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Seth Zenz | USLHC | USA

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On the Shoulders of…

Monday, April 14th, 2014

My first physics class wasn’t really a class at all. One of my 8th grade teachers noticed me carrying a copy of Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps, and invited me to join a free-form book discussion group on physics and math that he was holding with a few older students. His name was Art — and we called him by his first name because I was attending, for want of a concise term that’s more precise, a “hippie” school. It had written evaluations instead of grades and as few tests as possible; it spent class time on student governance; and teachers could spend time on things like, well, discussing books with a few students without worrying about whether it was in the curriculum or on the tests. Art, who sadly passed some years ago, was perhaps best known for organizing the student cafe and its end-of-year trip, but he gave me a really great opportunity. I don’t remember learning anything too specific about physics from the book, or from the discussion group, but I remember being inspired by how wonderful and crazy the universe is.

My second physics class was combined physics and math, with Dan and Lewis. The idea was to put both subjects in context, and we spent a lot of time on working through how to approach problems that we didn’t know an equation for. The price of this was less time to learn the full breadth subjects; I didn’t really learn any electromagnetism in high school, for example.

When I switched to a new high school in 11th grade, the pace changed. There were a lot more things to learn, and a lot more tests. I memorized elements and compounds and reactions for chemistry. I learned calculus and studied a bit more physics on the side. In college, where the physics classes were broad and in depth at the same time, I needed to learn things fast and solve tricky problems too. By now, of course, I’ve learned all the physics I need to know — which is largely knowing who to ask or which books to look in for the things I need but don’t remember.

There are a lot of ways to run schools and to run classes. I really value knowledge, and I think it’s crucial in certain parts of your education to really buckle down and learn the facts and details. I’ve also seen the tremendous worth of taking the time to think about how you solve problems and why they’re interesting to solve in the first place. I’m not a high school teacher, so I don’t think I can tell the professionals how to balance all of those goods, which do sometimes conflict. What I’m sure of, though, is that enthusiasm, attention, and hard work from teachers is a key to success no matter what is being taught. The success of every physicist you will ever see on Quantum Diaries is built on the shoulders of the many people who took the time to teach and inspire them when they were young.

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My Week as a Real Scientist

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

For a week at the end of January, I was a real scientist. Actually, I’m always a real scientist, but only for that week was I tweeting from the @realscientists Twitter account, which has a new scientist each week typing about his or her life and work. I tweeted a lot. I tweeted about the conference I was at. I tweeted about the philosophy of science and religion. I tweeted about how my wife, @CuratorPolly, wasn’t a big fan of me being called the “curator” of the account for the week. I tweeted about airplanes and very possibly bagels. But most of all I tweeted the answers to questions about particle physics and the LHC.

Real Scientists wrote posts for the start and end of my week, and all my tweets for the week are at this Storify page. My regular twitter account, by the way, is @sethzenz.

I was surprised by how many questions people had when I they were told that a real physicist at a relatively high-profile Twitter account was open for questions. A lot of the questions had answers that can already be found, often right here on Quantum Diaries! It got me thinking a bit about different ways to communicate to the public about physics. People really seem to value personal interaction, rather than just looking things up, and they interact a lot with an account that they know is tweeting in “real time.” (I almost never do a tweet per minute with my regular account, because I assume it will annoy people, but it’s what people expect stylistically from the @realscientists account.) So maybe we should do special tweet sessions from one of the CERN-related accounts, like @CMSexperiment, where we get four physicists around one computer for an hour and answer questions. (A lot of museums did a similar thing with #AskACurator day last September.) We’ve also discussed the possibility of doing a AMA on Reddit. And the Hangout with CERN series will be starting again soon!

But while you’re waiting for all that, let me tell you a secret: there are lots of physicists on Twitter. (Lists here and here and here, four-part Symmetry Magazine series here and here and here and here.) And I can’t speak for everyone, but an awful lot of us would answer questions if you had any. Anytime. No special events. Just because we like talking about our work. So leave us comments. Tweet at us. Your odds of getting an answer are pretty good.

In other news, Real Scientists is a finalist for the Shorty Award for social media’s best science. We’ll have to wait and see how they — we? — do in a head-to-head matchup with giants like NASA and Neil deGrasse Tyson. But I think it’s clear that people value hearing directly from researchers, and social media seems to give us more and more ways to communicate every year.

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Which is the Real CERN?

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Is this CERN...?

Is this CERN…?

Or is this CERN...?

Or is this CERN…?

A few weeks ago, at the very real peril of spending our weekend on something that was a little like work for both of us, I went with my wife to the Collider exhibit at the Science Museum in London.

Collider a detailed, immersive exhibit about the Large Hadron Collider and the people who work on it. It’s amazing to hear video interviews from real physicists and see real places at CERN reproduced. A lot of the information is on realistic-looking whiteboards, and there’s real stuff lying everywhere just like in real offices. (The real stuff is glued and stapled down; my wife, a museum curator interested in the implementation of the exhibit, checked that detail personally.) One thing that bothered me that might not bother you: the videotaped physicists are clearly actors, with stories told just a bit too dramatically. One thing that might bother you but didn’t bother me, because I can skip reading signage and just explain to my wife what I think it should say: not all of the amazing things you could see are explained very well.

But the fun part really is the feeling of actually being in the midst of where the science is done. For example, at right, you can see a picture of me in one of the CERN hallways recreated for the exhibit, and you can see a picture of me in front of the real version of the same office. But which is which?

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The Higgs, Particle Physics, and How Science Works

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Last week, I was in Arlington, Virginia to give a talk at a cybersecurity research workshop called LASER 2013.  Why did they want to hear a particle physicist speak?  Well, this particular workshop is focused on “properly conducted experimental (cyber) security research,” so they want to hear from people in other fields about how we run experiments, publish the results, and think about science in general.  So I gave a talk, slightly over an hour long, that used the Higgs boson to illustrate the giant experiments we do at the LHC, the social organization required to do them, and their results.  I said a lot of things here that you don’t normally say explicitly as part of a particle physics conference, and I also heard what sort of experiments one can do in cybersecurity research.  We had some very interesting discussions about how experimentation and data analysis really work, and I really appreciate the opportunity I had to participate in the workshop.

You can watch my whole talk here, and I would definitely appreciate your feedback:

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Women at CERN: A Professional Perspective

Monday, October 14th, 2013

Can you think of anything that all the men who won the Nobel Prizes in science this year have in common? I’ll give you a hint: the answer is already in the question. In fact, out of 195 people awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics since 1901, only two have been women: Marie Curie in 1901 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.

I have been thinking quite a bit about the status of women in science and what we say about it lately, ever since reading the most recent posts on the subject here on Quantum Diaries. Both were written by James Doherty: “Girls, at CERN – loads of ’em!” and “Five Lessons from a Summer at CERN” (formerly titled, in part, “Italians are Hot,” and still with a subsection by that name). I think it should become clear that I don’t approve of James’s tone in some places, although I understand that he was aiming to convey his experience as a summer student in “an open, honest and light-hearted way.” At the same time, Quantum Diaries is a place for voices from the physics community: writers here usually don’t speak for anyone, but we are supposed to be representative. So, if we are going to talk about the issues faced by women in physics, we also need voices from professional particle physicists, who have thought and learned a bit about where gender inequalities arise and their implications for our field. In that spirit, let me put forward my viewpoint, along with links to many other views I’ve found educational; I’m sorry to say that from my perspective there’s a bit less to be light-hearted about.

Particle physics is my job. I come to CERN every day and work with my colleagues to learn more about the universe. Some of my colleagues are women. Some are men. Some are Italian. Who they are, how they look, or what they’re wearing cannot be my foremost concerns. If I don’t look all of my colleagues in the eye and listen to what they’re saying, then I am doing poorly at my job. I’m likely to suffer for it later, because whoever I didn’t listen to probably said something I need to know. The starting point is to treat everyone professionally and with respect.

Easy enough to agree with so far; I think almost everyone would. The problem is that, well, we still have a problem. As Pauline Gagnon wrote here last year, more and more women are joining our field, but they are still greatly underrepresented. Unless you believe that women are inherently bad at physics – and there are pretty straightforward reasons to believe that that can’t possibly be causing the imbalance – then something is going wrong somewhere. A lot of excellent potential physicists are deciding against physics as a career at one stage or another, or perhaps never learning about it in the first place, or are even being pushed or nudged out by sexism. Anywhere we lose potential colleagues makes our work poorer.

Where is it going wrong, and what can we do about it? Well, my experience actually isn’t very informative. I have never seen an example of deliberate ill-will toward female participation in physics, and indeed I’ve only recognized a few situations that were even accidentally awkward. But bias can be unconscious and difficult to recognize. As a scientist, I know two things:

1. Just because I’ve never seen something, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
2. I can read what other people have written to learn about stuff.

So here are some articles and blogs I have found enlightening, in particular on the question of what actions we can take as scientists to help bring about more even participation by women:

The literature on women in science, technology, engineering, and math is enormous, and I’m very far from knowing all of it well. Do you have a favorite article or study, especially on what we as scientists can do better? Post the link and I’ll add it below.

Update, Oct 16: Some suggested links (thanks, Ben, Sarah, and Ken!):

Update, Oct 21 (thanks, Marga!): http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/10/a-ripple-of-voices-against-sexism.html

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A Higgs Nobel? And to Whom?

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

The smart money for this year’s Nobel Prize, it seems, is on Peter Higgs and François Englert to win for developing the theory of the boson that bears one of their names. Awarding the prize to the two of them would, of course, be a great oversimplification of assigning credit for that theory. Robert Brout, who worked with Englert, died in 2011 and so is ineligible for the prize. Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen, and Tom Kibble published independent work on the same problems at the same time. All six shared the 2010 Sakurai Prize “for elucidation of the properties of spontaneous symmetry breaking in four-dimensional relativistic gauge theory and of the mechanism for the consistent generation of vector boson masses,” but the Nobel rules are more restrictive.

If the Nobel Prize goes to only two of six theorists, it is certainly in the tradition of the prize, whose structure implicitly assumes that great scientific breakthroughs are made by great people through well-defined leaps of genius. More often, though, theoretical work is incremental. Ideas are exchanged, developed partially by one person before being expanded upon by the next. The positive way to look at it is that the prize would be symbolic, awarded to two people who represent a broader effort.

Of course, the main reason the Higgs boson is of interest right now is the experimental work done in finding it! Could there be a Nobel Prize for that? Well, I can’t see any way to award an individual for the efforts of thousands of people over decades. An untold number of “little” problems have been solved by those people in building a bigger and better accelerator, and bigger and better detectors, than have ever been built before. So what I would like to see is the Nobel Committee changing its traditions and awarding the physics prize to CERN along with the theorists.

A prize to CERN would again be symbolic. Not everyone who made important contributions to finding the Higgs works at CERN. Thousands of the contributors worked at United States labs and universities from the very beginning, for example. But as the center of the LHC effort, it does represent all that work. Not a sudden flash of genius, but lots of hardworking people tackling tough scientific and technical problems. In other words, the way great science is usually done.

Flip Tanedo, Katie Yurkewicz, and the Higgs boson

Katie Yurkewicz, Flip Tanedo, and the Higgs boson. (Originally for this contest in Symmetry.)

For a more humorous take on all this, please see this Scientific American article on the early awarding of the prize to the boson itself. My favorite bit is this: “A member of CERN’s PR division also wore a large, squishy Higgs costume, doing his best to mimic the behavior of the fleeting particle as he whizzed from one end of the room to another, hid and emerged from behind a curtain and breathlessly answered questions about gauge symmetry and vacuum fluctuations.” As you can see at right, this is frighteningly close to what some USLHC communicators have actually been involved in.

The real Nobel Prize in Physics will be announced next Tuesday, October 8. So stay tuned!

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You Learn Something New Every Day

Friday, September 13th, 2013
The new display in the CERN cafeteria

The new display in the CERN cafeteria

One of the remarkable things about working at CERN is that there’s always a lot going on, even in this “quiet” year when the LHC’s shut down – far too much for anyone to keep track of what everyone else is up to. This morning, I saw a new accelerator status page up on the big displays in the cafeteria. I didn’t recognize the beamlines in the picture – it’s definitely not the LHC or the accelerator chain leading up to it – so I tweeted about it, and rather quickly got a reply from a friend of mine in the accelerator division.

It turns out we’re looking at CTF3, a test facility for research toward the Compact Linear Collider (CLIC), a multi-TeV electron-positron machine that might be built in a few decades. I knew that technology for CLIC was being actively studied at CERN, but I never thought much about what sort of facilities were here or what they were called, until they showed up on the display at breakfast. This is a very good place to learn something new every day!

I have no idea why they put the CTF3 beamlines on the display today, but maybe it’s because something interesting will happen soon? You can watch and find out for yourself here.

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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.

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Wedding Cake

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013
My wedding cake

My wedding cake

The decorations on our wedding cake feature one of my wife’s hobbies and one of mine. Can you identify both?

Cake by Clare Brown.  Photograph by Malcolm Anderson.

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Hangout with CERN, anyone?

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

I’m helping organize the ongoing Hangout with CERN series of events, and this Thursday I get to host. To make the event a success, I need your help! Interested? Read on…

Hangout with CERN happens each week at 17:00 CET, 11 AM EST, or whatever you want to call that time. It’s an informal Google+ hangout in which physicists, engineers, IT experts, and other folks from CERN connect to tell you about what we do here. In our latest format, we devote two weeks to each topic. The first week introduces the topic and lets you hear experts describe their work, along with a quiz and a few questions from the public. (We monitor comments on Twitter and YouTube the whole time.) The second week – which is the part I work on – is even more informal: we try to have a few guest members of the public, get to more questions, and so on.

Here’s last week’s video, entitled “LHC and the Grid – The world is our calculator,” which discusses the worldwide computing system we use to analyze all the data from the LHC:

Next week’s event on Google+ is here. We’ll be discussing the same topic, and we want to hear your questions about it. Do you have a question? Might you want to participate live in the hangout and ask your question directly? Let me know in the comments!

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