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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

It’s Saturday, so I’m at the coffee shop working on my thesis again. It’s become a tradition over the last year that I meet a writer friend each week, we catch up, have something to drink, and sit down for a few hours of good-quality writing time.

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The work desk at the coffee shop: laptop, steamed pork bun, and rosebud latte.

We’ve gotten to know the coffee shop really well over the course of this year. It’s pretty new in the neighborhood, but dark and hidden enough that business is slow, and we don’t feel bad keeping a table for several hours. We have our favorite menu items, but we’ve tried most everything by now. Some mornings, the owner’s family comes in, and the kids watch cartoons at another table.

I work on my thesis mostly, or sometimes I’ll work on analysis that spills over from the week, or I’ll check on some scheduled jobs running on the computing cluster.

My friend Jason writes short stories, works on revising his novel (magical realism in ancient Egypt in the reign of Rameses XI), or drafts posts for his blog about the puzzles of the British constitution. We trade tips on how to organize notes and citations, and how to stay motivated. So I’ve been hearing a lot about the cultural difference between academic work in the humanities and the sciences. One of the big differences is the level of citation that’s expected.

As a particle physicist, when I write a paper it’s very clear which experiment I’m writing about. I only write about one experiment at a time, and I typically focus on a very small topic. Because of that, I’ve learned that the standard for making new claims is that you usually make one new claim per paper, and it’s highlighted in the abstract, introduction, and conclusion with a clear phrase like “the new contribution of this work is…” It’s easy to separate which work you claim as your own and which work is from others, because anything outside “the new contribution of this work” belongs to others. A single citation for each external experiment should suffice.

For academic work in history, the standard is much different: the writing itself is much closer to the original research. As a start, you’ll need a citation for each quote, going to sources that are as primary as you can get your hands on. The stranger idea for me is that you also need a citation for each and every idea of analysis that someone else has come up with, and that a statement without a citation is automatically claimed as original work. This shows up in the difference between Jason’s posts about modern constitutional issues and historical ones: the historical ones have huge source lists, while the modern ones are content with a few hyperlinks.

In both cases, things that are “common knowledge” doesn’t need to be cited, like the fact that TeV cosmic rays exist (they do) or the year that Elizabeth I ascended the throne (1558).

There’s a difference in the number of citations between modern physics research and history research. Is that because of the timing (historical versus modern) or the subject matter? Do they have different amounts of common knowledge? For modern topics in physics and in history, the sources are available online, so a hyperlink is a perfect reference, even in formal post. By that standard, all Quantum Diaries posts should be ok with the hyperlink citation model. But even in those cases, Jason puts footnoted citations to modern articles in the JSTOR database, and uses more citations overall.

Another cool aspect of our coffee shop is that the music is sometimes ridiculous, and it interrupts my thoughts if I get stuck in some esoteric bog. There’s an oddly large sample of German covers of 30s and 40s showtunes. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard “The Lady is a Tramp” in German while calculating oscillation probabilities. I’m kidding. Mostly.

Jason has shown me a different way of handling citations, and I’ve taught him some of the basics of HTML, so now his citations can appear as hyperlinks to the references list!

As habits go, I’m proud of this social coffee shop habit. I default to getting stuff done, even if I’m feeling slightly off or uninspired.  The social reward of hanging out makes up for the slight activation energy of getting off my couch, and once I’m out of the house, it’s always easier to focus.  I miss prime Farmers’ Market time, but I could go before we meet. The friendship has been a wonderful supportive certainty over the last year, plus I get some perspective on my field compared to others.

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Welcome to Thesisland

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

When I joined Quantum Diaries, I did so with trepidation: while it was an exciting opportunity, I was worried that all I could write about was the process of writing a thesis and looking for postdoc jobs. I ended up telling the site admin exactly that: I only had time to work on a thesis and job hunt. I thought I was turning down the offer. But the reply I got was along the lines of “It’s great to know what topics you’ll write about! When can we expect a post?”. So, despite the fact that this is a very different topic from any recent QD posts, I’m starting a series about the process of writing a physics PhD thesis. Welcome.

The main thesis editing desk: laptop, external monitor keyboard mouse; coffee, water; notes; and lots of encouragement.

The main thesis editing desk: laptop, external monitor keyboard mouse; coffee, water; notes; and lots of encouragement.

There are as many approaches to writing a PhD thesis as there are PhDs, but they can be broadly described along a spectrum.

On one end is the “constant documentation” approach: spend some fixed fraction of your time on documenting every project you work on. In this approach, the writing phase is completely integrated with the research work, and it’s easy to remember the things you’re writing about. There is a big disadvantage: it’s really easy to write too much, to spend too much time writing and not enough doing, or otherwise un-balance your time. If you keep a constant fraction of your schedule dedicated to writing, and that fraction is (in retrospect) too big, you’ve lost a lot of time. But you have documented everything, which everyone who comes after will be grateful for. If they ever see your work.

The other end of the spectrum is the “write like hell” approach (that is, write as fast as you can), where all the research is completed and approved before writing starts. This has the advantage that if you (and your committee) decide you’ve written enough, you immediately get a PhD! The disadvantage is that if you have to write about old projects, you’ll probably have forgotten a lot. So this approach typically leads to shorter theses.

These two extremes were first described to me (see the effect of thesis writing? It’s making my blog voice go all weird and passive) by two professors who were in grad school together and still work together. Each took one approach, and they both did fine, but the “constant documentation” thesis was at least twice (or was it three times?) as long as the “write like hell” thesis.

Somewhere between those extremes is the funny phenomenon of the “staple thesis”: a thesis primarily composed of all the papers you wrote in grad school, stapled together. A few of my friends have done this, but it’s not common in my research group because our collaboration is so large. I’ll discuss that in more detail later.

I’m going for something in the middle: as soon as I saw a light at the end of the tunnel, I wanted to start writing, so I downloaded the UW latex template for PhD theses and started filling it in. It’s been about 14 months since then, with huge variations in the writing/research balance. To help balance between the two approaches, I’ve found it helpful to keep at least some notes about all the physics I do, but nothing too polished: it’s always easier to start from some notes, however minimal, than to start from nothing.

When I started writing, there were lots of topics available that needed some discussion: history and theory, my detector, all the calibration work I did for my master’s project–I could have gone full-time writing at that point and had plenty to do. But my main research project wasn’t done yet. So for me, it’s not just a matter of balancing “doing” with “documenting”; it’s also a question of balancing old documentation with current documentation. I’ve almost, *almost* finished writing the parts that don’t depend on my work from the last year or so. In the meantime, I’m still finishing the last bits of analysis work.

It’s all a very long process. How many readers are looking towards writing a thesis later on? How many have gone through this and found a method that served them well? If it was fast and relatively low-stress, would you tell me about it?

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What Went on My Research Page

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Remember when I was wondering, “What Goes on My Research Page?” Well, I finally decided what to put on it and got it posted:

Seth Zenz – Princeton University Department of Physics

Let me know what you think!

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Particles of the Day

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012
My copy of the 2012 PDG booklet

My copy of the 2012 PDG booklet

Last week, I got my copy of the 2012 Particle Data Group Review of Particle Physics booklet — which, along with its heavy, 1000-page full-length counterpart, we simply call “the PDG.” My very first copy, during my first months at CERN in the summer of 2003, is a vivid memory for me. Here was a book with almost everything you want to know, about every particle ever discovered! It was like the book of dinosaurs I had when I was a kid, and I read it in exactly the same way: flipping to a random page and reading a few facts about, say, the charged kaon.

My new copy of the PDG has inspired me to adapt this fun for non-experts. So each day, I’ll feature a new particle on Twitter; I’m @sethzenz, and the hashtag will be #ParticleOfTheDay. Since starting last week, I’ve featured the B0s meson, the pion, the kaon, the electron, and the Higgs.

How long can I keep this up? That is, how many particles are there? Well, that depends on how you count. The Standard Model has 3 charged leptons, 3 neutrinos, 6 quarks, the photon, and the W, Z, and Higgs bosons. But then there’s all the antiparticles. Dark matter candidates. The graviton. I could even argue for taking 8 days covering all the gluon colors! (Don’t worry, I won’t.) But most of all, there’s all the composite particles — those that are made from a combination of quarks. There are a very large number of those, and there will always be more to find too, because you can always add more energy to the same combination of quarks.

The point isn’t to be systematic. I might go back and be more specific. I might repeat. What I really want to do is find a particle each day that’s in the news or I can say something interesting about.

Flipping at random through a book of particles turns out not to be the best way to learn particle physics; ultimately, I needed to learn the principles by which those particles are organized. But it is an interesting way to tell the story of particle physics: its history and how it’s done today. After all, the particles do come out of accelerators in a random jumble; it’s our job to organize them.

Have an idea for the Particle of the Day, and what to say about it? Let me know!

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Are the Higgs Rumors True?

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

What Higgs rumors, you may ask? Well, there aren’t any that I know of, yet. But there might be soon…

There might be rumors soon because we are about to do another round of updates, for the 2012 Hadron Collider Physics Symposium (HCP). There aren’t any yet because our results (at least on CMS) are still “blinded,” which means that we haven’t actually looked at the “places” in the data where we see signs of our new boson. What we’re doing instead is looking at simulated data to see how much our results might improve when we add in the collisions we’ve recorded since ICHEP. We’re also putting in a few new analysis techniques, and checking them in the same way. And of course we are looking at data in other “places,” and we’re comparing it to simulations to make sure they’re doing a good job.

There will be several weeks between the moment we “unblind” — that is, look for the first time at what our signal looks like with the new data — and when results are shown at HCP. This is just as things were at ICHEP, and during those few weeks there were a lot of rumors around. It’s not possible to confirm or deny rumors when you know the status of ongoing work but haven’t yet agreed with your colleagues that it’s finished and ready to talk about publicly. So this time, I’m going to get in some general comments about rumors before I know anything at all about actual results. These comments will apply just as well to future updates.

What are we doing during the gap between unblinding and the conference? We’re checking our results, and putting them in a final presentable form. This is already compressed into a very short, hectic time, as I’ve written about before.

Are the rumors true? They are definitely not our official results, but they might turn out to be close. Or they might not. Specifically, the possibilities are:

  • A rumor is pretty much right. It’s no secret that particle physicists are bad at keeping secrets, and we really don’t want to be good at it. If one in 3,000 physicists decides to tell the Internet what our first-pass internal results look like, we can’t really stop them. Of course they’re breaking the rules, and we wish they wouldn’t, because it’s a collaborative effort and we’d prefer to agree together that we’re finished before announcing our results — because we want to make sure we did everything as well as we can. But still, our first-pass results are usually pretty close to final.
  • A rumor isn’t quite right. This could happen if we do find small mistakes or make refinements in the last few weeks of analyzing the data. This changes the answer by a bit, so the rumor is out of date. You could also make up a “not-quite-right” rumor just by making an educated guess based on our last results and how much new data we’ve taken!
  • A rumor is just plain wrong. Nobody says rumors have to be based on anything. Or they could be based on a misunderstanding of far-from-complete internal results.

We physicists working on this stuff don’t find it easy to wait for the answers either, and as Jon Butterworth has pointed out, rumors of other experiments’ results are actually dangerous for our work! For everybody else who’s tempted to indulge in rumors, just remember: you might be getting part of the picture early, or you might not. The only way to be sure is to wait for the next real update.

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What Goes on My Research Page?

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

It is time, it seems, for me to put up my first real departmental research page. This is a place to put up a picture, describe my research interests, and maybe link to some papers. It shouldn’t really be too difficult to write something up, as I have seem to have acquired a disturbing amount of practice in rambling about my research and putting up web pages about myself. But looking at others’ research pages has left me with a nagging question: what, really, are my research interests?

“CMS and ATLAS are two of a kind: they’re both looking for whatever new particles they can find.” — Kate McAlpine, Large Hadron Rap

In most fields, I would talk about a very specific set of problems I was interested in, and say what sort of experiments I was doing to figure things out. But the big detectors at the LHC try to look for everything, and I work on them because I’m interested in finding anything new that’s there. Am I especially interested in electroweak symmetry breaking because I work on the Higgs boson? Am I a precision tracking enthusiast because I’ve worked on pixel detectors? Well, yes, to some degree both those things are true — but the fundamental motivation for my research is to contribute to the overall program of understanding what the universe is made of, by whatever means my skills and the available opportunities allow.

Still, I suppose I had better be a bit more specific. Anyone have any suggestions?

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DPF 2011, tweet tweet!

Friday, August 5th, 2011

I know, I know, everyone has been focusing on the EPS and Lepton-Photon conferences (not to mention repeatedly putting in hyperlinks to their Web sites), but let’s not forget that the 2011 Meeting of the Division of Particles and Fields of the American Physical Society (DPF 2011, for short) starts this coming Tuesday. This will be the largest conference exclusively focused on particle physics in the United States this year, and it’s organized by the nation’s grass-roots membership organization of physicists, the APS. There are currently more than 450 people registered, so a large slice of the US particle-physics community will be there. This will be the fourth time that I’ve been to a DPF meeting, and I really do enjoy them — they are large enough to cover a broad range of topics, yet still small enough that you don’t get lost in the crowd.

For the first time ever, I find myself giving two presentations at the same conference — one on behalf of the CMS Collaboration (on the status of our distributed computing operation) and one on behalf of the D0 Collaboration at the Tevatron (on measurements of spin correlations in top-antitop production). On top of that, I’m also co-organizing a lunchtime panel discussion on “physics and the modern media.” What you are reading right now is a form of modern media, of course. We’re going to be talking with science journalists, communicators and bloggers about where communication about science is going…and what these sorts of people think of each other!

Since we’re going to talk about modern media, we figured that we should jump in with both feet, and that means Twitter. I must admit that I haven’t done much Twitter (although I do now have an account), but it seems to be all the rage. So, we’re encouraging Twitter users who will be attending the conference, and those who aren’t but want to keep up with what’s going on, to tweet away using the hash tag #DPF2011. If you are interested in the modern-media panel, feel free to tweet to us on Tuesday at 12:30 PM Eastern time; we’ll be keeping an eye on the feed and relaying interesting comments and questions to the panel.

More next week from fabulous Providence, Rhode Island!

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Sorry, terrible title, as it references an ancient slogan for a now-defunct car brand. But what do you want — it’s the Friday before a holiday weekend!

Today marked the end of the June CMS week, one of three full-on collaboration meetings that the experiment holds each year. Honestly, I find these things overwhelming. It’s an opportunity to get a full view of everything that is going on within the collaboration. This spans detector operations, the trigger system, computing, plans for future detector upgrades, and all the data analysis that is taking place. Of course there is some talk about the challenges that we face — increasing luminosity, more complex event environments, the pressure to get results out promptly, the issues of keeping such a large collaboration organized and efficient. But we also get to see some of the best work that is being done by our collaborators. Some of the data analyses out there are really creative and clever, and you have to tip your hat to the people who are doing the work.

And I sit there thinking: Why am I not working on this myself? Actually, why didn’t I even know before that the work is going on? There are huge swaths of the experiment that I’m barely following, even though they are important. It’s somewhat demoralizing to have trouble keeping up with all the activity that is out there.

I console myself by saying that this is really an issue of scale. Consider the CLEO experiment at Cornell, where I did my PhD thesis about fifteen years ago. At the time it wasn’t the largest collaboration out there, perhaps half the size of one of the Tevatron collider experiments, but it was still substantial, with about 250 people on the author list. I could identify almost everyone in the collaboration on sight, I was reading pretty much every paper that went out, and I had a pretty good handle on what the hot topics were throughout the experiment.

So I need to keep some perspective and remember that these are different times and the LHC experiments are about a factor of ten larger than my thesis experiment. A single LHC experiment is now on the scale of 1500 PhD scientists, which surely puts it on the scale of a major research university. And who would expect to know everything that’s going on inside a research university?

Looking on the bright side, a group of scientists this large, all focused on the same goal, can really do amazing things. One of the amazing things is the ability to collaborate on these scales of both size and distance. But better still will be what we think and hope is coming — a revision of our understanding of how the universe works. It does take this many people to pull it off, and I shouldn’t be embarrassed by the fact that I don’t know what everyone is actually doing.

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Perks of the job

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Life as a high energy physicist is not without its perks.  I recently got back from my latest trip to CERN for the EMCal test beam.  I spent about a week on the midnight to 8 AM shift and then stayed a week to work with some of my collaborators in ALICE.  The hours are long and the work is hard but the company is good and there are many perks.

I’m an avid hiker so I took a day off to go hiking in the Juras.  My friend Daniel organized it and we ended up with a group of two physicists from ALICE, one from CMS, one from ATLAS, and one from a university in France.  We had one American, one Brit, one Spaniard, and two Mexicans.  A multicultural group in many ways.  Here you can see the view from the Juras:

Somewhere down there is CMS.  It was a nice hike but next time I’ll pack my good compass and get my own trail map.  We had some unintentional adventures.

After my trip to CERN I went to a conference in Sicily – which means I had to work on a talk while I was at CERN.  Of course Sicily is beautiful:

(This is the view from Taormina during the excursion.)

Then I packed up and left, first to Geneva and then back to the US.  Five flights and four countries in two days.  My luggage made it through Paris to Atlanta but then decided to take a vacation in Atlanta without me.  I’m now looking at a grueling travel schedule in the next four months.  Plans have changed and our detector, the electromagnetic calorimeter, is going in during the Christmas shutdown.  This is great news but it also defines my holiday schedule – November and part of January at CERN.  On top of that I have a few meetings and some personal travel.  I’ll be lucky if I manage to be home for two weeks in December.  However, I did not get much sympathy from my father the other day when I was complaining about how I might have to get extra pages in my passport because I’m running out of space.  Go figure.

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The cost of a PhD

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

It costs a lot of money to produce a PhD scientist.  A rough estimate, based on my education:

  • Primary and Secondary education:  For simplification, let’s say I spent all of my k-12 years in Colorado.  Colorado ranks roughly 42nd in per-pupil spending, but it still costs $8,600/pupil/year for k-12 education.  Therefore, my high school diploma cost roughly $112,000.
  • Bachelor’s degree:  I went to Colorado State University for my undergraduate degree – a large state university.  Colorado State was a great bargain and when I started there, in-state tuition was roughly $2000/year.   Most of this was covered by scholarships, so was actually paid by some branch of government.  However, CSU spent roughly $20,000/student on undergraduates, with the difference made up from the general fund.  I spent five years in undergrad, so just the tuition for my degree was worth roughly $100,000.  Fort Collins, CO was pretty cheap to live and I was an overwhelming cheapskate.  My cost of living averaged about $10,000/year, adding another roughly $50,000.  Additionally, I participated in four summer undergraduate research programs.  One program was at CSU and my participation (salary and other expenses, excluding the salaries of my supervisors) cost roughly $4000.  One program was at UNC Chapel Hill and I got paid $3,000 plus room and board and transportation to Chapel Hill, so this cost roughly $5,000.  One program was in the Netherlands for five months and this probably cost roughly $10,000.  One program was in Switzerland for two and a half months and this probably cost roughly $10,000.  So the cost of my supplementary training as an undergraduate was roughly $29,000.  Therefore the total cost of my undergraduate degree was roughly $179,000.
  • Doctorate:  The average time in graduate school in physics in the United States is six years.  I spent six years and two months in grad school.  Grad students in physics don’t pay for their tuition, but tuition is paid to the university by the grant.  At Yale, my tuition was about $20,000/year.  In addition, my stipend, my supplementary salary from teaching, the cost of my health insurance, and overhead added up to at least $40,000/year.  This adds up to at least $360,000.  On top of that, I took trips to conferences and to take shifts.  My travel for my research definitely pushed the cost of my graduate degree to at least $400,000.

Therefore my PhD cost roughly $691,000.  This is not a precise calculation and one could certainly quibble with details.  I’m sure that people with more knowledge about grants would say I’m actually underestimating a lot of costs.  A PhD at Yale is probably more expensive than at other schools, but it still easily costs well over half a million dollars to produce a PhD.  That’s a huge investment for society to make in a person – and I’m very grateful.

I benefited significantly from scholarships and grants.  Other than paying taxes like everyone else, my family and I probably paid less than 5% of that cost.  Some costs were picked up by private organizations through grants, awards, and scholarships, but most of it was paid for by some branch of the government.  My teaching, tutoring, and research does have economic value – I don’t see myself as a leech on society – but I do owe my education and the opportunities I’ve had to the kindness of taxpayers.  If we did not live in a society that at least strives to create equal opportunities for all, I would not be where I am.  Because of the debt I owe society, I feel it is my responsibility to give back – to use my education to explain what I do to the public and to help inspire and train the next generation.

At the same time, society benefits from having highly educated people.  I am doing basic research that will most likely not lead to a marketable product in my lifetime.  But basic research is crucial to future economic developments.  Research in high energy particle and nuclear physics has led to cheaper and better particle detectors which can be used for medical technologies.  CERN played a crucial role in the development of the internet – certainly more than Al Gore – and it still does.  All of the experiments at the LHC use a computing infrastructure called the grid and developing the grid took substantial improvements in networking and distributed computing.  Studying the Quark Gluon Plasma will not directly feed the hungry or cure cancer, but we move the boundary of what is possible and this benefits humanity.

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