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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

Read Bio

A fish out of water

Thursday, May 1st, 2014
Note:  The following is a contribution from Lindsay Kroes, a talented and insightful University of Waterloo undergraduate student who spent a four-month work term at TRIUMF in the communications office. Upon being asked what she would tell her peers about the lab when she returned to campus this summer, Lindsay took to pen and paper to describe her experience.

“Fish out of water” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt on my first day at TRIUMF.

The initial welcome meeting and the Health and Safety seminar were part of the usual on-boarding routine, but as soon as I set foot on the TRIUMF site, this co-op job began to feel a whole lot different than any of my past experiences.

Along with the flock of other new co-op students, I followed our guide along labyrinthine tour route, along catwalks which overlooked vast halls of humming equipment, up steep staircases flanked by tangles of tubes and cords, and through enormous halls dominated by cranes and concrete blocks. Everything I saw was foreign to me – and the explanations coming out of our guide’s mouth did little to dispel my confusion.

Of course I had googled “what is a cyclotron” before my interview. I had even signed up for an open-online Intro to Physics course (although in the bustle of the Christmas holidays, I only got through the first module). This was paltry preparation for what awaited me at TRIUMF, where physicists work at the very cutting edge of their field. See, in my studies, there’s more talk about soliloquies than supersymmetry… more focus on alliteration than acceleration. Bridging the gap between English literature and subatomic physics was going to take a lot more googling than I had initially accounted for.

The first few days I felt like I was drowning in a deluge of new and incomprehensible information.

“The LHC accelerates particles to 99.9999991% the speed of light!”

“TRIUMF’s cyclotron tank must support 2,600 tons of atmospheric pressure.”

“Beamline temperature is kept at negative 258 degrees Celsius; cryogenic pumps literally freeze the air out of the beamline.”

These were scales and concepts that I was completely unaccustomed to considering. It was difficult to wrap my head around the fact that within the convoluted maze of metal cylinders and cables of the DRAGON experiment, star explosions from the early universe were being re-created and studied. Or the fact that the blinking, droning computers that I glimpsed through the window of the ATLAS Tier-1 Data Centre held data that had travelled through a single wire all the way from Switzerland – data which may transform our understanding of the basic building blocks of the universe.

My first article assignment – a historical interest story about cyclotron development – found me poring through the pages of a scientific paper, decoding it line-by-line with the help of my co-workers and the “simple English” option of Wikipedia. In some sentences, it was difficult to discern which words were the verbs and which were the nouns. During interviews with scientists, I couldn’t even find the correct vocabulary to ask the question (let alone grasp the answer), and my article drafts were frequently returned rife with revisions, correcting the grossly inflated claims or blatant inaccuracies I had inadvertently reported.

When I explained to others – both within the lab and outside – where I was working, I was often met with raised eyebrows. “How did you end up there?” they asked, and I began to wonder myself. How could someone with no science background whatsoever find a place for themselves in one of Canada’s premier science laboratories?

I found the answer myself during one of my favourite writing assignments of the term, in which I accompanied a TRIUMF scientist to a Human Library event at a local high school, which connected grade nine students and science professionals for brief question-and-answer sessions. At one point during the discussion, he said, “Science is a human endeavor.”

This was a new idea to me. It had seemed that science was about calculations, machinery, technology, statistics – very far indeed from the “humanities” fields where I felt at home. However, the “human side” of science was apparent in the respect he expressed for colleagues and the obvious passion which fuelled his long career in academic research.

It was impressed upon me later in the term in the many tributes to Erich Vogt, an internationally-esteemed scientist and one of TRIUMF’s founding directors, who passed away during my term at TRIUMF. Erich was well-remembered for the incredible legacy he left to the physics community– but also for his prized tomato plants, his jovial sense of humour, and his strong ability to forge meaningful connections with people of any nationality and background.

The human side of science is also visible every day in the camaraderie that exists at TRIUMF – the feeling that “we’re all in this together,” especially at crunch time, when deadlines for high-priority projects are looming or important VIP visitors are knocking at the door.

It was demonstrated to me many times in the enthusiasm that scientists have for their work, as well as their patience and willingness to explain it – even to someone who couldn’t tell the difference between a neutrino and a quark if her life depended on it.

I realized that behind the baffling facts and figures, the state-of-the-art technology, and the data points flashing by on Powerpoint slides, there are people who are driven by the desire to give something of value to this world.

After four months of trying, I still may not understand precisely what they’re doing – but that doesn’t mean I can’t be inspired by it.

– Lindsay Kroes, TRIUMF Communications Assistant



Where have all the great ones gone?

Friday, March 14th, 2014

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

This past Saturday, I attended a “celebration of life” for Erich W. Vogt, one of the founders of TRIUMF and perhaps the last of the generation of “Renaissance-man” style leaders who helped shape the modern era of particle and nuclear physics.

“Celebration of life” is North American politeness for memorial service. Erich passed away on February 19, 2014, at the age of 84. He was with family and friends until the very end, and each day he would tell us a new historical anecdote, hilarious and penetrating as always, and then comment on his intentions to return to work at TRIUMF the next morning.

The service itself was spectacular with about 400 people packed into the former faculty club on the UBC campus. We were regaled with a litany of precise, powerful speeches that mirrored Erich’s personality in so many ways: witty, thoughtful, provocative, and unabashed. The collected wisdom and life experience in the room was stupefying, perhaps an even larger testament to the impact that Erich had on all of us—and the entire world.

I went with my wife and our three-month old daughter. I told people that I was hoping she’d be inspired by the legacy and soak up some of the aura of longevity and greatness.

But that got me to thinking. Erich was one of “those” scientists, the ones who were shrewd, sharp-witted, and educated in everything from particle physics and international politics to porcelain plateware and the development of the modern piano. In his spare time, he met Einstein, befriended prime ministers, raised money for and founded a laboratory in Israel, wrote an authoritative history of his family and its origins, and helped articulate and lead the vision for a national subatomic-physics laboratory in Canada that became TRIUMF.

We can look through the records and the recollections of those who knew Erich to trace out how he became who he was. But I often wonder where the next generation of Erichs is coming from. Are they here and I just don’t see them? Is our society still inspiring and retaining people like this? Is there still a valuable role for these types of “Renaissance” people? Moreover, are they needed, or is there even a place for them in our 21st century culture?

It does seem that the best and brightest of any generation tend to seek their personal, financial, and intellectual fortunes at the edgy frontiers. Some people argue that science has faded from the position of being The Most Exciting and Challenging Frontier and is now replaced by entrepreneurship, social expression, and so on. These people would argue that the next generation of “Renaissance” types are still there, but they are no longer flocking to science, or even more specifically, to physics. They are simply going elsewhere.

Others will argue that the modern system of measuring achievement works against the Renaissance individual. In the 20th century, the ambitious intellectual was able to develop mastery in multiple fields and to pursue vigourously multiple interests in an environment that placed fewer burdens on them. The culture allowed—and even encouraged—such a person to seek greatness. But in today’s landscape, to be successful, one needs to be increasingly specialized and spend more time writing grants, reviewing articles, and attending soft-skills training classes. It is said that we’ve moved into the era where “Jack of all trades, master of none” holds true, and that is how we dismiss the Renaissance person.

But are we in a society that no longer allows these broad-minded, passionate individuals to blossom and flourish? Has there been a recalibration of culture where these types are now as important as the focused specialist? Or perhaps the world is so complicated and fractured that a classical approach to mastery is simply ineffective?

In my view, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The 21st century is going to require a new type of individual to make pivotal contributions. The qualities of leadership and greatness do last more than one generation, but they evolve perhaps every three or four generations. Instead of wishing for the leaders of the last era, our task is to look at the world today: who is making an impact, what are they bringing to the table, and how can we make more of that happen?

And in our world of networks (virtual and social) and complexities, greatness can emerge more easily from the combined contributions of dozens or even hundreds of people. For instance, a select few physicists won the Nobel Prize for the experimental work that discovered the electron, the neutrino, and so on. For the Higgs boson, however, the Nobel Prize went to the two surviving theorists who posited its existence, in part because the discovery-in-reality was the product of a cast of 10,000 people. It would be silly to try and select just two or three people that made it happen. It took everyone! Now, and perhaps for the 21st century, that is greatness.

Looking across the frontiers of science, who are the leaders today? Are there common characteristics? How do they distinguish themselves?

Tell me what you see!


Human Beings Believe in Cause & Effect as a Survival Strategy

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

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

I was at a seminar recently, and they posed the following question: Suppose you are 2 metres away from a solid wooden fence with a small hole cut out in it. As you watch the hole, you see the head of a dog go by, and then you see the tail of a dog go by. You see this happen, say, three times in a row. What do you conclude?

The conclusions are less interesting, I think, than, the space of all possible conclusions. Intuitively, as human beings, we would think there is a RELATIONSHIP between the head and the tail of a dog. What are the possible types of relationships?

  • Causation. We might think that the head of a dog CAUSES the tail of a dog. This is perhaps the most powerful and most natural pattern of our human brain. We are always looking for cause and effect. But, depending on how much quantum mechanics you shoot into your veins, is causation really real or is it just a human construct? Consider how sure you are, as an individual, about all the causes and effects in your life and your surroundings. Are you sure about cause and effect?
  • Coincidence. It could be that the two events (sighting of dog head and sighting of dog tail) simply were because of random chance. If we watched longer, we might see something else. How often do we mistake coincidence with cause and effect?
  • Correlation. It could be that the head of a dog is correlated with the tail of a dog, in the sense that they “arise together” on a common but not causal basis. Correlation is a powerful concept in statistics, where it suggests that two events happen often together but not because one necessarily causes the other.
  • Parts of a Whole. This is the “true” answer for the dog sighting; a dog head and a dog tail are parts of a whole that we see through the fence. Thus, there is no real cause and no correlation and no coincidence; we are simply observing two instances of some common underlying connection – that a living dog’s body has both a head and a tail.

In physics, we rely on this set of approaches. We worry about whether we have established causality, correlation, coincidence, or parts of a whole. When we measure a frequently occurring set of “particle debris” after a collision of two particles, we wonder if the collision “caused” the debris or if the debris actually reflects “part of a whole.” We apply rigorous statistical cross-checks and tests to assure ourselves that we have “watched long enough” to be confident (in a quantitative fashion) about our interpretation.

It is in this same realm that we often run into the confusion of pseudo-science that tries to pin everything on cause and effect or something else entirely. Pseudo-science almost always boils down to someone claiming cause and effect, where what they might be really be observing is simply an unexamined or unexplained relationship between two events or two occurrences. Part of the job of science is to provide a systematic methodology to tease out what these relationships are. In fact, science is aimed at mastering these observed relationships so that we can make “predictions.”

But why do humans love cause and effect so much? It certainly seems “easy to understand.”

I propose a somewhat silly response, perhaps based on Dawkins or Gould or Pinker. Cause & effect is the most precautionary approach for human beings wandering in the wild trying to survive predators, hunger, and other hazards. For instance, if you see the paw prints of a roaming tiger, the best survival strategy is to assume that a tiger caused those prints and you should get going in the other direction. A scientist might want to stop and consider whether the prints were fresh, whether they fit the characteristics of the tiger you saw yesterday, and so forth. But a human brain focused on survival is optimized for making quick calculations using the cause & effect principle to save its own skin.

So, take a look around you and your world. In how many ways and in how many places do you see that we rely on cause & effect as an explanation because it is convenient?

Moreover, what other categories of relationship do you see? And what experiments would you conduct to help separate out these types of relationships?


Intersection of Art and Science (V2.0)

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

–by T.I. Meyer, TRIUMF’s Head of Strategic Planning & Communication

“So, did the 8 pieces of artwork actually generate any new insights for the physicists about neutrino oscillations,” asked the gentleman in the fifth row of the auditorium. I was on stage with my colleague Professor Ingrid Koenig from Emily Carr University of Art & Design. We were leading a 75 minute session at the Innovations: Intersection of Science & Art conference, curated by Liz Lerman and organized by Wesleyan University in central Connecticut.

The gentleman, chair of Wesleyan’s department of environmental science, repeated his question, “So you said this project was about seeing if you could have art influence physics rather than just the other way around. Well, did it work?”

Damn good question. I looked at Ingrid for a moment and then responded: “Nope.” But then I continued. No, we did not achieve success in using physics-inspired artwork to change the course of particle physics. But yes, in addition to learning that we posed the wrong hypothesis, we did achieve three other outcomes: (1) We constructed and executed one of the first research experiment at the intersection of art and science; (2) We documented a carefully controlled interaction of artists and particle physicists; and (3) We launched an inquiry that now has a national laboratory (TRIUMF) musing about how to exercise its influence in local and national culture for the advancement of society.

What was all this about? We were invited to lead a session at this conference because of the “RAW DATA” project for which TRIUMF and Emily Carr collaborated. For the full story on our “experimental research project,” please see this handsome website. One thing we discussed in the Q&A period (of course!) was the next step in the research. Perhaps rather than focusing on an experiment where the “work” of scientists was transferred to artists (whose “work” in turn was transferred to other artists and then back to scientists), we should construct an experiment where a “practice” or “process” of science (and art) was transferred. For instance, one thing scientists and artists both deal with is uncertainty and ambiguity. It was suggested that there might be something valuable uncovered if we had scientists and artists sharing their approaches to dealing with and communicating uncertainty.

The purpose of the conference was to pull together scientists, artists, and teachers from across North America to compare emerging trends and look for common opportunities for teaching at the intersection of art and science as well as for performing research at the intersection of art and science. In many regards, universities are starting to respond to the teaching opportunity but are less organized in exploiting the research opportunity. For instance, a key thread at the conference was the distinction between “art working for science” and “science working for art” when the real question might be, “What can science and art do together?” Lofty goals, of course, especially when sometimes the first step of bringing the fields together might actually be some “service” for the other side.

Better yet, I was not the only particle physicist there! Sarah M. Demers, an ATLAS physicist from Yale of some fame, participated as well, based on her experience co-teaching a “Physics of Dance” course with famed choreographer Emily Coates. The duo gave a fascinating presentation that started out with an inquiry “How do I move?” or rather “Why can I move?” Starting from the observation that atoms are mostly empty space and gravity ultimately attracts everything, they discussed why we can stand up at all (electrostatic repulsion between the electrons orbiting the atoms of the floor and those orbiting the atoms in my shoe on my foot in my sock). Then the question became, “How can I actually move my body at all if everything is repulsive and forces are balanced?” The answer came next, articulated by the dancer/choreographer who talked about how we use friction to generate a net force on our center of mass and can then use electrical impulses to stimulate chemical reactions in our muscles to push against ourselves and the floor. And then the talk moved to how to present and experience the Higgs field and the Higgs boson…in the form of a dance. WOW.

Throughout the 36 hours of this intensive, multi-dimensional conference (yes, we did “dance movement” exercises between sessions to help reflect and internalize the key points of discussions), I took copious notes and expanded my brain ten-fold.

A few other comments from my notebook.

There are really only two things that humans do: experience or share. We are either experiencing reality or we are sharing some aspect of it via communication (and yes, one can argue that communication does occur within reality!). Doing something is an experience, making a discovery is an experience, listening to music is an experience. And teaching, publishing a scientific paper, or making art for someone else are more in the sharing category. So, there are aspects of science and art that are both in “experience” and the “share” category.

Furthermore, science and art do not actually exist as stand-alone constructs. They only exist in our minds as modalities for thinking. They are tools, or perhaps practices, that assist human beings in “dealing with” or “responding to” the world. From this perspective, they are just some of the several modalities for organizing our thinking about the world, just like mathematics or engineering are also modalities.

During some of the breakout discussions, we sometimes got excited and use the terms art, creativity, and self-expression interchangeably. Unpacking these terms, I think, sheds considerable light on the path forward. Self-expression is just that…the process of expressing one’s self. Creativity is about being generative and often includes powerful threads of synthesis and analysis. Art, however, transcends and includes both of these. Art is meant to be “seen” by others, if I can simplify to just one verb. An artist, when creating a piece of art, is considering some audience, some community, or maybe just one person and taking into account how they might react to or interact with the artwork. It’s like the distinction between having an insight (smoking is why I have poor health) and a breakthrough (I have stopped smoking and haven’t had a cigarette for 6 months). In a strange way, this is parallel to what we do in science. An experiment or theory is just a nice idea, but until I write it up and send it out and have it approved for publication, it is just in my head and doesn’t actually advance science. Granted, scientific publications are perhaps more targeted at scientific peers while art’s discussion and acceptance might be determined by some other audiences beyond just artistic peers. But in a way, art is meant to be out there and wrestled with by people. And so is science.

So, what random musings do YOU have about science & art? Are they different?  Are they the same expression of a similar human yearning or inquiry?  Can they be combined?


Oil, Water, and Mixing

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

by N.S. Lockyer, Director

Oil and water.

These few words usually denote a problem. Joe and Bill get along like “oil and water.” We all know what that means: they don’t get along. Expect some fireworks. But the world may be changing because of oil and water, and the word to summarize it is “hydraulic fracturing” or just “fracking.” Oil is pouring out of the U.S. in places like North Dakota, New York, Ohio, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania, all due to the new technique of hydraulic fracturing being employed all over the U.S. (and Canada). The International Energy Agency has predicted that the U.S. could be the largest producer of oil in the world by 2017 and may be a net exporter of oil by 2035. Look out climate change!  Although fracking has been around for decades, only in the last few years has it advanced dramatically.

The U.S. consumes about 19 million barrels of oil a day, it produces about 8 million barrels and imports the rest. This voracious thirst for oil drives the U.S. oil imports and the newly forming gas fracking industry. The numbers for fracking are mind-boggling. Huge pumps and massive diesel engines must drive mixtures of water and tonnes of sand (which prevents the fracture from closing up after the process is over), two or more kilometres below the surface.  But once done, the oil leaps from the fractured rock and flows easily to the surface. There are tens of “fracks” per well and each frack lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. The fracking fluid is mostly water but with certain acidic compounds added sometimes to help etch the rock. Interestingly, radioactive isotopes (gamma emitters like colbalt-60) are used to determine properties of the fractures. North Dakota is now producing 750,000 barrels of high quality oil a day up over 50% from last year, moving it past Alaska as the second highest-producing state (Texas is number one). A single well can produce several thousand barrels in a day. A few years ago, only one frack per well was standard.  In North Dakota, the number of wells planned is in the tens of thousands. The land area is massive and extends into Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada. Companies think they are still only extracting a few percent of the available oil and research is advanced to evaluate more exotic liquids to get at the rest.

Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail reported recently (Nov 17th by N. Vanderklippe) that all this drilling in the U.S. will lead to problems for Canada’s oil sands. Canada exports about three million barrels of oil per day, mostly to the U.S., or 27% of all imported oil to the U.S. Canada is the largest exporter of oil to the U.S.  So much oil is now pumping through existing pipelines (they are full) between Canada and the U.S. that oil is being transported by truck and rail now! The heavy oil from Alberta is always in the press for the relatively higher energy intensity needed for extracting a useful final product.  However the reserves are massive (second largest in the world) and it seems hard to believe the U.S. will ignore the opportunity to import oil from its friendly northern neighbour. It will be interesting to see if President Obama approves the 800,000 barrel a day Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas in the near future. The Government of Canada and Alberta wish to forge ahead with plans for oil-sands extraction and building new pipelines. The Canadian public is somewhat less excited about the prospects due to concerns about the environment. Trade-offs!

All in all, there will be a lot of talk about oil independence in the U.S., cheap gas prices, and competitive exports; Canadian oil producers will be increasingly nervous about prices and business. Uncle Sam will be happy as prices are expected to drop. A top concern is the environment.  Should we just leave the oil in the ground because oil and water don’t mix? The alternatives are to develop renewables, conserve energy, and save the water for drinking.

One way or the other, these issues and discussions will affect all of us.


Graduates in India Learn about Particle Physics

Monday, November 19th, 2012

by N.S. Lockyer, edited by T.I. Meyer

On November 10th, 2012, the Director of TRIUMF, Nigel S. Lockyer gave a convocation address at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Durgapur India as the Guest of Honour. NIT is a national technical university that attracts students from all over India and from abroad. There is one such institute in each state in India, about 30 in total. The Durgapur NIT was named in 2003 as the NIT representing the state of West Bengal. Before this, it was the Regional Engineering College, one of eight such RECs created in India in 1954. The capital of West Bengal is Kolkata and the state is home to 91 million people, three quarters of whom live in rural areas. Durgapur, started by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, is the second planned city in India and is highly industrialized, known for producing steel. It has been nicknamed the Ruhr of India.

The convocation activities started with a police escort through town from a local hotel where the VIPs gathered for lunch. The VIPs included the Mayor of Durgapur, Shri Apurba Mukherjee. The VIPs and faculty marched into the auditorium which was beautifully decorated with flowers. A choir sang songs before the ceremony, and an official candle-lighting ritual started the event.

Professor Bikash Sinha, former Director of VECC and the Saha Institute for Nuclear Physics in Kolkata, is Chairman of the Board of Governors, NIT Durgapur. He introduced Nigel and the other guests of honour. Nigel’s address delivered a message encouraging students to develop a curiosity that would serve them well for their entire life. His remarks centered on the origin of water on our planet, a topic that he is curious about himself. This allowed the introduction of isotopes, their origins, and nuclear astrophysics as a topic of research of common interest to both TRIUMF and VECC in Kolkata. The origin of water is speculated to come from comets, meteorites, and early in the formation of the earth itself. He ended his speech by encouraging the students to thank their parents, thank their teachers, but most of all thank themselves by celebrating their graduation just like we do in Canada….by enjoying a beer, and in India that means a Kingfisher.

Other guests of honour included Dr. Rudiger Voss, Head of International Relations at CERN who spoke of global scientific collaboration and India’s role at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider. Dr. Voss showed slides of CERN and reminded the students that they should consider careers in research. Professor Sushanta Dattagupta, Vice Chancellor, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan was introduced as the Chief Guest, and gave a speech about Indian scientists such as Bose, Bhabha, as well as the great Bengali poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore and his interactions with Einstein amongst others.

The convocation formal ceremony adjourned with felicitations to the guests. Dr. Bikash Sinha presented the Guests of Honour with wool shawls and engraved plates. The TRIUMF contingent of Lia Merminga and Tim Meyer, in Kolkata for the SCRIBE conference traveled with Nigel to Durgapur for the occasion. Dr. Sinha dutifully acknowledged the TRIUMF guests in the audience and called both Lia Merminga and Tim Meyer onto the stage and presented them with gifts to acknowledge their presence before the audience of several hundred students and families.

It could be argued the most exciting aspect of the trip was the return drive along National Highway 34 which runs from Kolkata and allows connections to Delhi and onto to Mumbai. A major thoroughfare for truckers (India being infamous for its plentiful and colourful trucks), it was well known that in returning to the airport that evening for a late flight back to Canada the TRIUMF team could/would encounter a major traffic jam that could last for hours or days. The potential truck jam was discussed at lunch and before and after the ceremony. Serious faces considered the possibilities and instructions to the drivers were delivered in Hindi. Fortunately the Indian drivers, well trained in combative high speed driving, steered fearlessly into the chaotic oncoming traffic by driving down the divided highway in the wrong direction. As all Indians know, that is just a day on the road in India.

Beep beep! Hail to the graduates of NIT Durgapur.


I’m Going to Tell You…

Friday, October 19th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


    Does “the General Public” actually exist?

    Monday, September 24th, 2012

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

    I had two opposite-spectrum experiences in the past 2 days that required me to return to Quantum Diaries and @musquod.  Does “the general public exist” ?

    What do I mean? I mean that often in science, in particle physics, and in science communications and outreach, we struggle to reach “the general public.”

    I assert that the General Public does not exist.

    There is no common, slow-moving, same-experience and same-consciousness and same-background banana slug called “the general public” that we aim to attract to basic science and particle-physics research.

    Let me give two examples.

    This past weekened, @TRIUMFlab supported a public-outreach booth at the local community celebration called Wesbrook Village Festival.  This festival involved about 10,000 citizens (parents and families) and maybe three-dozen local businesses, all located within 2 km of TRIUMF.

    I was driving a souped-up golf cart with seating for 8 to head from the booth location to TRIUMF, a distance of about 6 city blocks.  One time, I was escorting a family including four children under the age of 12.  I asked them what they knew about TRIUMF and particle physics.  As I opened up the electric battery to full power of about 30 km/h, the young man next to me said, “Oh, we toured CERN last summer and I think TRIUMF is kind of like a mini-CERN.  Is that true?”

    I was floored!  We were doing community-outreach tours and our communication was aimed at concepts like “What is an atom?” and this kid next to me had already toured the world’s most advanced particle-physics laboratory and wanted to know how many Higgs bosons we had stored on tape at the Canadian ATLAS Tier-1 Data Centre based at TRIUMF!  Wow…good thing I listened to him before I launched into my speech about why science matters.

    Then, today, I was interacting with a senior professor from Canada’s Emily Carr University of Arts + Design who was leading undergraduate arts students in a class entitled “Black Holes and other Transformations of Energy.”  As part of TRIUMF’s Artists in Residence program, these folks were visiting TRIUMF from nearby Granville Island to get inspiration for art-studio projects.  They took a sloooooow-tour of TRIUMF and had to make artwork based on what they learned.  I was talking to the instructor, and she observed to me, “Tim, you know in that collaborative arts/science project we’re working on with international cultural funding from the Goethe Institut, we just identified a new random number generator.  Rather than roll dice or guess at how pieces of art should be transferred from one round of professional artists to the next, we tied the names of the artists to pieces of bread and spread them over our balcony.  The first seagull to arrive and steal the bread was selected to represent the first assignment of arts transfer!”  See Youtube.

    I was floored!

    How many particle physicists let alone computer scientists have been struggling with high-power random generators?  Has anyone ever tried the seagull-bread-crumb generator?!  Sure, it might be a bit slow for generating a 30,000 event Monte Carlo of neutral pions, but….wow!  I call that creative.

    So, my conclusion after walking home on a wonderful autumn evening, was that the General Public does NOT exist.  We are surrounded by experts, experts at things different than quantum field theory or M-brane phenomenology.

    Let us go forth and share our work, our wisdom, our quest, and let us get enriched by what others are up to, what they care about, and let us be aware and sensitive to what they already know…

    Peace out.



    Higgs Seminar Liveblog from TRIUMF #2

    Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

    11:44 pm PDT — Update from @Anadi, a TRIUMF physicist with the ATLAS experiment, live at CERN.

    So situation is quite exciting! The only people that could enter the auditorium were there at 2AM (7 hours before the start time!). Most of the people then started lining up around 5AM and there is still a long line waiting outside the room. All other arranged areas are packed, people are discussing, excited, truly wondering what the other experiment has seen. It is a strong community feeling, I am meeting colleagues and friends I have not seen for years. Most of us are here today – to share the biggest achievement of particle physics in the past 30years.

    12:02 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    The show starts with Director General Rolf Heuer.  Looks like he got a new haircut since his talk at @scienceworldca in early June in Vancouver.  Joe Incandella from CMS starts off…with more jokes!

    Radiative corrections…square of the top mass.  This all has to do with what other measurements of other particles are used to indirectly measure the Higgs mass.

    12:05 am PDT — update from @Anadi, live at CERN

    When Peter Higgs entered the auditorium, big applause…two nights ago he was in CERN Restaurant 1 (the CERN ‘cantine’) and people clustered around him as he walked through – students running to get pictures.  Last night, CERN was full of students overnight, sitting on the lawn with candles, waiting for the big event. They all consider themselves extremely lucky to be here. Part of big family regardless if they worked on the higgs or not.  They are part of the biggest human endeavour…

    12:11 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    JoeI points out the structure of the CMS detector.  It is barrel shaped and similar to ATLAS and all other collider-detectors.  Good calorimeter, meaning they can measure energy of electrons and photons very precisely. Lead-tungsten crystals.

    12:14 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    The performance of the CMS detector actually degrades from radiation exposure but then the clever scientists can “correct” for this effect with good calibrations and modelling.  #Incandela also talks about Monte Carlo, which is the physics term for the heap of computer simulations used to benchmark and text understanding of the detector and the “known” physics.

    12:18 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    #Incandela follows the sacred script of a particle-physics talk. State the physics, review the detector, show the performance of the detector, and then at the end…show the results.

    12:20 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    Wow, Higgs to two photons event display!  Very elegant, very clean.  #Incandela then shows that CMS physicists “understand” the data, meaning they cross-check and compare how it works.  They also did a “blind” analysis for the 2012 new data, meaning that the physicists could not accidentally look at the “signal” until they were completely done with all the cross-checks.

    He also discusses multi-variate techniques.  This means algorithms that use many different inputs that are combined to help assign weight or “value” to each event.

    12:28 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    The first result…page 43 of the talk.  What a sweet signal plot of two photons being reconstructed to a consistent mass for a new particle!  Very elegant.

    12:28 am PDT — from @Anadi, live at CERN

    In the room where I am, people keep on coming sit on the floor, media are cornered. People clapped when Joe mentioned this is the work of 3,000 people for the past 10 years.

    Signal just shown!  People are just astonished by the shape of the H –> gamma-gamma signal.   Quite impressive!

    12:37 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    Interesting that CERN audience breaks into clapping for CMS result of 5.0 standard deviation significance for the combined Higgs signals.  Really an acknowledgement that is is real.  Results that are significant and bona fide.

    12:37 am PDT — @Anadi, live from CERN

    OK the 5 sigma has just been shown! People could not contain themselves. They just stood up, laughed, clapped…

    12:48 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    125.3 +/- 0.6 GeV with 4.9 sigma

    In five production channels, event yields in decay channels are roughly self-consistent.  Meaning that when you look across the different searches, the relative popularity of the decay modes is consistent with what you’d expect for a Higgs.

    12:53 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    CMS concludes.

    12:54 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    Canadians are at bat!  Or rather, ATLAS is up.  And that’s the experiment the Canadian team is part of.  Fabiola opens with requisite jokes and hints that ATLAS has got more data analyzed and understood than CMS.  Let’s see!

    1:04 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    Three people leave our auditorium…they worked on the ATLAS analysis and know the results!  They stayed late at work tonight to hear what the “competition” (CMS) had accomplished.  Ahah!

    1:05 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    The world lights up with press releases, comments, and new lab web pages as the full results are released! Wow…CERN even totally replaced their homepage.

    1:22 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    Pretty careful analysis of backgrounds in the four-lepton decay channel of the Higgs.

    1:31 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    Very attractive four-muon event and a four-electron event!  Candidates for Higgs, of course.  Clean tracks, good separation, good vertex. and then very nice exclusion plots!

    1:35 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    Wow!  5,0 sigma and huge applause from combined gamma gamma and four lepton decay channels.  Additional checks show the results from the two separate channels are quite consistent.

    1:40 am PDT (TM from TRIUMF)

    Here comes the request for more data…time to study the heck out of this particle!

    2:36 am PDT — @Anadi, live from CERN

    Everyone is now thrilled, most of the people truly did not know about the other experiment’s results.  Lynn Evans made quite a strong statement, saying that it is the most important moment in his life. Peter higgs is here, he was just amazed by how quickly we could achieve a discovery. This is due to the excellent performance of the machine, detector, and the creativeness, dedication, enthusiasm,  ingenuity of the people in the collaboration (mainly the young collaborators).


    Higgs Seminar Liveblog from TRIUMF

    Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

    Hi there! This is TRIUMF’s liveblog of CERN’s Higgs seminar, coming to you all the way from Vancouver, Canada, where it is quickly approaching midnight. As someone who is not a scientist, I’ll be offering the layman’s point of view of the seminar. So, to reiterate, it is quite late and I’m not a scientist, meaning I should be making a fool of myself at least once tonight. I apologize in advance for that and for any technical difficulties I am sure to run into tonight. Enjoy. See you at midnight!

    1:48 – Okay. It’s over now. Good night. I hope you all enjoyed my illuminating commentary.

    1:46 – Rolf just killed it with the most succinct explanation of what was actually happening tonight. I understand the science was necessary, but still.

    1:45 – Rolf is getting feedback on the mic! Noooo.

    1:44 – “as a layman, I would now say, ‘I think we have it.'” This is why Rolf is the best.

    1:44 – ROOOOOOLF.

    1:41 – My boss just told me that everyone has been applauding because they’ve announced 5 sigma, which is like a “slam dunk” for confirmation in physics. It’s not perfect yet, but there’s no going back now. Finally, something I understood.

    1:40 – “Need more data” is a recurring sentiment in science, I’ve found.

    1:38 – No idea what that discovery was.

    1:35 – A lot of clapping. Big discovery.

    1:30 – 80% of this slide is graph.

    1:27- On to the results!

    1:24 – Um.

    1:17 – “This part is perhaps a little too technical for this presentation” please, continue.

    1:13 – The science is impenetrable.

    1:06 – These slides have their own, inexplicable color schemes.

    1:04 – Seriously, though, not a nice font.

    1:02 – Second biggest challenge of 2012: the use of Comic-Sans on these slides.

    12:59 – They are working beyond design. Impressive.

    12:58 – Pile-up was the biggest challenge for them in 2012. Too much data!

    12:56 – ATLAS was conceived 2 decades ago, built 1 decade ago

    12:55- This data is really fresh.

    12:54 – The events really are beautiful.

    12:53 – ATLAS. No snack break.

    12:53 – Way to go.

    12:52 – 3,300 scientists on CMS.

    12:50 – Just heard him say  “New boson” Woo!

    12:49 – “In conclusion” graphs pop up all over the screen. Not helping.

    12:48 – Rolf just coughed.

    12:46 – “Do I have five minutes?”

    12:44 – “Jumping to my results. Don’t want to do that” YES YOU DO

    12:37 – People clapping. One person whistled.

    12:33 – Anytime there is a longish gap in coverage, it means I literally understood nothing, my eyes became unfocused, and I slipped into a waking dream.

    12:31 – The 2011 data was reoptimized blindly.

    12:30 – Higgs to zz (as if I know what this means)

    12:30 – Seriously, graphs.

    12:28 –  There is a little bump in the comparison between the 2011 – 2012 data. “This is very significant” dramatic pause. Next slide. What!

    12:27 – “It’s quite hard to see if anything is there” yep.

    12:26 – Many graphs. Many, many graphs.

    12:25 – He’s close to coming to results soon.

    12:23 – “Well, these are technical things” (like everything else so far)

    12:22 – How wild, though, is not within the scope of this talk.

    12:21 – Blind analyses in 2012. Never looked in the band where the signal would be. Keeps people honest. It also gets “wild” when people look in the signal band.

    12:20 – He’s talking about the Higgs now!

    12:18 – I might be in the minority here, but I prefer the look of Fake Tau over Real Tau. Sorry!

    12:16 – I’m looking at my computer like I understand what is happening, but I don’t.

    12:13 – “I’m going to run over, Rolf”

    12:13 – The CMS detector weighs 14000t. Weighty, indeed.

    12:11 – This CMS diagram looks really good.

    12:08 – They moved to 8TeV this year.

    12:05 – Okay. Here comes the science. Picture looks nice and 50 interactions is impressive…I think.

    12:04 – CMS progress on the Higgs search beginning.

    12:03 – “For a certain particle. I forgot the name.” Rolf, getting the laughs, as per usual. Awesome speaker.

    12:00 – Rolf is talking now. Let’s do this.


    Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)