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Posts Tagged ‘science’

Anatomy of an aurora

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

This week the Earth has seen some increased magnetic activity in the upper atmosphere, and that means we got to see aurore! Across Northern Europe and the Northern USA people looked to the skies to see the northern lights. An aurora is one of the most beautiful sights in the natural world, and a phenomenon that actually tells us a lot about the Earth and how it interacts with its environment.

Those who followed me on Twitter (@aidanatcern) may have already seen some of the wonderful images of aurorae. There are dedicated webcams that capture the night sky, and you can see some sample images at the Aurora Webcam archive.

Aurora over Alaska (wikimedia)

Aurora over Alaska (wikimedia)

When charged particles accelerate or decelerate, or recombine in pairs, they emit electromagnetic radiation, and it is this radiation that we see in the aurora. The color of the light depends on the wavelength of the radiation, and the intensity of the light depends on how much radiation is emitted. That means that there is always an aurora above us, but if the energy of the radiation is too low, or the intensity is too weak, we won’t see anything. Once we know how to interpret the light we can learn something about the radiation that is emitted. Usually we see a variety of colors in an aurora and each color corresponds to a different wavelength, so if we can see a region of the sky that is all one color, we know that the wavelength (and hence the energy, ignoring the effects of aberration) must be the same. That means we can “map” the sky and find contours of wavelength.

Since the particles are accelerating, there must be something that causes the acceleration. The Earth’s core is made of (among other materials) molten iron. The rotation of the Earth means that this core is also rotating, and a rotating fluid magnetic medium creates a magnetic dipole, giving the Earth magnetic North and South poles. These poles are aligned near the geographic North and South poles of the Earth, but not exactly. (In fact, magnetic North and South keep moving and from time to time they even swap places. The exact mechanism behind this is not yet fully understood, but geological records show it happens every few hundred thousand years. Simulations suggest that the rotating magnetic fluid is a chaotic system, so the reversals occur at stochastic, or random, intervals of time.)

The sun produces a stream of particles, known as the solar wind, and they create their own electromagnetic field. The two fields, from the Earth and the sun, interact and they force charged particles in the upper atmosphere along curved paths. As the particles move along these paths they accelerate, decelerate and recombine, and that is what produces the aurorae. The most recent increase in magnetic activity can be traced back to a huge coronal mass ejection that arrived from the sun. This video shows the arrival of the flare:

The effect looks impressive, but don’t be scared, solar winds like this are perfectly harmless. Far bigger winds have hit the Earth in the past few billions years and life has continued to flourish in spite of them. Life has adapted to the Earth’s magnetic field and this field protects us from the high energy particles.

It turns out that while looking up at the night sky is a beautiful and moving experience in itself, it is also important to particle physicists. Some of the most important discoveries in the last century came from a different phenomena, cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are very high energy particles (usually protons) that travel huge interstellar distances and rain down on the Earth in much the same way that the solar wind does. They interact with the upper atmosphere to create cascades of particles, and usually the muons are the only detectable particles that reach sea level. Interactions of these cosmic rays gave rise to the discovery of the muon (“Who ordered that?!”), the pion and the kaon, the lightest forms of mesonic matter. It was around this time that large scale accelerators were developed, and we found hundreds of new mesons and baryons. Cosmic rays gave us a very small glimpse into a rich “zoo” of particles that has occupied physicists ever since.

Eventually, when we have exhausted our ability to accelerate particles to higher energies we might need to rely on cosmic rays again. There are proposals to develop ground based detectors to study the interactions of extremely high energy particles from outer space. Those particles have the potential to reach energy regimes we can only dream of at the moment. (Incidentally, this is one of the ways that we know for sure that the LHC cannot destroy the world. The universe creates much more energetic particles than we could ever hope to create in our accelerators, and since the universe seems to be in one piece we can conclude that the LHC is safe on Earth!)

An aurora from above (Expedition 28 on board the International Space Station)

An aurora from above (Expedition 28 on board the International Space Station)

If you’re fortunate enough to see an aurora then take a few moments to think about the huge forces at work, the vast distances involved, and how the colors tell us so much about how the Earth and solar wind behave. It really is one of the most beautiful phenomena in the universe.


Change of state

Friday, November 25th, 2011

A few weeks ago I bumped into one my group’s former students, Rozmin. She’s still jetlagged from her journey here and she had the look on her face that told me she’d been through the change of state. She’d transitioned from a grad student to a postdoc. The metamorphosis is not an easy one, and in fact no matter how much time you spend preparing for it, and how long it takes, there are always some surprises.

A while back she was still editing her thesis. Today she is finding her feet in a new role, one with more responsibilities, more challenges and fewer safety nets. From now on, students will look to her for help, and expect to get answers. I should point out that grad students do a great deal of the work here at ATLAS, and they answer a lot of the questions we have, and perform a lot of the studies that we need. But they’re here primarily to learn, the postdocs are primarily here to work, and at the back of our minds we have prejudices about our roles. As a postdoc I feel that I should be mentoring students and helping them, rather than having them help me, even though I spent most of my first year here playing catch up with students who knew the experiment inside out. As a student on BaBar, what mattered most was getting the thesis written, and I felt that it was okay to make mistakes, ask for help and tell people I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Becoming a postdoc

Becoming a postdoc

The difference between being a student and a postdoc is mostly cosmetic, and a lot of the time it’s hard to tell whether someone has graduated yet. The real difference is one of attitude. When Rozmin was a student she was impressed that I seemed to know a little bit about every part of particle physics, especially the history. She would ask me how I knew about the history of CP violation and the tau-theta puzzle, and I’d reply knowingly “It’s a postdoc thing.” “Like a special power?” “Yeah, postdoc power!” Of course at that point she knew it was a bit of an act. I knew little more than she did, but I said it with confidence, and that inspires confidence in others. I’ve had quite a few roles where I had to put on an act of confidence like that. One of my favorite examples was when I worked for a telephone helpline where there was a locked desk drawer full of secret help for the coordinators. When I finally saw what was inside I was surprised to find nothing but a bottle of gin, some chocolate, and an electric drill. I asked what the drill was for and they replied “To stop volunteers messing around with it.” Huh. It looks like sometimes we need to be told that the only source of reassurance is feigned confidence.

Sometimes this is all the help you get...

Sometimes this is all the help you get...

There’s no magic solution, no ancient wisdom and in research, everything is new. Once you realize that, and once you realize that everyone is out of their depth and everyone is working without a safety net, life becomes much easier. Then you can tell your grad students what they need to hear. “That’s an interesting question, let’s look it up online” means “I don’t know any more than you do”, “Let’s talk to Frank about this over coffee” means “I have no idea how to even get started on this problem, but I could use a break”, and “A similar study was tried at UA1” means “I have a tiny amount of information about this from a long time ago, but at least that means it’s not completely new.” And so on. It’s takes a while to get used to. I even managed to get a taste of life as a Professor recently. When faced with a particularly challenging problem the head of our department told me simply “Welcome to the world of supervision!” In that world, the stakes are higher, the help is rarer and it takes even more courage to make decisions with so much uncertainty.

Naturally there are more changes than a slightly different day job. Rozmin has had to move house (to a different continent) again and settle down somewhere new. This is one of the most traumatizing experiences a person can go through, so doing it in French, when your husband is thousands of miles away and you’ve got a high pressure job (as well as your student’s high pressure job) taking up all your time, it can get even more tricky. The dynamic of our friendship has changed since she got back, as we spend more time together, going for a coffee or a drink, talking about our respective jobs and problems. The shift in our friendship has brought us closer and now we’re both free of our theses, and can focus on what we came here for, the physics.

It's all about the small achievements

It's all about the small achievements

It’s challenging, it’s scary, it’s all about the unknown and even the unknowable. But it’s like I always say: We don’t these things because they’re easy, we do them because they’re hard.

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend! Thanks to Jorg Cham for the comics. PHD Comics


In the shadow of Shiva

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

In front of one of CERN’s most imposing and industrious buildings stands a statue of Dancing Shiva. During the day it’s a beautiful reminder of the friendship between CERN and India, celebrating the cosmic ballet that surrounds us all. By night it casts an ominous shadow over building 40, where discoveries are made, decisions are taken, results are shared and gossip is spread. But what does Shiva represent to us?

Working in the shadow of Shiva

Working in the shadow of Shiva

The Dancing Shiva represents the changes in the universe around us, as matter and energy constantly bump into each other, create and destroy systems and keep renewing the world. I suppose we can attach any meaning we like to this, the constant chatter of culture, the renewal of our population as people die and children and born, the violent cosmological events that keep reorganizing the universe. Any and all of these interpretations are beautiful, powerful and majestic, but for me there is one interpretation which excites me more than any other and holds a very deep truth in it. This cosmic dance is the interaction of matter and antimatter.

Whenever we create new particles we create them in matter-antimatter pairs. They are literally equal and opposite components that make up everything we see. When they meet, they destroy each other in a burst of energy. If that was all there was to matter and antimatter, it would make a rather beautiful cosmic ballet, but not an interesting one. The fascinating part of the story is when we remember that we have more matter than antimatter, which means that this particular cosmic ballet is unbalanced, and the statue is a constant reminder of this fact.

The universe knows something we don't.  And it acts on cosmic scales.

The universe knows something we don't. And it acts on cosmic scales.

We don’t know why nature prefers to matter to antimatter, and until we know why we can’t really claim to understand how the universe works. We know how one mechanism has a preference (the weak force interacting with quarks) but this is much too small to explain the whole story. Whenever collide protons together at the LHC we have to live with the fact that we’re colliding matter with more matter in a detector made of matter. The particles that escape are not quite half matter half antimatter, as we might like. After a while, all the particles (except the neutrinos) slow down, decay and hit some rock. They join the rest of the stuff around them and either annihilate or get comfortable and settle in with their surroundings. All we’re really doing is moving matter around in a very complicated way; nature balances the books and every piece of antimatter we created (except the antineutrinos) gets removed from this small part of the universe. The cosmic dance continues, and if we’re lucky we get a small glimpse into how it really works. On the tiny, insignificant scales we work on we don’t see much of an imbalance at all. When we look up to the stars we see matter everywhere we look, across vast distances and far back in time.

Nature’s balance sheet has a few implications for our physics. For example, every time we produce a Higgs boson, we also produce a lot of noise in the detectors as well. In a matter-antimatter collider (such as LEP or Tevatron) this is less of a problem, since the Higgs boson is neither matter nor antimatter, it’s equal amounts of both. To create a Higgs boson we would need to create at least one antiparticle, and that takes a lot of energy. With this extra particle we get a lot more particles “for free”, leading to all kinds of noise!

So in the light of day, when CERN is teeming with life Shiva seems playful, reminding us that the universe is constantly shaking things up, remaking itself and is never static. But by night, when we have more time to contemplate the deeper questions Shiva literally casts a long shadow over our work, a bit like the shadows on Plato’s cave. Shiva reminds me that we still don’t know the answer to one of the biggest questions presented by the universe, and that every time we collide the beams we must take the cosmic balance sheet into account.

It’s rare that we get a symbol that inspires both clarity and beauty. It’s almost poetic. Why does Shiva prefer to destroy antimatter more than matter? The more data we gather the better chance we have of finding the answer to that question. I don’t think we’ll ever stop wondering about this question. It’s the reason there’s something instead of something and antisomething. It’s the reason atoms exist and stars can form. And yet the answer is still out of our grasp.


To start, let me say that there are extremely strong reasons to believe that the OPERA experiment’s measurement of neutrinos travelling faster than light is flawed. We knew that from the moment it came out, because it contradicts General Relativity (GR), which is an extraordinarily well-tested theory. Not only that, but the most obvious ways to modify GR to allow the result to be true give you immediate problems that contradict other measurements. To my knowledge, there’s no complete theoretical framework that makes predictions consistent with existing tests of GR and allows the OPERA result to be right.

But in my view of how experimental physics is done, history has shown us that once in a great while, something is discovered that nobody thought of and nobody can fit into the existing theoretical mold. The measurements that led to the discovery of GR in the first place provide a good example of this. Such shifts are extremely rare, but I don’t like the idea of ignoring a result because it doesn’t fit with the theories we have.

No, we have to address the measurement itself, and satisfy ourselves that there really was a mistake. There are many ideas for what might have gone wrong, and as far as I know, the discussion is ongoing. I’m not an expert on it, but I know enough to disagree with some of the blogosphere discussion lately that has pronounced that the case is closed. There seem to be two categories of claims going around:

  1. Articles that point out that the OPERA result is inconsistent with other measurements, as in this piece by Tommaso Dorigo (who is, incidentally, my colleague now that I’ve joined CMS). These are of course correct within the context of GR or any straightforward modifications thereof, as I said right at the start of this post. The question is whether there’s some modification that can accomodate the results consistently, and that’s a very hard thing to exclude. (There is some good discussion in the comments of Tommaso’s post about this, in fact.)
  2. Articles that the OPERA result has been refuted because someone posted an idea on the arXiv server. A current example is this preprint, which asserts that a 60 nanosecond delay might be explained by OPERA having made a relatively trivial mistake in their GPS calculations. Of course, it’s possible that a trivial mistake has been made. But I’m not inclined to consider it definitive, especially because the author has already partially backpedaled upon learning more about how GPS works.

It’s great that people are sending ideas for what might have gone wrong with the result, or how it might be explained. But let’s wait for the discussion to settle down — and, indeed, for OPERA to finalize their paper — before we conclude that the case is closed. I do expect the result to be disproven, but what I want to see is one of these things:

  1. OPERA finds that there really was a problem with their measurement, revises it, and the “superluminal” effect goes away.
  2. Another experiment makes the same measurement, and gets a result consistent with GR.

Either way, I’ll consider the case closed, but there’s no reason to get ahead of ourselves. Doing science usually doesn’t mean knowing the answer in time for tomorrow’s news.


– By Byron Jennings, Theorist and Project Coordinator

Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace (1749 – 1827) was one of the great French mathematical physicists. In math, his fame is shown by the number of mathematical objects named after him: Laplace’s equation, Laplace transforms, the Laplacian, etc.  In physics, he was the first to show that planetary orbits are stable and he developed a model—the nebular model—to account for how the solar system formed.  In modified form, the nebular model is still accepted. In spite of these important contributions, he was also very much a lackey, being very careful to keep on the right side of all the right people. During the French revolution, that might have been just good survival strategy. After all, he served successive French governments and, unlike Lavoisier, kept his head.

Laplace presented his definitive work on the properties of the solar system to Napoleon.  Napoleon, liking to embarrass people, asked Laplace if it was true that there was no mention of the solar system’s Creator (ie God) in his opus magus. Laplace, on this occasion at least, was not obsequious and replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” This is essentially the simplicity argument discussed in a previous blog, but stated very crisply and succinctly.

Laplace was not just a whistlin’ Dixie. Newton had needed that hypothesis, ie God, to make the solar system work. Newton believed that the planetary orbits were unstable and unless God intervened periodically, the planets would wander off into space. Newton had not done the mathematical analysis sufficiently completely. Laplace rectified the problem. Newton also had no model for the origin of the solar system. Laplace eliminated these two gaps that Newton had God fill.

Back to Napoleon—he told Joseph Lagrange (1736 – 1813), another of the great French mathematicians/physicists, Laplace’s comment about no need for the God hypothesis. Lagrange’s reply was, “Ah, it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things.” Laplace’s apocryphal reply was, “This hypothesis, Sir, explains in fact everything, but does not permit to predict anything. As a scholar, I must provide you with works permitting predictions.” This is the ultimate insult in science: it explains everything but predicts nothing. Explanations are a dime a dozen; if you want explanations, read Kipling’s Just so Stories. Now, there are some fine explanations. I particularly like The Cat That Walked by Himself.

Lapalce’s argument, I had no need of that hypothesis, is still being used today. Hawking and Mlodinow in their book, The Grand Design, created a stir by claiming God did not exist. But their argument was just Laplace’s pushed back from the beginning of the solar system to the beginning of universe:  they had no need of that hypothesis.  Whether their physics is correct or not is still an open question. It is not clear that string theory has gotten past the “it explains everything but predicts nothing” stage.

An alternate approach to understanding God’s absence in scientific models is methodological naturalism. The term seems to have been coined by the philosopher Paul de Vries, then at Wheaton College, who introduced it at a conference in 1983 and published it in the Christian Scholar’s Review.  It has since then become a standard definition of science, even playing a significant role in court cases, most notably the case [1 in Dover Pennsylvania on teaching creationism in public schools. The judge mentioned methodological naturalism prominently in his ruling.

Methodological naturalism, as a definition of the scientific method, is rather ill defined except for its main idea, namely that science, explicitly, by fiat, and with malice a-fore-thought, rejects God, gods, and the supernatural from all its considerations. There is frequently an implicit secondary idea that science is about finding explanations but only natural ones, of course. Both ideas are inconsistent with what science actually is: building models constrained only by observation and parsimony. (See above and the previous blog for my opinion of the role of explanations in science.)

However, methodological naturalism is a very convenient hypothesis. It avoids awkward questions about the relation between science and religion. By inserting naturalism into the very definition of science, methodological naturalism, if valid, would create a firewall between science and religion. This would both protect religion from science and scientists from the religious. Considering the violence done in the name of religion, the latter may be more important, but the former was probably part of the original intent.  However, I suspect the main motivation was to explain why God and the supernatural are absent from science.  But Laplace gave the real reason for God’s absence: parsimony—there is no need of that hypothesis. There are probably also very good theological reasons for that absence but that is outside the scope of science and this blog.

Methodological naturalism confuses the input with the output. To the extent science is naturalistic, it is an output of the scientific method, not part of the definition. Excluding anything by fiat is poor methodology. But once one realizes that historically God and the supernatural have been eliminated from science, not by fiat, but by Laplace’s criteria, methodological naturalism becomes redundant; an ad hoc solution to an already solved problem.


[1] United States District Court for the Middle District Of Pennsylvania, TAMMY KITZMILLER, et al. v. Dover Area School District; et al,

Hi, All.

It’s less than two weeks old but July has been a very eventful month for American science and the beginning of a very busy month for me. Those following my Twitter account (@bravelittlemuon) this past weekend learned pretty quickly that I was live-tweeting the Space Shuttle Atlantis’ final launch from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as a part of NASA’s phenomenal #NasaTweetup program. In summary, NASA invited 150 followers of its @NasaTweetup account to get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit KSC and get the VIP treatment on the condition that for 48 hours all we did was tweet. Seeing the space shuttle from about 1500 feet and talking with an astronaut on board the International Space Station (ISS) about the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) was really, really, cool. Like really cool… and all in the name of public outreach†. I tip my many hats to NASA for a job well done.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis is just about to break the sound barrier (Photo mine). Click for the high-res version.

One thing that caught me off guard this weekend was how many times I was asked, “As a scientist, are you worried that the shuttle fleet’s retirement means the end of science in space?” I grin whenever I hear that question because if anything NASA is just getting started. The AMS detector, for example, is an honest-to-goodness particle detector that was built at CERN and installed on the ISS during a previous shuttle mission (STS-134). Its purpose is to measure the relative abundances of matter & antimatter, as well as test dark matter models. The new SUV-sized Mars rover, Curiosity, is expected to launch later this year and will be able to measure the composition of Martian rocks and boulders thanks its shoulder-mounted laser. (Personally, I say  we rename it “Johnny V.”) By knowing the precise composition of Martian soil we will learn if the ground was (still) able to support vegetation. Long gone are the days of experimenting with ants in micro-gravity considering that vegetables are now grown on the space station. I was told by NASA science coordinators about the half dozen ISS projects currently in the pipeline (read: proposals not publicly available, yet), one of which included an artificial gravity experiment.

NASA is getting out of the ferrying business, so what? Consider this: these are the people who stuck a couple of humans on the moon because some guy dared them††. After that, these same people (and their international counterparts!) built a space station. A SPACE STATION! With all due respect, I think NASA’s time is better spent sending people to Mars or another star system. FTL drives, anyone? So if anyone tells you that the Space Administration is past its prime, just send them over to its Current Missions web page. By the way, there is a telescope (Kepler) currently looking for habitable planets outside our solar system. I will not even begin to go into all the practical applications that have resulted from space research. Additionally to our American readers, if you feel NASA should doing more science tell your representatives in Congress; I’ve done it.

A picture of the Space Shuttle Atlantis I took fewer than 24 hours before its launch. Click for the high-res version.

As I mentioned at the top, July is a very busy month for me. I actually wrote the draft of this post somewhere over Kentucky/Tennessee on my way back to Madison to attend the “Coordinated Theoretical-Experimental Project on QCD Summer School on QCD Analysis,” or CTEQ for short. Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) is what we call the theory of the Strong Nuclear Force; it explains why protons and neutrons behave the way they do. Expect something soon about the fact that particle physicists like to spend their summers indoors, or in Aspen.

† You can read more about Science Outreach in a previous QD post, here.

†† Okay, this guy may have also been the President of The United States.


— by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head, Strategic Planning & Communications

One thing we have to add to this discussion is how media, news, and analysis enter into the political and policy-making process.  One clear objective of science communications and even any corporate communications activity is to influence decision makers.  But are the traditional streams of media still relevant?

Fortunately, our excellent and thoughtful friends at the National Journal have just publicly released a detailed study of U.S. federal senior executive, Capitol Hill staff, and professional lobbyists that documents how information arrives and is used “inside the Beltway” in Washington, D.C.   The study is entitled “Washington in the Information Age” and is, lightly put, brilliant.

With grateful flattery, I reproduce some of their conclusions here.

1. As the dust settles, traditional platforms (TV, print media, and radio) remain essential components of the media mix.  The report compiles hundreds of interviews and surveys to map out how U.S. political and policy staff receive their news.  Perhaps as a surprise, it is NOT all by Twitter and Facebook. Rather, the new technologies serve as alert mechanisms with trusted, credible analysis still being sought from the traditional sources.

2. Despite the plethora of choices, opinion makers associated with long-established brans carry the most influence online. We all worry that a random citizen in Darkmoor, Pennsylvania, or Blackwater, California, can publish an online blog and start a slanted or even misinforming news source.  It looks like the folks in Washington still rely on verifiable,  credible, long-established names and resources to gather their views.

3. Yet, Washington insiders value a long tail of unique opinion makers.  More than 400 distinct names were cited as credible sources for opinion from among the survey group.  So the Beltway doesn’t follow one columnist or one voice; rather, each person tends to accumulate a set of trusted brands/thought-leaders and then sticks to them over time.  So less fly-by-night than perhaps expected!

4. Washington insiders favour news sources that share political point of view. Perhaps obvious, but results show that Washingtonians cluster around columnists, news sources, and so on that reflect their own ideologies.

5. No longer just for e-mail, mobile devices are a gateway to news and information.  Many Washington insiders now read news and analysis on the small screen and some actually do a good portion of their composition and analysis on the small screen.

6. Mobile devices and new digital communication tools continue to blur the line between the personal the professional. As in, with 24 hour news cycles and multiple streams of referrals and content providers, Washington insiders often mix work and play when communicating digitally.  As anyone who has visited Washington knows, this is supported by the standard screens at a sports bar.  Not only are two or three games showing at the same time, but at least one TV shows CNN and CSPAN.

7. Online video and audio have yet to infringe on the dominance of TV and radio.  Despite the prevalence of online videos and podcasts, few Washington insiders report that they rely on these sources for content.  They are viewed primarily as entertaining.

8. The national obsession with Twitter fades inside the Beltway. Results suggest that Twitter is not a preferred communication tool and the common conception is that 50% of tweets are pointless babble, and the next 30% shameless self-promotion. Beyond that, there is some real content.

9. Social networking sites are popular inside the Beltway. As a tool to track contacts, trade views, and keep up with the vast network of potential wanna-know-yous, social networking tools are growing in use. Perhaps not surprisingly, the growth area for these tools is with Capitol Hill staff who have a tendency to involve more younger people than senior executives or K Street lobbyists.

10. The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Washington’s reliance on proven relationships extends online.  That is, the influencers of the influencers still have specific, personal, trusted connections. Other results of the study show that Washington insiders filter their e-mail by known e-mail addresses, then subject lines, again caring more about WHO than WHAT.

The study is powerful insight into how Washington is adapting to the age of information overload.

When I look at my own day, I can see some parallels to the report’s results.  I spend quality time with print media most often in the form of magazines (monthly more often than weekly) and I rely on news aggregators and other alerts to queue me to new content, but I hunt down my favourite sources to find out “what is really going on.”

Graphic depicting how Washingtonians "flip" between news sources to follow a story.

Please read, compare, and comment!


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

I spent last night at the Vancouver Aquarium with some of my most talented colleagues and a few fish. We were attending the launch of the Vancouver branch office of the Science Media Centre of Canada. The event featured a panel discussion led by Canadian science icon Jay Ingram and a short reception in a darkened exhibit area surrounding by smiling sea animals. It was fantastic—and it prompted some existential conversations over bite-sized appies and the drive home.

The most important feature of the evening was that it was a PERFECT Vancouver evening. Literally. 65 degF, clear sky, amazing sunset. Oh, and then we went inside for the event.

A tough day in Vancouver.

Jay Ingram is a celebrity of Canadian science and communications. Most recently, he hosted and produced Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet¸ perhaps the most-watched and most-loved science show on Canadian television. For years, Jay would find something new in science, make it simple and inspiring, and work to share it with the public each day of the week. That’s commitment.

The panel included Lisa Johnson (CBC news reporter), Jennifer Gardy (BC CDC scientist and communicator), Candis Callison (UBC professor of journalism), and Marcello Pavan (a graduate of Quantum Diaries and TRIUMF’s outreach coordinator). Jay did something very clever and actually interviewed each of them separately on the stage for 3-4 minutes before starting the panel discussion. This provided an intimate conversation for the audience to get to know each panelist instead of the usual “prepared remarks going down along the table.”

Lisa talked about the timeline of a story. She might find out at 10am what she has to research, interview, shoot, edit, and air by 6pm that same day. That means a 30 minute delay in reaching someone credible could be a deal breaker. Jennifer talked about how important it is to give the journalist freedom to choose the angle of the story that works for them; she also said that the highest honour a journalist can pay a scientist is a chance to review the final copy of the story for any errors. Candis spoke about the skyrocketing role of new media and the challenges of communicating science as it evolves and changes at the forefronts. Marcello talked about the challenge of talking to people who have already made up their mind; he said his #1 piece of advice to journalists interviewing scientists is to give up that science is hard and that it’s too technical to make sense. As a scientist, its hard to do an interview with someone who has already decided you speak gibberish and cannot be understood!

The Q&A discussion with the audience covered some tough topics.

When science or science results are unpopular, surprising, or complex, who is responsible for championing the cause and getting them out there? Everyone has heard examples and allegations about governments around the world muzzling scientists for sharing research results that undermine policy positions or policy decisions. Are scientists themselves accountable for fighting the machine and having their truths known? What role should the media play? What about when scientists don’t know what the truth is, such as in the first few days of the Fukushima disaster where misinformation was 10 times more available than facts and yet everybody wanted a rock-solid assessment.

In the age of internet democracy, everyone and anyone can be a credible expert. It used to be that the newspaper was credible and if you saw it there, there were good odds it was true and verifiable. Nowadays, anyone can write a blog, run an online newspaper, or make a viral YouTube video that claims to be the truth. In some cases, crowd-sourced journalism can allow the public instant and immediate access to ground truth. In other cases, it means that a credible analysis can be excoriated by an anonymous user with only an e-mail address.

How can an organization like SMCC have an impact in this environment? The goal of SMCC is to raise the level of public discourse in Canada by helping journalists access evidence-based research. With this intention, the organization was formed to act as a bridge and a reliable clearinghouse and resource for scientists and the media alike. There was a lot of discussion about how to ensure that the organization could remain independent while also acting like a partner in the crucial moments when science hits the headlines. Likewise, instead of “science” sections in the newspapers, there is now science in almost every front-page story. SMCC will be helping the non-science reporters get the information they need so that the front-page headlines are accurate, timely, and useful to the public.

A fascinating evening and hats off to Jay Ingram and the panelists! Well done, and let’s do it again soon.


Running to..or from…what?

Monday, April 18th, 2011

–by T. Isaac Meyer, Head, Strategic Planning & Communications

I ran.

I ran some more.

I looked over my shoulder. JH was there, right at my shoulder.

I ran some more.

That’s what physics research is like. Companions, partners, all on the road to truth and sometimes you train together and run together and hope to win together.

This past Sunday, Vancouver held its annual Sun Run, a 10 km race for about 49,000 people. A little bit less than the record number and a little bit more than last year. What was I doing there? Well, I purport to be a runner. Not a good runner. That’s my brother T.O., who has run backwoods races in upstate New York and regularly competes to kick a** in the NY and Boston Marathons.

But working at a physics laboratory, a global laboratory, does breed a certain camaraderie and competitiveness.

RW, the guy at TRIUMF who helped me secure and set up my laptop, ran the 10 km for a PR, that’s short for Personal Record, of less than 40 minutes. JH and I beat the clock at 1:04 and 1:06 respectively. The mitigating factor is that JH is about 25 years my senior; he’s a good training partner.

So what’s my point? That as NSL pointed out earlier, science is an unusual team sport. Its more like a family sport. We want to beat the other relatives, but if you threaten or challenge our kin, we will unite and demand to see your scientific, peer-reviewed publication documenting your challenge. Its charming and cute and bloodthirsty in a way. We’re hell bent for leather to reveal—and share—the secrets of Nature for everyone to know and cherish. And the single point of glory is to be part of the team that did it first—and wrote about it. It’s like being part of a team called Glen Cunningham. We would’ve got there first.

The Sun Run itself…fanatical and amazing and impossible. JH and I did not beat our record time from last year, but we cruised and we felt good. We passed a fire in a third-floor apartment building that fire & rescue crews had tamed moments before we passed. And we passed about 10,000 people as our pace surpassed our peers in the six stages of release. With nearly 50,000 people running the same race, the organizers wisely let about 10,000 go at a time. With Canadian-born Byran Adams cheering us on with the “Summer of ‘69” we charged across the starting line about an hour after the elite “blue bib” runners did. The overall winner, a Canadian who completed the race in 29:06. A true hero, and a man fleet of feet.

So what is the moral of this disconnected prose? That we all race, some on foot, some in science, some in music, some in performance art, some in poetry. And a race well run, a race well executed, no matter the outcome, is something to be appreciated and cherished.

On to the BMO Half-Marathon in 2 weeks!


Science is an Unusual Team Sport

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

–by Nigel S. Lockyer, Director

Scientists are curious. We all know that. But more importantly they are team players…that’s because they recognize we are all in the same “line of business”—because we are curious. The basic cheer of science is something like “We’re curious, rah rah, and we want to find out, rah rah! Join us, rah, and we’ll tell you what we’ve learned so far, rah, rah!”

One luxury that I particularly enjoy of working in a scientific environment is the multiple stimulating interactions with scientists from other labs, universities, and countries. For instance, this week at TRIUMF, I was able to find time (I suppose everyone thinks that lab directors can do what they want, when they want, but that is hardly true) to hear three lectures: one on our involvement in the medical-isotope crisis, one on the search for dark matter using a detector in orbit, and one on LHC searches for new physics. None of what we heard was conclusive. We are just learning to make useful targets for isotope production, dark matter was not found, nor new physics at the LHC.

But what was really enjoyable was the camaraderie between scientists, often between those that do not know one another: Did you try this? Did you look at that? Oh, that was really impressive! We know they are not going to give up the quest; we want them to win because we want to know the answer. A mutual win—no, not a tie, a really mutual win. This is not a concept that Sri Lanka would understand when India won the world cup in cricket. But in science, we are ALL cheering for a win.

Scientists know the challenges of advancing knowledge at the frontier. They have to stretch accelerator technology, detector abilities, push data transmission speed records (think the extreme LHC data rates), and invent clever data mining and analysis methods. We all try to do it, and so we sympathize with our colleagues as they struggle to make progress in their own areas. We are comrades in a quest for knowledge…a quest to unlock the closely guarded secrets of nature. We are team mates in the unusual, critically important sport of science.

Now pardon me, whilst I go get some practice in before next week’s game!