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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

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Art and Science: Both or Neither

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

 

I don’t get it. I guess we just have different brains than them.” – two young science students, regarding a piece of art.

It’s a funny feeling, being an individual with a predominantly artistic mind working in a place dominated by science. I’m not saying I don’t have love for the sciences, but if we’re talking in terms of how my thought process lazily unfurls itself when faced with a problem, I’m definitely more of an artist than a scientist. The very fact that I have used the terms “scientist” and “artist” in a way that does nothing but reinforce the eternal dichotomy that exists between the two groups indicates that the problem is so widespread, indeed, that even the person trying to formulate an argument calling for a cessation of the “war” that exists between the two groups cannot avoid thinking of the two as incontrovertibly disparate.

 

A page from Leonardo da Vinci's famous notebooks. He remains one of the finest examples of an individual expanding his mind to take in both science and art.

 

The quote at the top is a real thing I heard. Aside from the disquieting use of “we” and “them,” the most troubling thing about the above assertion is the outright dismissal of the piece of art in question. The finality and hopelessness of the “Different Brain” argument does not seem ridiculous outright because it has been propagated by you (yes, you), me, and everyone else ever in the history of time when we don’t want to take the time to learn something new. Artists and scientists are two particular groups that use the Different Brain argument on one another all too often. In order to see the truly farcical nature that underlies the argument, picture two groups of early humans. One group has fire. The other group does not. One person from the fireless group is tasked with inventing fire for the group. The person in charge of making fire claps his hands; no fire is produced. He gives up, citing that he and his counterpart in the other group must have different brains. His group dies out because of their lack of fire.

I hope you followed the cautionary tale of our dismissive early human closely, for he is the rock I will build this post on. The reason one group died and the other thrived is quite obvious. It is not because they simply lacked fire; it is that they lacked the ability to extend their minds beyond their current knowledge in order to solve a problem. Moreover, they not only lacked the ability, they lacked the drive—a troubling trend that is becoming more pronounced as the misguided “war” between artists and scientists rages on, insofar as an intellectual war can rage.

If you were to ask a scientist what he or she would do when posed with a problem, the answer will invariably be something along the lines of, “I would wrestle it to the ground with my considerable intellect until it yields its secrets.” During my time at TRIUMF, I have noticed a deep, well-deserved pride in every scientist in their ability to solve problems. Therefore, it is truly a sad state of affairs when our scientists look at something that puzzles them and then look away. To me, that’s no scientist. That is someone who has grown too complacent, too comfortable, in the vastness of their knowledge that they begin to shy away from things that challenge them in a way they aren’t used to. What’s more is that no one (artists or scientists) sees this as a defeat. As soon as you’ve said, “Oh well, different brain,” you’ve lost.

Any person familiar with rhetoric will tell you that in order to build a strong argument and persuade people, you have to be honest. Be sneaky and fail to address something potentially damning and your credibility is shot and the argument is void. Since it works so well in politics (snark), I figure I should give is a shot here. The problem of the Different Brain argument does not just lay with the scientists; if I’ve excoriated them, it’s out of fear that soon, a generation of scientists will stop growing and thinking. The artists are guilty of invoking the Different Brain argument as well whenever faced with math, science, or anything, really, that they didn’t want to do. The only difference between the two is that I heard a scientist use the different brain argument in a place of science, in a place where knowledge is the point.

Different Brain is a spurious concept, which is obvious to anyone with more grey matter than pride, but it’s not just wrong because I say it is. It’s wrong because look around you.

I was standing in the middle of Whistler Village with my fiancé, when we spied a poster for a band called Art vs. Science (you’re doing it wrong, guys!). She immediately said, “Science would win.” No question. No pondering. No soul-searching. Gut reaction, like flinching from a feigned punch. She’s a statistics major and biology minor, so she has a “science” brain and her response didn’t necessarily surprise me. I was a little sad, though, because she wasn’t seeing the world like I was seeing it. We debated the problem for a few minutes until I told her to look around.

The shape of the buildings: Architecture

The pleasant configuration of the shrubbery: Horticulture

The signage on the buildings and lampposts: Design

The food in the bag in my hand: Cooking

The phone in her hand: Technology

I asked her to picture a world where science had “won”. What’s architecture without art? A shape. What’s horticulture without art? A forest. Design? A grid. Cooking? Paste. Technology? Sufficient. It’s a tough world to imagine. Look at the next thing you see and try to separate the science and art of it and imagine what it would look like, whether it would function at all. It’s absolutely dystopian.

It was then that my argument became clear: science and art are inextricable. There can be no dismissing, no deigning, no sighing in the face of it. There can only be and has only ever been unity between the two. The problem is that the two warring sides are too preoccupied with the connotations the words “art” and “science” seem to realize it’s not a question of either/or, but both/neither.

I was worried about whether this war of the different brains would always rage between the two sides, but three things lent me hope and I hope they will lend you hope, too.

1.)  These two quotes from Bertholt Brecht (20th century German playwright and poet, whose work I don’t much care for):

“Art and science work in quite different ways: agreed. But, bad as it may sound, I have to admit that I cannot get along as an artist without the use of one or two sciences. … In my view, the great and complicated things that go on in the world cannot be adequately recognized by people who do not use every possible aid to understanding.”

and

“Art and science coincide insofar as both aim to improve the lives of men and women.”

2.) I was feeling discouraged about my argument for this post and had taken to turning it over in my mind even when I was otherwise occupied, but when I heard Rolf Heuer, the Director-General of CERN, say, only a handful of feet from my face, “Science and Art belong together,” I felt a renewed sense of vigor course through my brain, spurring me on. If one of the foremost scientific experts of our age can see it, I wonder why many of us turn away from it, when it is clearly there.

3.) In case one thinks that I’ve gone too soft on the artists, imagine a world without science. Think of our society as a book of fiction or a painting. Unequivocal works of art. Yet, what holds the book together? How were the pages manufactured? How were the chemical composition of the paints devised? Science.

Keeping these points in mind, I am calling for the abolition of the concepts underpinning the Different Brain argument. The war between art and science is one of mutually assured destruction and will turn us into a lopsided simulacrum of a culture if we are not careful.

–Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

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The Conundrum of Communicating Science

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Before I began working at TRIUMF, I knew that science communication was a thing; much in the same way that I knew that there was someone, somewhere manufacturing tissue paper. It was just something that was. Reading an article in Scientific American or, to an extent, Wired, I never paused to consider who had written the article and what made an effective piece of science writing. I simply read it and moved on. Now that I have written a few articles that discuss science—nothing too long or in-depth, mind you—I have caught a glimpse of the harrowing plight of the science communicator and it is one fraught with frustration and self-doubt, but it is not without hope.

I, along with the majority of the communications team at TRIUMF, attended a talk at UBC called, “STORYOMICS: Proof that Scientists Evolved from Humans,” presented by scientist and documentary filmmaker, Randy Olson. I won’t go into too much detail about what he talked about because, to me, it was somewhat commonsensical. (Note: This may be because I’m an English major, whose sole purpose is to be painfully familiar with the components of a story.)

After the talk, a man named Dave Ng joined us for lunch. While we were chattering away, he said something that, initially, seemed like just an insightful observation. However, It has been ricocheting around in the damp recesses of my brain ever since. The observation was this: when news broke about the faster-than-light neutrinos, everyone covered it. Everyone. Of all the people who covered it, what percentage do you think knew—without reciting the Wikipedia entry for it from memory—what a neutrino actually was? Very few, I would bet. Judging from what I had read at the time, it seemed that everyone had reposted chunks of CERN/OPERA’s press release with bits of fluff around it to make it look like an original work. The main thrust of my scattershot thought process, the philosophical question that has me wandering the desert of my psyche looking for an answer is: can you ever effectively report on/write about something that you don’t have a deep knowledge of?

I used to write for a university newspaper and, while I did write about current events and physical fitness (which, if you know me, is not my forte), I gravitated towards the Arts and Life section. I wrote about books, movies, television, and video games.  What do all of these things have in common? I know about them. When I wrote about books, I was in my natural element because I understood the underlying principles that govern narrative and I knew the significance of things that the woefully uninitiated don’t pick up on (I once wrote an entire paper on the use of en and em dashes in a play, so don’t even dispute me on this). The writing was full of verve and wit (if I do say so myself). It had a confident, singular voice behind it. Confidence is the key to communicating anything effectively, but it is rare to find someone who is confident speaking about something they are not knowledgeable of. That’s why we see this paradigm: The head of the communications department at TRIUMF, Tim Meyer, is an excellent science communicator…who has a PhD in physics. Randy Olson is an effective science communicator…who has a PhD in biology. The list goes on: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, etc. The point is that there is no doubt that scientists can become communicators. Can communicators communicate science, though? That seems to be a point of contention for scientists and communicators alike.

Before we go any further, I should probably establish my credentials: My background in science is less than negligible. I took Physics 11 in high school and Biology 100 in university. One of my (many) problems is that I was born with the curiosity of a scientist but without any of the skills to back it up. My interest in science is what made the opportunity to work at TRIUMF so appealing. It promised the opportunity to write about science, which is something that scared me, still scares me.

I recently wrote about the controversy surrounding the CERN/OPERA faster-than-light neutrino experiment and I was nervous the entire time. The prose was shaky, too reliant on quotes, and meek. It was listless and gray, devoid of all effervescence or joie de vivre. It was a passable science article. I felt how I think many science communicators feel in the beginning: gutted. The lack of “myself” in the article called into question whether I could communicate effectively, or if I had ever done so.

Science communicators are in the enviable and rare position to be attacked from every angle: from scientists for not being thorough enough and from communicators for being boring and ineffective. Both parties are assailing disparate aspects of the work and no one is pleased. If you heard a funeral dirge in the back of your mind while reading this, prepare for the tinkling, inspirational piano number because, in my mind, there is hope. I’ve only been at TRIUMF for three months, but I already feel like I’ve learned a great deal about science communication.

1.)       Always collaborate, when possible, with someone who is deeply familiar with the science you are discussing. I know it’s easier to Google, but this is the Internet. I’m a doctor on the Internet. This way, when you cite your sources, you don’t have to cite Wikipedia, you can cite a professional, which will confer a lot of credence to whatever you wrote.

2.)       Metaphor is your new best friend. You already have a best friend? Too bad. You might not know the dictionary definition of metaphor, but humans have been using it forever (hyperbole) to communicate complex ideas to the many. The more complex the concept, the more important the metaphor becomes.

3.)       Don’t be afraid to imbue the work with a sense of style. This is what I see most often. People think that because something is about science, it needs to be antiseptic. It doesn’t. If you’re a communicator, you have a unique voice, or I hope you have, anyway.

With the modicum of experience that I have in communicating science, I realize I’m no professional—yet—and this is by no means an “answer” to the questions posed earlier. These points are, however, a jumping off point for people who may be thinking about communicating science, but are afraid it has to be the written or verbal equivalent of gruel. They are also for the people who are communicating science but it has become so mechanical for them that they can’t see themselves in their work anymore.

My time at TRIUMF lasts five more months, and the journey will, without a doubt, involve more frustration and failure in the face of this nigh-rhetorical question. Instead of gently weeping into that good night, I will use the words of Charles Kettering, an engineer I just Googled, to give me hope: “99 percent of success is built on failure.”

–Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

 

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Why India is a Modern Country

Friday, April 20th, 2012

–by Nigel S. Lockyer, Director

I am back in India to attend the first International Advisory Committee meeting for the ANURIB project at VECC. It is hard to ignore how rapidly India is changing. But to have some fun with them, I came up with the Top Ten reasons India is a Modern Country.

  1. It is Saturday, April 15th, Nabobarsho, the Bengali new year. Poila Baisakh is the first day of the new year and is cause for celebrations and speeches by politicians. A sign of the times was the message was sent out in West Bengal by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to millions of cell-phone users.
  2. Katy Perry opened the India Premier League’s opening cricket game….OK, not a reason.
  3. Kolkata has just launched its first online radio station
  4. Attention squirrel lovers: The India forest department is using satellites to track down giant squirrels. What the heck are giant squirrels? Apparently they look like cats with long tails (2 feet) and weigh about 4-5 pounds. They are famous for jumping 20 feet between branches. The head and body of this scary animal is up to sixteen inches in length, compared to the ten of the Eastern Gray found in the US.  Relax, it is herbivorous!
  5. MS Dhoni, the cricket star, just signed a contract worth 200 crore or about $40M. With his TV contracts etc. he pulls in about 700 crore or $140M. Still waiting for his team to win a championship!
  6. The AC power adapter in my hotel room is universal. No need to carry around an adapter. Time to return the one CERN DG Rolf Heuer gave me several years ago that was useful about 50% of the time.
  7. Recently famous Bengali native Shah Rukh Khan (locally referred to as SRK) was detained in a NY airport because of his name. King Khan, the Bollywood superstar just laughed it off. However we hear the U.S. envoy was called to New Delhi for explanation. The U.S. said they have now invented and are ready to release an automatic South Asian apology machine for such cases—and the software was written by Indians!
  8. I couldn’t get a beer in the Mumbai hotel bar after 1:30 AM. Last call!
  9. Next evening I ordered a Kingfisher (a national Indian beer and quite good) and all they had was Heineken.
  10. Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC) in Kolkata is starting Phase I of a major new “green field” initiative in Rare Isotope Beam physics called ANURIB in Rajarhat, near the Kolkata airport. ANURIB is building off their present cyclotron driven RIB program. It involves a 100 kW, 50 MeV electron linac driver, a post accelerator, a cyclotron to raise the energy to over 100 MeV per nucleon and then a fragment separator. A very ambitious vision for India and it is getting strong support from the Government of India. Congratulations, VECC!

 

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Powerless Haikus

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Jordan is an English major on a Communications co-op term at TRIUMF. When the power went out at TRIUMF, he was asked to write about what it was like. He decided to write it in haiku. He had never written a haiku before. It showed.

I have never written a haiku before. After the power came on, I Googled haikus and these barely count.  Enjoy.

 

The power is out

There is nothing left to do

Except write haikus

 

Computers shut off

I forgot to save my work

Many strong expletives

 

Eyes raised to the ceiling

A brief respite from the screen

It is sunny out?

 

A brief argument

On the location of Spain

No one can Google

 

Two scientists turn

Engage in deep discussion

Or maybe shallow

 

Silent Meson Hall

Punctuated by a laugh

Cannot find the source

 

The power is back

I am Googling some haikus

Amateurish, I

– Written by Jordan Pitcher (Communications Assistant)

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Travelling 10,000 miles for breakfast

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning & Communication

I am on location in Kolkata, India, at the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC). It took me 36 hours travel time to get here from Vancouver, including two red-eye plane flights. It feels like 42 deg C outside and the computer firewalls are configured so that I cannot send or receive e-mail from my laptop. And the tap water is not potable.

Why did I come?

To have breakfast with scientific peers from around the world (RIKEN in Japan, ESS in Sweden, Cockcroft Institute in the UK, VECC and IUAC and BARC here in India, and so on). Okay, not just breakfast. Also a few lunches and dinners.

Of course, we actually came together to participate in the International Advisory Committee meeting for VECC and its proposed ANURIB project and the subsequent VECC/TRIUMF semiannual collaboration meeting. It still sounds like a cliché, but the reason we attend these meetings in person is because of the sidebar conversations.

At a single breakfast meeting with three colleagues, I got updated on the budget situation for UK science, learned why Higgs spectroscopy is so intrinsically compelling that its worth several billion dollars, reviewed Japanese recovery from the earthquake & tsunami, debated “coal smuggling” in West Bengal, speculated on the international flow of in-demand talented workers in accelerator physics & engineering, and re-learned the rules for scoring in cricket. I also drank four cups of masala tea.

In global computing and networking, the experts still say, “Never underestimate the bandwidth of an overnight package stuffed full of DVDs.”

In global science, I’d say, “Never underestimate the amount of collaboration & partnership that is supported by flying people 10,000 miles to share a coffee break.”

25-acre Rajarhat site of VECC...soon to contain a world-leading electron accelerator and isotope laboratory

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Creating Isotopes Without Nuclear Reactors

Friday, March 16th, 2012

This is a follow-up from our last post where Paul Schaffer, Head of the Nuclear Medicine Division at TRIUMF, was talking about his experience of being in the media spotlight. In this post, Paul talks more in-depth about the science of medical isotopes.

It all started 19 months ago. A grant that would forever change my perspective of science geared specifically toward innovating a solution for a critical unmet need—in this situation, it was the global isotope crisis. In 2010, not too long out of the private sector, I was already working on an effort funded by NSERC and CIHR through the BC Cancer Agency to establish the feasibility of producing Tc-99m—the world’s most common medical isotope—on a common medical cyclotron. The idea: produce this isotope where it’s needed, on demand, every day, if and when needed. Sounds good, right? The problem is that the world had come to accept what would have seemed impossible just 50 years ago.

The current Tc-99m production cycle, which uses nuclear reactors. Image courtesy of Nordion.

We are currently using a centralized production model for this isotope with just a six hour half-life. This model involves just a handful of dedicated, government-funded research reactors, producing molybdenum-99 from highly enriched uranium (which is another issue for another time). Moly, as we’ve come to affectionately call it, decays via beta emission to technetium, and when packaged into alumina columns, is sterilized, and encased in a hundred pounds of lead. It is then shipped by the thousands to hospitals around the world. The result: the world has come to accept Tc-99m, which is used in 85% of the 20 to 40 million patient scans every year as an isotope available from a small, 100 pound cylinder that was replaced every week or so, without question, without worry. Moly and her daughter were always there…but in 2007 and again in 2009, suddenly they weren’t. The world had come to realize that something must be done.

In the middle of our NSERC/CIHR effort, we were presented with an opportunity to write a proof-of-concept grant based on the proof-of-feasibility we were actively pursuing. Luckily, the team had come far enough to believe we were on the right track. We believed that large scale curie-level production of Tc-99m using existing cyclotron technology was indeed possible. The ensuing effort was—in contrast to the current way of doing things—ridiculous.

With extensive, continuous input from several top scientists from around the country, I stitched together a document 200 pages long. It was a grant that was supposed to redefine how the most important isotope in nuclear medicine was produced. 200 pages, well 199 to be exact, describing a process—THE process—we were hopefully going to be working on for the next 18 months. We waited…success! And we began.

The effort started the same way as the document – with nothing more than a blank piece of paper. Blank in the sense that we knew what we had to do, we just had not defined exactly how we were going to achieve our goal. But what happened next was a truly remarkable thing; with that blank sheet, I witnessed first-hand a team of people imagine a solution, roll up their sleeves and turn those notions into reality.

If you would like to read the PET report, click here

 

 

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Stepping into the Media Spotlight for Science

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Paul Schaffer is the head of the Nuclear Medicine Division at TRIUMF. For the past 18 months, he and his team have been devising a method for Canada and the world to have an alternative way to produce medical isotopes. Currently, these isotopes are created on aging nuclear reactors, which are beginning to show signs of wear by needing emergency repairs. These repairs stop the flow of isotopes, affecting hundreds of thousands of people around the world. This is an inside perspective of what it means to work on the front line, and be in the media spotlight.

I’m going to start this post with the day I had the privilege of standing in front of a group of reporters along with a few of my esteemed colleagues to announce that we had, in fact, delivered on a promise we had made just over a year ago; the promise of making medical isotopes with existing hospital cyclotrons. We had set out to prove that it was possible to produce Tc-99m on a small medical cyclotron and at quantities sufficient to supply a large urban centre. The solution to Tc-99m shortages is to decentralize production. It was an example of Canadian innovation at its best – by taking a group of existing machines in existing facilities already tasked at making various other medical isotopes and extending the functionality of those facilities to produce another isotope.

Paul presenting his team's findings

The response from the press was remarkable to witness. The interest was swift, broad, and far reaching. The 24-hour news cycle had begun and with it came a deluge of requests for radio, TV, and print interviews. In the ensuing days I read a number of wonderful reports from capable reporters, often writing about a topic well outside of their background or familiarity. For that, I admire the work that they collectively pulled together in the short amount of time involved.

Something else happened, though; something I didn’t anticipate – the ensuing media blitz ended up becoming a very personal social experiment, an intense self-examination. On the way to my first-ever national television interview, I can distinctly remember reality sinking in—for most of my life, I’ve dealt with significant hearing loss. In my ever-quiet world, acutely and perpetually punctuated by tinnitus, verbal communication can be a consuming task.

It is a fact that I comprehend only 33% of the words spoken to me and that my brain fills the gaps using whatever facts it can absorb from my surroundings—expressions, moving lips, and other non-verbal cues. In that car on the way to the interview, I couldn’t help but to continuously wonder about how I would handle verbal questions on camera? What do you say on live TV when you can’t for the life of you figure out what your conversational counterpart is saying? My wingman kept reassuring me, giving background from experience and many, many reassuring comments; but deep down I had to wonder, was this the moment when the whole situation would finally come undone? My charade of being able to hear the world around me would finally end. Worse still, had the moment come to sell the team’s amazing accomplishments on national TV, with a significant number of people literally watching; and all I kept wondering was: will it fall apart simply over an unheard or misinterpreted question? Good thing most communication is non-verbal.

The interview ended up being remote, with the reporters in Ontario and a conspicuous 5 second ‘safety’ delay between what I thought I heard and what showed up on the TV monitor facing me. Five seconds was long enough for them to cut out a fleeting wardrobe malfunction, should I become a bit too passionate during my scientific descriptions, but not nearly long enough to spare a poor soul a repeat question. So, seated in a large, empty, and thankfully quiet studio it began with a single chair, bright lights, and an audio test – ‘please count to 5’ came in over the ear piece…this out of context and no non-verbal queue jolted my fear into reality. I couldn’t understand the question. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my wingman turn a shade lighter. Worry was setting in. The in-studio producer was almost dumbstruck – this ‘expert’ couldn’t count to five.  45 seconds to ‘go’ and he repeated the question. I got it, counted to five….30 seconds….15, an ambulance was coming, getting louder, I couldn’t hear the commercial any longer…..10, the ambulance was on the street directly below. I had to look away from the TV screen, as the delay was overwhelmingly distracting. 5 seconds. The sirens were starting to recede and before you knew it, I was live.

Paul on CTV News

At first I didn’t want to watch the interview, but family, friends and colleagues from across Canada starting chiming in and eventually convinced me to watch. I felt satisfied with the results, relieved that I had heard every question, answered everything without wandering or forgetting what the question was, covering the topics I wanted to cover. However, I was definitely watching an objective projection of somebody I wasn’t familiar with. I won’t get into the details of what I saw – it’d be different for everyone, but the experience has been life altering, as has this project. That said, I’m proud of the team that has worked so well and so hard together for the past 18 months. It’s been a remarkable project on all fronts. Whether our results continue to keep their momentum and become a permanent solution to the isotope issues that plagued us for two years remains to be seen. I do know success when I see it, and this team of Canadian scientists, engineers, and medical professionals should all be immensely proud of what they have done. They are Canadian innovation at its best.

The team of TRIUMF scientists Paul collaborated with on the groundbreaking project

 

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My Time at AAAS 2012

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Jordan is an English major on a Communications co-op term at TRIUMF. This is his take on the AAAS conference that took place this February in Vancouver. AAAS is a conference that gathers researchers from around the world from all disciplines to share ideas with each other, the media, and the public.

It is difficult to write about any event, be it a concert or a science convention, without slipping into a pattern that resembles a mad-lib (e.g. “I saw noun and it was adjective!”). In order to avoid that particular pitfall, it’s important to focus on the individual connection one forges with the event, the broader implications of the event, and the emotions evoked by it. AAAS 2012 was, surprisingly, an event suffused with emotion. I say “surprisingly” because “science” is a word that carries with it the connotation of a stodgy atmosphere built upon cold rationalism. Despite this, the atmosphere at AAAS 2012 was built on anything but.

AAAS 2012 began on a typical (see: rainy) Friday morning in Vancouver, but the mood inside the exhibit hall was in stark contrast to the gloom outside. Though it was quite early in the morning and a number of exhibitors were frazzled and silently checking and rechecking their to-do lists, the hall quickly became characterized by laughter and discussion. People dropped by booths asking after old friends they had previously worked with, smiling at the old memories and the assurances that their friends were doing well. People who knew each other only by reputation met on the floor of the exhibit hall and traded stories about their current projects and experiments. People who did not know one another perused booths, asked questions, handed out business cards, and walked away deep in thought. The entire exhibit hall was a microcosmic example of the scientific community as a whole; a community fueled by curiosity, collaboration, camaraderie, and a friendly sense of competition. Though Friday was not open to the public, there were still a number of unique visitors, particularly American Junior Academy of Science (AJAS) members to students who had registered for student scholarships through TRIUMF and the BC Innovation Council (BCIC). These students were given a full conference pass and a one-year membership to AAAS. The AJAS members and student scholarship recipients displayed a sense of curiosity and mental alacrity befitting the next generation of scientists as they interacted with one another and the ideas presented at numerous booths.

The free public event, Family Science Days, opened on Saturday and it made the excited atmosphere of Friday seem funereal. The enthusiastic chatter of the children who attended Family Science Days with their parents in tow created the feeling only generated by like-minded individuals, radically diverse in ages and backgrounds, interacting with one another without any sense of pretension or disingenuousness. It was an interesting example of how science has the power to unify people. This is fitting, since the theme of the conference was  “Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society.” To me, the theme of the conference was fully realized when I looked around and saw the old educating the young and the young inspiring the old with a vigor for attempting to understand the unknown and a heavy reliance on the words “why” and “how.” I’m sure this brought a smile to every scientist’s face, knowing that the inquisitiveness that has spurred scientific discovery for thousands of years remains an inextinguishable human trait that will always express itself, irrespective of one’s age or background.

In describing the emotions I witnessed, I have neglected to mention the emotions I experienced during my time at AAAS 2012. Being an exhibitor, I suspect I felt more stress than many of the regular attendees. It wasn’t like being stressed about exams; it was more like unveiling a piece of art and stressing about whether people would enjoy it – more butterflies than flop sweat. As my comrades—wartime slang is perfectly appropriate in this situation, I think—and I began to entertain visitors with magnet demonstrations and educate them about cyclotrons, the worry dissipated and gave way to excitement. People were enjoying our booth and I got to test the boundaries of my memory, attempting to recount the entire Wikipedia page for “Cyclotrons” and “Higgs boson.” I’m not a scientist—far from it, in fact—but I enjoyed the lively discussions and even managed to actually learn a thing or two in the process.

 

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Higgs for the Holidays

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

 —  By Theorist David Morrissey & Particle Physicist Anadi Canepa

 Last week we hosted two particle physics workshops at TRIUMF – an ATLAS Canada collaboration meeting and a joint meeting for theorists and experimentalists to study new LHC results.  Everything went smoothly, no participants were lost to the wilds of Vancouver, and we had some really great discussions and seminars.  During one of these presentations, it occurred to me that these kinds of scientific meetings are not so different from a typical holiday gathering.  In both situations, you frequently run into people you know but that you haven’t seen in a long time.  You catch up, you gossip, and you eat too much food at the coffee breaks.  There’s usually a large group dinner where you often meet new people and strike up conversations about future work.  And every so often one of the participants has too much holiday cheer.

Despite these similarities, most scientific meetings don’t involve gifts.  But this time around we were really lucky, and our workshops had a gift exchange of sorts as well.  In this case, the gifts were the presentations by the ATLAS and CMS collaborations of exciting new results from their searches for the Higgs boson particle.  On top of the live streaming presentations from CERN in the early hours of the morning, we were treated to a longer seminar in the afternoon at TRIUMF by Rob McPherson.  His talk was standing-room only, and we had a great time bombarding him with questions about the ATLAS analysis.

The reason for all this excitement over a single particle is that the Higgs boson, first proposed nearly fifty years ago, is central to our current understanding of all known elementary particles, called the Standard Model.  (See here, here, and here for more details.)   In this theory, the Higgs is responsible for creating the masses of nearly all elementary particles and for making the weak force much weaker than electromagnetism.  Even though we have not yet seen the Higgs directly, we have indirect evidence for it from precision measurements of the weak and electromagnetic forces.  Discovering the Higgs boson would confirm the Standard Model, while not finding it would force us to drastically rethink our description of elementary particles and fundamental forces, which would perhaps be an even greater discovery.

 

Excitement about finding the Higgs has been building since the summer, when it became clear that the LHC would be able to collect enough data by the end of the year to possibly find it.  In the past few weeks the level has gone through the roof as rumours started to appear that the LHC experiments would soon release a significant result.  What we learned this week is that these latest searches did not discover the Higgs boson, but that they do suggest that it might be there with a mass close to 133 times that of a proton (125 GeV).  Finding a Higgs is hard work, and its delicate characteristic signal must be extracted from a huge amount of background noise.  What we have at the moment is an intersting bump, as you can see in the figure above taken from the ATLAS search, where we see more signal events than would typically be expected from the background alone for a candidate Higgs mass of about 125 GeV.  We just don’t have enough data right now to confirm that this bump is from a Higgs boson, and not just an especially unlucky spike in the background noise.  Fortunately, the ATLAS and CMS collaborations will be taking much more data in the new year.

So, for this year all we get is a gift-wrapped box that we’re allowed to shake and prod.  But if we’re good, we’ll get to open the box and find what’s inside at some point in 2012.  Dear Santa…


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Getting Access…and De-Vilification

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communication

Today, I witnessed a de-vilification.  It was intense, it was scary at times, and we held hands and talked quietly afterward to ensure we were ready to go out and face the real world again.

What happened?  I attended a 1-day seminar on lobbying.  Yes, lobbying the government.  As part of my job at TRIUMF in communications, strategic planning, outreach, education, external relations, public affairs, community and media relations, and whatever else I do each day to support the noble cause of the laboratory, I went to this seminar put on by the provincial Registrar of Lobbyists and Simon Fraser University. What we learned is that “lobbying” is NOT a bad word. In fact, we learned that is could be made whole, perfect, and complete: de-vilified!

What is lobbying?  Well, in simple terms, it is an undertaking to influence decisions made by government(s).  The Magna Carta granted every citizen the right to petition the crowd with his or her ideas, needs, and opinions — the first “right to lobby” was instantiated nearly 800 years ago!  Legend has it that the term “lobby” arose from the U.S. or the U.K. where people gathered around the politicians in the “lobbies” around the legislative chambers during breaks in session.  “Lobbyist” was therefore someone trying to get the ear of a politician weighing choices before voting.

In the modern world, lobbying is a dirty word. We complain about the undue influence of special interests in Washington, D.C., or Ottawa or even Victoria.  We associate lobbyists with people who just rotated out of government and are using their old rolodexes and networks to have an improper advantage in setting up meetings or having conversations with decision-makers. Worse, we see that many of these “lobbyists” are for hire! That is, they sell their ability to get access and their ability to influence to the highest bidder.

But what is really going on?

When the federal Minister of State for Science & Technology visits TRIUMF and we show him what we’re doing with isotopes for science and medicine, are we lobbying him?  Or when we are in Ottawa for a physics conference and we stop by to brief the clerks at the Ministry of Finance on our annual financial statements, are we lobbying them?

Turns out that most jurisdictions in North America have tried to do two things: (1) register lobbying activities, and (2) disclose these activities in the interests of transparency.  What qualifies as lobbying?  Well, in British Columbia, an organization is considered to be lobbying  the provincial government and must publicly register when the following criteria are all met: (a) there is an intent to communicate with government about an issue in front of it in an effort to support or influence an outcome (even if you’re requesting to maintain the status quo), (b) the people doing the communication are being paid (i.e., employees of the organization), (c) the effort expended by the entire organization for that communication exceeds 100 hours per year including prep time and travel time and meeting time and summed across all the people working on the communication, and (d) the person/people you’re meeting with government are at a certain level of decision/hierarchy.

It sounds complicated, but you can imagine what they’re trying to do: make sure that an average citizen’s letter doesn’t have to be tracked and reported but DO make sure that when larger groups meet on a regular basis with government representatives, there is some record of it.  We don’t want our democracies being run with secret advice in secret meetings!

And sometimes the lobbying registering and reporting rules are complicated. They are different for each part of each government, so one type of meeting might be considered lobbying the provincial government but not the federal government. Or a meeting with the Executive Branch might be lobbying where it wouldn’t be for the Legislative Branch.  For instance, we learned that staff of the Executive Branch cannot accept anything more than a cup of coffee at a function; staff of the U.S. Congress can have food “as long as it is not related to a meal.”  Now what does that mean?!

So what happens when you “register” as a lobbyist?  It means that you then have to keep track and “report” on the meetings and discussions you have with the government on the topics you’re interested in. For instance, a meeting to discuss the federal budget for science would qualify as well as a meeting to learn about the selection criteria for an upcoming research program.  Check out what happens when you register at the Government of Canada’s Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying website.

One of the themes of the workshop was how the system could be revised to allow more participation by interests that don’t have millions of dollars.  One suggestion was that responsibility for lobbyist registration and monitoring should also rest with public servants: when THEY meet with with YOU, they should record/report it and at the same time consider if they need to request a parallel meeting with another stakeholder group that also has a view on the issue up for discussion.

So, my meetings with the federal government do count; now, if the government person initiates the meeting, then it doesn’t.  But when we invite them, which we do ona regular basis, it does!  And TRIUMF certainly spends more than 100 hours per year collectively preparing for and meeting with government.   So that means we are lobbying…or rather, we are exercising our right to petition “the crown” to encourage them to favourable support the future of public funding for Canadian science and technology.

So lobbying is not dirty, its not evil.  You could even argue that lobbying is critical to a free, democratic society.  Its just that when conflicts of interest arise or improper advantages are used or sold that society runs into trouble.  So, what do you think?  What is lobbying for you? When does it cross the line?  Is it an intrinsic part of democracy or is it the path to corruption?

Go ahead—write back and lobby ME.

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