I think it makes sense that many of the blogs as well as ‘news reports’ still link the event to the famous doomsday scenarios, because if not, would anybody listen or read ?
We are too engulfed in sensationalism, and the idea that we could destroy our own planet for the sake of scientific curiosity also carries a certain, very popular, stigma about scientists (just read Angels and Demons from Dan Brown).

Well, we didn’t destroy the earth with RHIC and we’re not going to with the LHC. The problem is that we have learned in the last century that nature can never say ‘never’, and that we will always have to work with probabilities. Now probabilities can be infinitely small, but how can you get that across ? Even my mom would say: ‘So you’re actually telling me it could happen ?’. Well, mom, no.

My friend and theory colleague, Sean Gavin, came in yesterday and said that some of his friends had calculated that it is actually more likely to spontaneously combust rather than being killed by a life-threatening black hole from the LHC. We are from Motown where we know a lot about combustion, so here is a comparison that I like, because, although the idea of spontaneous combustion of humans was prominently featured in the movie ‘Spinal Tap’, you might remember that it really only affects drummers of heavy metal rock bands !! So no ‘sudden bang’ for most of us.

But seriously, it is important to keep modern science in check and have independent groups look at ongoing research. Renowned scientists have done that in the case of RHIC and LHC and have published their results and findings, all of them coming to the same, less sensational, conclusion that there is no threat. It is then rather useless and even reckless, though, to generate fear and panic in people based on a scientific advance that likely will unravel mysteries about the universe that date back all the way to its creation. This is a day for excitement and celebration, because humanity has had the ingenuity and developed the technology to bring us closer to a very fundamental understanding of the universe we live in.

And quite frankly the most engaging and entertaining piece of news I have seen and heard in time for tomorrow’s start-up was the LHC rap on YouTube, which has now been viewed in excess of 1.3 Million Times ! Right on Kate !!


Will work for travel money !!

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Hi everybody,
I was out of commission for a few weeks, mostly on vacation, mostly in Germany. And when I came back to the U.S. the price of gas had risen another 50 cents and is now hovering around $4.25 a gallon. Most of my European friends are not very sympathetic because if you use 1.5 as an exchange rate for Euro to Dollars the price per gallon in Germany is now around $9, so almost exactly double the U.S. cost. Still, that’s not the point, because small distances in the U.S. are huge distances in Europe (I can get as fast from Frankfurt to Geneva as I can from Detroit to Chicago, which is probably the shortest distance between two major cities in the U.S.). So at some point one might ask, what will be the impact on doing research abroad ? Well, travel cost will go up drastically. You’re already paying extra for drinks and luggage on some overseas flights, but the major cost hikes will come from gas prices. The transportation problem in the U.S. is becoming so bad that people already are contemplating the effect on the higher education system. The New York Times featured an article on July 11th that shows that students more and more sign up for online classes, and many of them state the cost of driving to and from school as one of the major motivators. On-Campus education could, at some point, become prohibitively expensive, not because of college tuition but because of additional transportation cost. So the question might arise whether in a time of world-wide science globalization, on-site science might become prohibitively expensive and everything besides maintenance needs to be, and will be, done remotely via GRIDs, EVO, etc..
Still, the on-site shift load that I reported on last month seemed daunting and that is just the minimum commitment to keep the experiments afloat. So both the U.S. groups as well as the U.S. funding agencies need to seriously consider the effect an economy in crisis, and therefore a potentially staggering increase in transportation cost to and from the experiments, might have on our future plans.


What it takes to conduct BIG science

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Time’s up and this time it’s serious ! All big experiments at the LHC are gearing up for collisions within the next month, and for ALICE the numbers are staggering. Assuming we are running about six months of proton-proton collisions and one month of heavy ion collisions per year (i.e. 30 weeks of continuous operation) , the commitment it takes from each and every member of the collaboration is substantial.

The ALICE experiment consists of 18 detectors and 6 so-called general systems (experiment control, detector control, central trigger processor, high level trigger, data acquisition and offline monitoring). In the start-up phase, which is scheduled to last at least the remainder of 2008 and maybe most of the 2009 run, the experiment requires not only a steady 24/7 shift crew but also a substantial number of on-call experts. At this moment the conservative estimates are that at any given time 24 persons need to be on shift and 41 persons need to be on-call experts. In 2009 the on-site shift crew is supposed to reduce to 17 persons with the goal of reaching steady-state operation with a 10 person shift crew by 2010. The counting house is laid out accordingly, but at least for 2008 and most of 2009 it will get very crowded.

Now ALICE is a big collaboration with more than a 1000 Ph.D.’s at this moment, so these resource requirements should be easy to distribute across the whole collaboration, right ? Well, even with so many people the number of eight hour shifts for each individual Ph.D. are still daunting. My institute, Wayne State University, is one of the larger U.S. participants in ALICE, but even with four Ph.D.’s our responsibility comes up to only 0.882% of the total shifts. Still with a total shift allotment of 17,490 shifts in 2008 and 16,185 in 2009, each of our four Ph.D. needs to take around 40 shifts per year, and assuming we take one shift per day we will be at ALICE at least around 1.5 months per year.

Graduate students will carry a big load of these shifts in the coming years, but the early startup phase will likely have to be covered by the existing Ph.D.’s. This is a major commitment which requires substantial travel funds and time allotments for university folks like myself. It is definitely not cheap to do physics abroad. Besides the bad exchange course of the American dollar, the housing situation in and around Geneva is a major headache for many of us. A whole trek of people will steadily have to commute between the U.S. and Geneva from now on. The total commitment of the U.S. institutions to the ALICE shift total is presently around 5%, which is equivalent to about 850 shifts in 2008. But I would assume the shift load for the U.S. in ATLAS and CMS is considerably higher.

For many students this is a great opportunity to see the world and learn about different cultures besides just doing science within an international community. But all of it needs to be well planned. Apartments need to be rented, transportation needs to be provided etc. etc. So it takes a BIG effort to do BIG science, and if you do it from abroad it might even take a little more.


Is it art or science ?

Monday, May 12th, 2008

Over the past few decades heavy ion and high energy accelerators have inspired not only scientists but also artists to look at the amazing machinery and images we have generated from alternate points of view.

The immediate connection to the art world is obvious in science fiction novels that were inspired by experiments at large collider facilities. The trend was probably started by John Cramer, a physics professor and RHIC colleague of mine from the University of Washington, who also writes sci-fi novels in his free time. His 1997 novel, Einstein’s Bridge, plays at a completed (hence sci-fi) Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), where an experiment generates a ‘bridge’ to another universe inhabited by lots of bad guys.

RHIC was used prominently in Gregory Benford’s 1999 novel, Cosm, where a scientist creates a false vacuum, i.e. a fast evolving miniature universe, during RHIC’s heavy ion collisions.A final example is an early novel of the omnipresent Dan Brown, Angels and Demons, which starts at CERN with the death of a famous physicist and then goes off into Brown’s land of conspiracy and religious evil-doers. As expected, any doomsday scenario will also inadvertently be picked up by Hollywood, and ‘The Void’, an atrocious B-movie from 2001, is playing very poorly on the famous Black Hole scenario, albeit with a cast that includes one the kings of B-movies, Malcolm McDowell.

Now sci-fi novels or movies might be good examples, but they are all too obvious, because the same geeks (myself included) that actually conduct the experiments will also read these books or watch these movies with great pleasure.

But what about ‘real art’ ? Let me state two quite remarkable incidences, which exemplify the value of visualization and imaging conducted at relativistic heavy ion experiments. The STAR event display was probably the most cited science image of 2005. It popped up in every article about RHIC and its physics, made it onto the cover of text books (Tipler and Llewellyn: Modern Physics) and popular science books (Seife: From Alpha to Omega), and it signalled a fact that many scientists often tend to forget, namely that ‘a picture tells a thousand (literally) stories’. But how did it affect the art world ?The first example comes from an artist, named Steve Miller, who approached BNL in 2000 in order to integrate RHIC images in his art. His work culminated in a 2001 exhibition in New York, named Neolithic Quark. You can still see the exhibition on the web, and although art is as always in the eye of the beholder, I think it is fascinating to see how our work inspires artists to look at nature’s art.

The second example, probably slightly more mundane, but nevertheless deeply rooted in pop culture, and therefore probably more timely than any of the others, comes courtesy of the New York Garage Rock Band, The Strokes. The Strokes were the buzz of 2001, when everybody anticipated their debut album, Is This It, to hit stores in the summer of that year. The record came out in international distribution in July, and it featured a provocative album cover showing a naked female body and a shiny black glove. For most music aficionados this was outrageously funny because it pretty much spoofed the famous fictitious Spinal Tap Album, Smell the Glove. But as expected some big chains in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe threatened to boycott the sale of the album, and the record company in the U.S. feared censorship and so decided to ask the group for an alternate cover for the U.S. distribution. In a now famous interview, Julian Casablanca, the Strokes’ lead singer, said that the group was truly inspired by the new cover they chose, which is an event display from the Big European Bubble Chamber (BEBC), a device that was operational at CERN during the 70’s. And although the ‘Smell the Glove’ cover is still a collector’s item, the BEBC cover generated more discussion and hype on the internet and on blogs than most other album covers.

In that sense any press is good press, and although it is sometimes amusing to read explanations of the BEBC cover on the web, the moral of the story is that every penny spent on a good event display at the LHC, will be a good investment in the future and in the eternal preservation of our field for generations to come. As soon as science creates or inspires art we have achieved a level of immortality that transcends the fundamental scientific findings of our field.