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Posts Tagged ‘outreach’

Why pure research?

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

With my first post on Quantum Diaries I will not address a technical topic; instead, I would like to talk about the act (or art) of “studying” itself. In particular, why do we care about fundamental research, pure knowledge without any practical purpose or immediate application?

A. Flexner in 1939 authored a contribution to Harper’s Magazine (issue 179) named “The usefulness of useless knowledge”. He opens the discussion with an interesting question: “Is it not a curios fact that in a world steeped in irrational hatreds which threaten civilization itself, men and women – old and young – detach themselves wholly or partly from the angry current of daily life to devote themselves to the cultivation of beauty, to the extension of knowledge […] ?”

Nowadays this interrogative is still present, and probably the need for a satisfactory answer is even stronger.

From a pragmatic point of view, we can argue that there are many important applications and spin-offs of theoretical investigations into the deep structure of Nature that did not arise immediately after the scientific discoveries. This is, for example, the case of QED and antimatter, the theories for which date back to the 1920s and are nowadays exploited in hospitals for imaging purposes (like in PET, positron emission tomography). The most important discoveries affecting our everyday life, from electricity to the energy bounded in the atom, came from completely pure and theoretical studies: electricity and magnetism, summarized in Maxwell’s equations, and quantum mechanics are shining examples.

It may seem that it is just a matter of time: “Wait enough, and something useful will eventually pop out of these abstract studies!” True. But that would not be the most important answer. To me this is: “Pure research is important because it generates knowledge and education”. It is our own contribution to the understanding of Nature, a short but important step in a marvelous challenge set up by the human mind.

Personally, I find that research into the yet unknown aspects of Nature responds to some partly conscious and partly unconscious desires. Intellectual achievements provide a genuine ‘spiritual’ satisfaction, peculiar to the art of studying. For sake of truth I must say that there are also a lot of dark sides: frustration, stress, graduate-depression effects, geographical and economic instability and so on. But leaving for a while all these troubles aside, I think I am pretty lucky in doing this job.

source_of_knowledge

Books, the source of my knowledge

During difficult times from the economic point of view, it is legitimate to ask also “Why spend a lot of money on expensive experiments like the Large Hadron Collider?” or “Why fund abstract research in labs and universities instead of investing in more socially useful studies?”

We could answer by stressing again the fact that many of the best innovations came from the fuzziest studies. But in my mind the ultimate answer, once for all, relies in the power of generating culture, and education through its diffusion. Everything occurs within our possibilities and limitations. A willingness to learn, a passion for teaching, blackboards, books and (super)computers: these are our tools.

Citing again Flexner’s paper: “The mere fact spiritual and intellectual freedoms bring satisfaction to an individual soul bent upon its own purification and elevation is all the justification that they need. […] A poem, a symphony, a painting, a mathematical truth, a new scientific fact, all bear in themselves all the justification that universities, colleges and institutes of research need or require.”

Last but not least, it is remarkable to think about how many people from different parts of the world may have met and collaborated while questing together after knowledge. This may seem a drop in the ocean, but research daily contributes in generating a culture of peace and cooperation among people with different cultural backgrounds. And that is for sure one of the more important practical spin-offs.

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How Can We Hangout Better?

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Yesterday we had one of our regular Hangouts with CERN, live from ICHEP, at which we took questions from around the Internet and updated everyone on the latest results, live here at the ICEHP 2014 conference. You can see a replay here:

I sent it to my wife, like I usually do. (“Look, I’m on ‘TV’ again!”) And she told me something interesting: she didn’t really get too much out of it. As we discussed it, it became clear that that was because we really did try to give the latest news on different analyses from ICHEP. Although we (hopefully) kept the level of the discussion general, the importance of the different things we look for would be tough to follow unless you keep up with particle physics regularly. We do tend to get more viewers and more enthusiasm when the message is more general, and a lot of the questions we get are quite general as well. Sometimes it seems like we get “Do extra dimensions really exist?” almost every time we have a hangout. We don’t want to answer that every time!

So the question is: how do we provide you with an engaging discussion while also covering new ground? We want people who watch every hangout to learn something new, but people who haven’t probably would prefer to hear the most exciting and general stuff. The best answer I can come up with is that every hangout should have a balance of the basics with a few new details. But then, part of the fun of the hangouts is that they’re unscripted and have specialist guests who can report directly on what they’ve been doing, so we actually can’t balance anything too carefully.

So are we doing the best we can with a tough but interesting format? Should we organize our discussions and the questions we choose differently? Your suggestions are appreciated!

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Which is the Real CERN?

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Is this CERN...?

Is this CERN…?

Or is this CERN...?

Or is this CERN…?

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

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

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

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Hangout with CERN, anyone?

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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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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Look Mom No Nabla’s!

Monday, August 8th, 2011

From time to time I find myself looking back at my class notes from my undergraduate studies, just to brush up on a topic or two (usually when I am taking the graduate class on the subject matter). And I’ve begun to notice a trend while comparing my undergraduate and graduate notes. I’ve gotten lazier.

That is, the notation I use to describe mathematics has gotten simpler. I think the reason for this is because there has been simply more material to write down, and less time for me to do it. I’ve seen professors at least double (sometimes triple) my age move faster with a white board marker then I can move on a treadmill. I have a tough time keeping up. So to keep up with them (aside from nagging them to slow down) I’ve started adopting a shorthand notation.

But unlike the late Dr. Feynman, I’ve not come up with my own short hand notation [1]. Instead I’ve just tried to incorporate what’s known as four-vector notation.

Four Vectors

Four vector notation is the notation of choice for quantum field theory. It allows a great simplification in how much you have to write (once you know the rules).

Let’s start with a simple example. Four vector notation allows me to describe a point in space-time (with respect to some reference frame), take the point:

(ct, x, y, z)

I can write this as:

Well that’s not astonishing in the least bit, I could have just as well labeled the point P.

Let’s take a second example. I can combine a scalar and a vector together in four-vector notation. For instance, if I wanted to describe a particle’s energy and it’s momentum (again, with respect to some reference frame) I could use a four-vector:

We can even go a bit more abstract and use four-vectors as mathematical operators:

Here we have a partial derivative with respect to time and the “del” operator (sometimes referred to as a nabla).

Now suppose I wanted to multiply two four-vectors, how would I do this? The product of two arbitrary four-vectors goes like this:

Notice how A and B have either a super-script or a sub-script in the above equations. In one case we have a contra-variant four-vector (super-script); and in the other we have a co-variant four-vector (sub-script).  However, their components are always labeled with super-scripts.  Notice how the product of four-vectors A & B is described by a “dot-product like” operation in which their respective components are multiplied together; but the last three are assigned a minus sign.

In fact I can only ever take the product of a contra-variant with a co-variant (nothing else); but the order in which one comes first doesn’t matter, their product is left invariant. I should also point out the name of the game is “summation over repeated index.” This means if I toss a third four-vector into the mix, if it has a different index (sub- or super-script) it’s ignored:

Notice how A & B have index μ and C has index ν. The μ is the “repeated” index, and the four-vector product acts between A & B. I realize this isn’t a true summation because there is a minus sign involved, but that’s just what the process is referred as.

Maxwell’s Equations – The Lazy Way

Now let’s dive into a serious example to really show the power of four-vector notation. And let’s go outside the realm of quantum field theory, instead let’s take Maxwell’s Equations:

With these four equations-and appropriate boundary conditions-I can describe all phenomenon in classical electrodynamics (I chosen to work in Heaviside-Lorentz units as opposed to the standard SI system, this causes the pesky μ’s & ε‘s to drop out. Remember I’m lazy!!).

These are four coupled first order differential equations that relate two vector fields (electric & magnetic). But from the theory of classical electrodynamics I can write these two vector fields as originating from a scalar and a vector potential (note, I did not say potential energy, which is very different from potential):

With this I can actually express Maxwell’s four first order equations as two second order equations:

Of course this is an awful mess when you look at it. Why on earth would anyone want to do this!? There are so many more terms and derivatives all over the place.

But, in physics there is something known as the “Lorentz Condition,” sometimes also called the Lorentz Gauge [2], which says:

(When I put this into Heaviside-Lorentz units the με again drop away).

Which simplifies the above two equations rather nicely:

Now this is truly enticing, these equations are almost identical! Suppose I made a set of four-vectors:

Notice how the last two are mathematical operators, one is a co-variant and the other is a contra-variant. They are just begging to be multiplied, so let’s do just that:

This is actually a new mathematical operator known as the d’Alembertian Operator, its usually represented by a square, but I don’t know the LaTeX command to make that. =(

But, with this set of four-vectors and the two equations above I can write mankind’s sum knowledge of all electromagnetic theory in one line:

Let’s pause on this for a moment.  I think this is really an astonishing miracle that physicists over the years have figured out how to write so much information about the natural world in such a small space (one line)!  Some of you might remember the Standard Model Lagrangian, which is conveniently written on a coffee mug should you forget.  That coffee mug contains A LOT of information, but it definitely cannot  fit on one line, at least with my handwriting (maybe someone someday will come up with some ingenious notation of their own?!).

But, just like that four vector notation has allowed physicists to simplify Maxwell’s Equations (all four of them) in a single concise statement. Talk about saving space on your final exam’s equation sheet! So hopefully you’ve come to appreciate the power of four-vector notation.

Until Next Time,

-Brian

 

References

[1] Richard Feynman routinely used his own notation for trigonometric functions, logarithms and other common functions in mathematics, he did this because it was simpler & faster for him to write in such a fashion. For more details and other great stories, see Feynman’s own “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman,” W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1985.

[2] See for instance D. J. Griffiths, “Introduction to Electrodynamics,” 2nd ed., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1989.

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Happy 5th of July, everyone! For my inaugural post here on Quantum Diaries I thought it would be fun and somewhat fitting to write about one of my favorite parts of being a scientist: public outreach. The terms “public outreach,” “science outreach,” or just “outreach” are all used interchangeably by researchers and our funders, e.g.,  The National Science Foundation and The U.S. Department of Energy, to mean when scientists hold public lectures or demonstrations in order to tell people all about their present work or field of science. One example of outreach familiar to everyone reading this blog is Quantum Diaries itself. The innovations made in social media (think Twitter) have made it possible for physicists around the world to share with everyone, including other scientists, the exciting, ground-breaking research we do. On top of that, it can all happen with just a few key strokes and track pad taps.

Department of Energy, DOE, Office of Science LogoNational Science Foundation, NSF, Logo

 

 

 

 

 

To list all the reasons why outreach is beneficial and useful would make this post much, much longer than I intend. Though, there is one reason for reaching out to the public I feel worth mentioning: it’s a unique way of saying “thank you.” Equipment like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, Fermilab’s Tevatron, and NASA’s Hubble Telescope are all examples of publicly financed science experiments, each with the goal of helping understand how the Universe came to be. Economically speaking, such projects can only be constructed with federal assistance. However, these so-called “high risk, high reward” projects have given us, as unintended consequences, new methods of cancer treatment and even the World Wide Web. The Large Hadron Collider alone has pushed computing technology to an impressive new standard. Without the public’s help many of our greatest scientific achievements may not have ever been actualized; this is why scientists are always hesitant and worried when budget discussions pertaining to science funding become politicized.

A neat fact of life is that there are so many different ways of saying “thank you” that are entirely institution- and regionally dependent. For instance the physics lab Fermilab, which is located in a suburb of Chicago and actually doubles as a nature preserve, has a hugely successful program called Saturday Morning Physics where local high school students, regardless of scientific background, can learn all about modern physics. The University of Chicago and The University of Wisconsin, as well as many other universities, hold annual shows featuring hours of physics demonstrations that can be literally explosive. MIT uniquely has its Splash Program where advanced undergraduates are invited to tell participating high school students all about their favorite topics, like the Science of Cooking, and often includes demonstrations (or tasty samples!). A grand example is CERN’s gigantic wooden dome named The Globe. This 30-meter tall, perpetually pine-smelling, building provides the surrounding French and Swiss communities (CERN is on the French-Swiss boarder just outside of Geneva, Switzerland) continuously updated exhibits on the history of the Universe and on the works of famous physicists like Einstein. The Globe also acts a venue for public lectures where everyone is invited to hear from scientists from various fields, not just physics. Just pull up a web browser and search your favorite university along with the words “science outreach,” or even just “biology outreach.” I promise you will immediately find tons of fantastic information.
CERN's Globe

Well, I hope you enjoyed my first post. Future ones will mostly be about really neat particle physics updates but there will definitely be the occasional awesome-application-of-science-but-not-necessarily-physics post. Here is a sneak peak of an update-in-progress that I hope will be a big hit. Until then though you can find me on my personal outreach Twitter account @bravelittlemuon. Send me a message or post a comment below; I would love to hear about your outreach experiences!

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On Going Home(s)

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Hi, folks!

I’ve been absent for a while on account of switching jobs: from “graduate student/research assistant” to “plot-slash-table-making automaton.” The cynical among you may argue that these are essentially the same thing, but it helps me sleep at night to believe otherwise. Well. At any rate, I’ve had several blog post ideas sloshing around in my head for months now, and rather than age to perfection, they’ve gotten all… mushy. Here is your first serving of mushed thought.

I went home to Michigan for Christmas. Things were pretty much the same, modulo the effects of prolonged regional economic distress and the strange sensation that everything and everyone was larger than they should be (cars, portion sizes, distances to points of interest, family members). Naturally people wanted to know what I’d been up to, but I was mostly at a loss for words: How does one condense high-energy physics and la vie CERNoise into a quip or anecdote that connects with non-physicists?

“I work a lot.”

Surprisingly, that seemed to satisfy most questioners. Also: “Haven’t managed to destroy the world yet.” For more thorough and eloquent answers, I turned to CERN’s visitor center and gift shop, bringing home a few CERN/physics books as both gifts and conversational references. When a friend asked about “the Higgs Bassoon,” I pointed her to a fully illustrated children’s book showing the basics of the Standard Model and how physicists are able to study it. “No, it’s not a woodwind instrument, it’s a hypothetical fundamental scalar boson.” This was the same book I gifted to my mom; tomorrow, on her 50th birthday, I will be sending her a quiz to assess what she learned. I am a terrible son. My dad had mentioned to me a drinking buddy who fancied himself a physics enthusiast, so I gave my dad a more advanced but still brief introduction to particle physics in order to impress this guy and, one hopes, get a free drink or two out of the exchange. See? My field has practical applications. In related news, my grandma found the Higgs Boson.

The whole experience has underscored the importance of accurate, accessible communication between scientists and the general public. This US LHC blog is a nice venue for such conversations, right? :) But as for a much wider scale, let me just say that I’m incredibly thankful for all the science journalists and other folks out there engaged in outreach (Daisy, Bryan, Katie, …). We all benefit from your excellent metaphors.

I went home to New York for New Years. I was surprised to find that people in bars really like hearing about the LHC; I was not surprised to hear some call it the “Large Hardon Collider.” Emergency physics lessons ensued.

It’s easy to forget about (or at least willfully ignore) my institution, Stony Brook University, when it’s so far away, but since I was in the neighborhood, I swung by to say hello to my advisor and physics friends who don’t work at CERN. This was a dangerous move: advisors are pretty much obligated to request plots and tables from their advisees, and I quickly reverted to the automaton existence I’d left behind. Sigh. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder — will keep in mind next time I consider visiting.

Oh, one more thing before I get back to making last-minute plots for the ATLAS note I and my colleagues have been working on for some time (and will soon be submitting!) : Let’s please have a moment of silence for the Tevatron, a pioneer and workhorse in high-energy physics for the past two decades, whose funding won’t be extended beyond 2011.

It’s time for the LHC to really, really shine.

– Burton

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Occasionally I browse our ‘trackbacks’ to see what websites are linking to the US/LHC blog. Recently I was delighted to discover Matt Shields’ webpages for his physics courses in Charlottesville High School in Virginia. I should preface all this by saying that I do not personally know Mr. Shields nor have I ever corresponded with him, but I agree with the guy with the funny hair below:

einsteinImage from Mr. Shields’ webpage, presumably using Hetemeel.com.

While I applaud all science and math teachers, Mr. Shields gets a special kudos for organizing a class field trip to CERN to visit the LHC. In two weeks, a group of Charlottesville High School students will go on what sounds like an amazing one-week adventure to France that culminates in two days at CERN. They’ll also hit several science-related cultural landmarks in addition to the usual sights and sounds in what should be truly special experience. I wish I could tag along. :-) [I think I'm the only US/LHC blogger that hasn't spent some time at CERN yet...]

Anyway, I salute Mr. Shields for organizing an event that brings his students to the hub of high energy physics at such an exciting time.

I also commend Mr. Shields and the CHS community for the logistical support to make such a thing happen; these sorts of trips are not easy to organize. In particular, the class is responsible for its own fundraising and have set up their own PayPal tax-deductible donations page. [Disclaimer: the CHS "CERN 2010" trip is in no way related to or officially endorsed by the US/LHC.]

Cheers to Mr. Shields, and bon voyage to the lucky high school students who’ll get to visit CERN! (Say hi to any US/LHC bloggers if you see them there.)

-Flip Tanedo, on behalf of the US/LHC blog

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ATLAS wakes up, blogs, and tweets

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

At last, the ATLAS Experiment has woken up, and so has the ATLAS Control Room Blog.  The ATLAS Twitter account is running too!  (No word on an official Facebook mirror.  Maybe I’ll poke a few people about it.)

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