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Posts Tagged ‘outreach’

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


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


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.)


Particles to the People!

Monday, February 22nd, 2010


This weekend our department had a Physics Fair, free to the public, where hundreds of parents and kids came and learned about the research we’re involved in. There were grad students and professors available from many research groups including plasma, condensed matter, astrophysics, particle physics, and more.


Hey that's my experiment!

I enjoyed interacting with the public and letting them know people from their community are involved in a project they’ve actually heard about in the news. Of course, many people who had heard of a “hadron collider”, heard about it because of “black hole” fear stories.  Not that anyone was really afraid, it’s just that newspapers liked to make eye-catching, sensational headlines (like shown here).

If that’s what it takes to get on the cover of some newspapers, I’ll take it.  It’s a starting point, and at least gets people talking.

We had a few things for kids to look at, including a cloud chamber to see particles from cosmic rays.

Another thing we had for kids was a “quark puzzle”, which was an improved design from previous fairs.  See it here:


Quark Puzzle! (click to see larger image)

With this, kids could put together up and down quarks in whatever combinations of 3 they wished to create ether a delta-minus, neutron, proton, or delta-plus-plus.  Then they pasted them together using a “gluon” glue stick.  The quarks fit together in such a way that they can only make a circle with quarks of all three colors: red, green, and blue.

I know, I know, it’s way low budget, but a surprising number of kids enjoyed pasting quarks together.  Some kids made pasted together a bunch of quarks and were really excited to be bringing home so many particles.



Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Outreach activities are an important part of what we do. Not only do they inform the public what their tax dollars are being spent on and allow it to ask questions, but also reaches out to students when they are still thinking about a career; either when they are undergraduates or even earlier in high school.

Research is built around the concept of “apprenticeship”, and having good, motivated students is crucial. They do a lot of the “grunt work”, e.g., building and calibrating the detector, writing software, etc., but they also analyze data that lead to publications, and their dissertations ; undergraduates can also make important contributions.

One way to work with undergraduates is to be a host for a student in the REU program (Research Experience for Undergraduates). An undergraduate typically spends ten weeks during the summer with a research group at a university different from where they are enrolled as a student. This summer a colleague and I are hosting a student from Missouri University of Science & Technology; last year we worked with one from Vanderbilt University. He is reading ATLAS documentation to understand how “Missing Energy” is determined, learning how to use software tools, making plots, giving talks in local group meetings, etc. In other words, getting a first hand look at how research is done.

Another outreach activity I have been involved with since last year is called “Adopt-a-Physicist”. It is coordinated through the American Institute of Physics. Basically, one is “adopted” by high school students from around the country for a period of two weeks, and they ask questions (on a web-based forum) about whatever strikes their fancy, e.g., what my research is all about, what the life of a scientist is like, what my daily activities are, how much I get paid (not as much as I would like! Even Physicists like to own Porsches!), whether I have pets, etc. The adoptees have a Physics degree but are not necessarily in research. It is a very good way for students to learn the benefits of getting a science education. I received the following from one teacher whose class had adopted me,  “…thanks for increasing their interest in a science related career. This interaction with you has definitely changed their view about scientists and they realized that scientists are real people leading a life a similar to theirs…” Maybe one or more of them will end up doing research. At the very least, it broadens their perception about science and scientists.


Acting Like Ourselves

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

The film crew for Particle Fever was in my office again last week.  It’s a movie in which I, if I’m not cut, will play the role of Seth Zenz, a graduate student with a high opinion of himself who wants to be on TV.  The filming this time was a rather fun and slightly surreal experience: the director has a bunch of us sit down and, well, act like ourselves.  We get to have real conversations about things we’re working on, but there are a few things we have to do differently.  We can’t take quite so much vocabulary and background knowledge for granted, in the hope that maybe the audience can understand us.  We also have to try not to interrupt each other, which is a very big change indeed from how we usually have discussions!  And we have to sit on tables and in other funny places so we all fit in a good camera shot.   It probably really is the closest anyone get to reproducing a bit of our lives and thought processes for the public, but everything sure does feel different in front of a camera.

Note to self: make sure to replace the last part of the second sentence with “an earnest desire to explain the importance and excitement of his work to the public” before posting this!


Can We “Point” the LHC, Too?

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

The Bad Astronomy blog is publicizing a chance to choose what the Hubble Space Telescope looks at.  The basic idea is that there’s going to be an internet vote between six objects that Hubble has never looked at, and Hubble will be pointed at the winner and send out pictures of it by April.  It seems like a fun way to get the public to learn more about, and feel more involved in, the Hubble project.

I’ll let you read more details at one of the links above, but I have another question to consider: can we do something similar with the LHC? That is, could we put up some kind of page where people could vote on what kind of physics we would study over the course of some particular week?  Maybe a choice between searching for Supersymmetry, or a high-mass Higgs boson, or a low-mass Higgs boson?  At first glance, the answer would seem to be “no.”  We obviously have no control over what kind of physics happens when the protons of the LHC collide — we just look at what comes out.  And it seems unlikely that any physicist would volunteer to put their work hours into a particular analysis because of a public vote, and anyway we’ll have people working on all the high-profile analyses and many low-profile ones besides.

But there actually is a sense in which ATLAS or CMS could to something similar.  Remember that our detectors can only record a few hundred events every second, out of the almost forty million times the beams cross during that second.  There are lots of collisions we have to throw out because we can’t store enough data, and it’s the trigger system that decides which few we keep.  In practice, there are a number of different signals that we program the trigger system to be interested in: we take a certain number of random low-energy events to help us calibrate what we see in our other events, and we have separate “trigger paths” for hadronic jets, for muons, for electrons, and so on.  We try to record all the events that might represent interesting new physics, but as the collision rate at the LHC increases, we’ll have to throw away even some of those.  When the committee meets to decide how to balance the different possible triggers, what is at issue is precisely which kinds of events the detector will “point at,” i.e. recognize as important and save.  People with different interests in terms of physics might make different choices about how to achieve that balance, and every study would always love more trigger bandwidth if it were available, and that’s why we have committees to argue about it in the first place.

So why not reserve 5% of the ATLAS or CMS trigger bandwidth for a public vote on what physics to look for, to give a little extra oomph to one study or another?  Actually, I can think of several good and practical reasons why not — but it’s fun to think about!


I’ve been meaning to write a quick note thanking people for their comments on last week’s post about tracking.  When I spend a lot of time on making sure a post really explains something well, it means a lot to me to know that my effort succeeded.  (A note to readers who happen to be my advisor: I didn’t spend too long on it, I swear.  And anyway I was waiting for my code to compile.)  So, thanks!  While I’m here, I figure I might as well share an observation that occured to me while reading the comments, and then answer a question that was asked.

First the observation.  In my experience, if you go to a baseball game and point out that the people on the other side of the stadium “look like” a particle tracker for the ball, your friends stare at you as if you’re crazy.  And yet, if you write about particle physics and manage to compare it to baseball, then it goes over rather well as a feat of science explication.  I conclude from this that the trick to being a tremendous nerd while still being cool is to manage expectations; get your audience to expect you to be an even bigger nerd than you actually are, and they’ll be impressed.

Second, the question: Didi Mouse asked who gets to name any new particles we find.  The answer is that we don’t actually know yet, but it depends on what’s out there.  Many particles — for example, the Higgs boson — have been named already; if we make a discovery that looks more or less like a Higgs boson, we’ll call it a Higgs boson.  There are also theories that predict lots of new particles; often those particles are all named, but according to some regular rule.  For example, Supersymmetry predicts a new particle for every known fundamental particle.  The superpartners have the same name as the original, but with an “s” in front for some spins, and an “ino” at the end for others; electron becomes selectron, quark becomes squark, photon becomes photino, gluon becomes gluino, and (my favorite) W becomes Wino.  If we were sure we’d found Supersymmetry, we’d probably keep those names, but we won’t be sure at first what new theory the particles we’ve found fit into — so what will we do?  I expect the decision will be made as part of the experimental collaborations’ processes for writing and approving papers, because the name for a new particle usually comes from the paper that announces the discovery.  As far as I know, nobody has specific plans for how to handle the naming, but it is a problem we will be delighted to have.


Schedule Disappointments

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

As Adam noted yesterday, the date now being cited by the CERN Press Office for the restart of the LHC is early summer.  Unfortunately, there are two reasons why I’m personally not inclined to take this new estimate too seriously.

First, CERN has an increasingly long history of being over-optimistic on LHC start-up times.  At one time it was scheduled to run in 2005. Even into 2007, the official schedule said there would be a low-energy run that year; but in the end, it didn’t start running until almost a year later.  After the accident on September 19, CERN initially announced that the incident would lead to minor delays, then that it would take several months because of the winter shutdown, and now we have the revision that the repairs will push into the summer. Obviously some of these delays were due to unforeseen circumstances, for example the recent accident itself.  But even if all the schedule changes are due to equally-unforeseeable (if less dramatic) issues, the sheer number of revisions seems to suggest that CERN ought to take a step back and consider how it does contingency planning and the certainty with which it expresses its scheduling announcements.

Second, this new announcement is not accompanied by a new detailed schedule.  What would be useful for the experiments is more information about the damage and a full discussion of how the repairs will proceed, along with a range of possible start times depending on how well still-unknown factors turn out; this would let us do better contingency planning for our own maintenance work, not to mention our careers.  It’s very possible that CERN doesn’t yet have all the information about what repairs will be necessary, but then why the new announcement?  What use can it have beyond publicity, and what meaning can anyone possibly extract from it?

I should be clear here what I mean when I talk about “CERN” making announcements.  Obviously I’m not talking about the technicians, engineers, and physicists who work on the LHC; I’m sure they’re doing a great job, and of course they don’t write the press releases or talk to the media.  I’m also not referring to anyone in particular in the CERN Press Office or Management; the Press Office does a lot of good work on outreach, including putting forth an extraordinary effort for First Circulation Day, and the folks who write the press releases aren’t necessarily the ones who decide what they say.  The truth is that I simply don’t know how decisions about these announcements are made, or who makes them.  But somehow the official system for disseminating information is falling short of providing what the physicists working here need or what the public deserves.


Telling the world about CMS

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Yesterday’s big event was the LHC official inauguration, at which I was present to represent CMS to the various delegations. This was a great experience, it is very interesting to meet the people who make decisions about how we are funded and explain (hopefully in a successful way) why the studies we will do at the LHC are essential for the understanding of how nature and the universe work. (more…)