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Posts Tagged ‘publicity’

Have we Found the Higgs Yet?

Monday, November 21st, 2011

Along with a bunch of important people who actually know how to give interviews, I answer that question in this video:

The video goes along with this Nature News article. You may also be interested in the recent combined ATLAS and CMS Higgs result, which uses only the first half of this year’s data.

By the way, when I talk about a “minimal Higgs, that only does the part we know that something like the Higgs has to do,” I’m referring to the so-called fermiphobic Higgs. It plays the usual role of the Standard Model Higgs boson in breaking electroweak symmetry, but doesn’t couple to quarks and leptons (i.e. fermions). We already know from the way the weak and electromagnetic forces work that the relationship between them has its origins in something like the Higgs — but we have less reason to be certain that the same particle takes care of quark and lepton masses too. This version of the Higgs boson is more difficult to find, but perfectly sensible, and we’ll probably hear a lot more about it in coming years if we don’t have a big discovery this year or next.


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!


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.


Brian Cox, Colbert and TED

Monday, November 2nd, 2009


Brian Cox was on the Colbert Report last Wednesday, and in response to the idea that the future is somehow stopping us from turning on a high-energy particle accelerator, Cox ends up saying, “The technical term in English is ‘Bollocks.'”

If you’ve never heard of Brian Cox, I highly recommend his TED talk from spring of last year, shown here:



CERN ends up in the news quite unexpectedly at times:

PARIS — The French authorities have arrested a physicist who worked for years at CERN, the huge nuclear research center in Switzerland, on suspicion of links to Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, the center said Friday.


Unless terrorists are interested in understanding the fundamental laws that govern our universe, then there definitely is nothing of interest for them at CERN.

I wonder what this all is about?


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!


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.


I’ve been thinking about it since this yesterday, and I’ve finally decided to take the plunge: I’m going to say a few words about the blogosphere debate on the CDF “ghost muon” paper.  I know that, by the demanding standards of the Internet, this is old news; the posts that started the mess were an eternity ago, last week.  In my defense, I have been traveling for the entire time, to Berlin and a few cities in Poland, in what now seems a confused blur of night trains and buses.  And in any case, I think my comments are universal enough that they’re worth making even if the debate is starting to die down.

I have relatively little to say about the paper itself, which was submitted last week but is not yet published.  Very briefly, the paper discusses a series of particle collisions seen by the CDF detector at the Tevatron Collider at Fermilab that appear to possibly contain muons which decayed from a very long-lived unknown particle — or maybe there’s a less dramatic explanation, and nobody’s figured it out yet exactly.  If you haven’t heard about this at all, I strongly recommend you go to Cosmic Variance for a more substantial summary.   One very big debate on the paper is whether it ought to have been submitted for publication in its present form; many experts who I know personally say that CDF should have been more careful in investigating the possible sources of the signal before publishing, and much of the CDF collaboration (including my colleagues at Berkeley) chose to take their names off of the paper’s author list.  The counter-argument, which won the day in the collaboration’s final decision, is that everything that could be done had been done, and that it was time to send the work out to the wider particle physics community to see if the signal could be understood and duplicated by other experiments.

A second “debate” is much more disturbing, centering on speculation that a group of theorists had written a new theory based on inside information from the paper before it was published.  When the group denied this, Tommaso Dorigo (who works on CDF and CMS) accused them point-blank of lying.  The exchange, originally in blog comments, is summarized here by Dr. Dorigo.  Although he qualifies his accusation a bit, he seems to stand by it and even reiterates it in the process of apologizing.

This kind of in-your-face accusation goes beyond the appropriate boundaries of professional discourse.  It seems to stem the bizarrely-prevalent idea that being really obnoxious in public is normal, as long as it’s on the Internet.  Would you, dear reader, put up a poster calling your boss an idiot, or give a newspaper interview in which you speculate that one of your coworkers is a liar?  No, you wouldn’t!  And nothing changes because our job happens to be physics, or the venue happens to be the World Wide Web.  Of course we all have the right to free speech, but what we choose to say has consequences; others have the right to choose whether or not to collaborate with me, whether at the personal level or the level of a large-scale experiment, and one thing they can and will think about is whether I’m going to publicly insult them.

One of the theory paper authors, Professor Nima Arkani-Hamed, wrote a several part response to these accusations, but one part of his comment really struck me.  It was about the physics blogosphere as a whole: he called it “brown muck” and said that he has “a very dim view of the physics blogosphere, and avoid[s] interacting with it.”  Upon reflection, this is a fair comment.  Many — though by no means all — of the physics blogs seem to spend a disturbing amount of time on personal “clashes” between “epic” personalities.  The ultimate example of this is found in the insults exchanged between Peter Woit and Lubos Motl, each of whom command large opposing followings (at least on the Internet) in the so-called “String Wars.”  The problem is that their extreme viewpoints and aggressive tactics don’t reflect what most physicists think about the issues; their drama, like these latest accusations about the ghost muons, is largely manufactured for consumption by the blogosphere.

I would like to think that the US/LHC Blogs offer a different vision, one that falls outside of Dr. Arkani-Hamed’s criticism.  We are, first and foremost, an outreach site.  We seek to explain the excitement of our work — the wonder of the Laws of Nature we’re trying to investigate, and the fantastic machines that we use for that investigation.  Of course we tell you about our lives in the process, to give you an understanding of what our work really involves.  We want to explain what our work means to you and why it’s worth your tax dollars, and we want to get young people excited about learning and maybe getting into careers in science.  Of course we also have interpersonal conflicts, nasty suspicions, and hallway rumors — just like anybody does — but in my opinion we’re not here to tell you about that stuff for two reasons: first, because all that nonsense is not what’s essential or exciting about our work, and second, because we owe our colleagues (and potential colleagues) the courtesy of not being rude to them in public.

I hope those of you who read our blog are looking for the stories that we think are important to tell; if not, sadly, it appears that you have a wealth of alternatives to choose from.  But I have been wondering about something, and in the words of Tommaso Dorigo, “I should like to open a poll for those heroic readers who came to the bottom of this post.”  Do you think all this infighting is valuable to know about?  Does it help the overall cause of expanding interest in, and knowledge about, our work?  (In fairness, Dorigo, Motl, and Woit are also known for writing very informative posts about subjects within their expertise.)  Or does the partisan warfare and discourtesy simply serve to distract readers seeking real knowledge?

You know my opinion on those questions, but I’d like to hear yours.  Until then, I’ll leave you with the words of Nima Arkani-Hamed: “I’m sure you’ll agree that there is more critical physics to do than there are hours in the day to do it, and I for one would like to get back to work.”


More press!

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Well, the Hawaii botanist brouhaha isn’t particularly great, but it did raise the public’s awareness of the LHC, even on radio quiz shows where their non-expert opinion of the nature of the universe just after the Big Bang was “there were no good restaurants”. Probably have to agree with that, although I just got done reading “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” by Douglas Adams to my kids, so if I couple that with Time Reversal invariance, maybe I can come up with a theory of good restaurants at the beginning of the universe too? All facetiousness aside, I guess (almost) all publicity is good, but we’ll probably do better when Angels and Demons hits the big screen.


No Mere Cog

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

This is a post that writes itself, since I already spent an inordinate amount of time writing it for publication. My friends at Symmetry Magazine (which is really one of the best — and best-looking — sources of information about nuclear and particle physics that you can explain to your grandmother — in fact, I just signed up my grandmother for a subscription!) asked me to write a short essay about this blog in the context of the run-up to the LHC turn-on (what does one call compounds like “run-up” and “turn-on” anyway?…) Have a look if you have a minute.

As an aside (to which I’m clearly no stranger), this isn’t my first contribution to Symmetry. This is, although that time I was more of a subject, or at least my Dad’s old “relativator” was (and don’t think I made that Wikipedia entry — I just found it. Gee.)