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Posts Tagged ‘student life’

Workers in France are guaranteed at least 5 weeks paid vacation time each year.[1,2] Many people take that time off in the month of August.  I don’t know how August became the vacation month, but that’s the way it is.  Hours for many stores become even more limited or simply close – for the month!

Even in my hometown of Madison, WI there is a French bakery owned by a french family and they close up shop for most of August.

The disappearing of French workers also happens at CERN – professors, scientists, etc, many of them are gone.  That leaves the rest of us with the chance to either get ahead in our work, or relax and take it easy as well.

(Oh, and did I mention that the French also have a 35-hour work week?[3])

Don’t worry though, the LHC is still on and they’re trying to reach higher beam luminosities.  At the moment they’re working on some cryo problems:


On the border

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

The LHC ring crosses the France/Switzerland border in something like 6 places.  Unfortunately, since Switzerland isn’t in the EU, one needs to have both Euros and Swiss Francs when working and living near CERN.  The main site is just barely in Switzerland, while several other CERN sites are in France.  For example, our detector, CMS, is about 8 miles into France.

Vending machines do not take more than once kind of currency.  Also, border guards don’t take kindly to bringing wine or meat across the border.

As for the American dollars, I only happened to have those because I recently traded euros to someone who was moving to France permanently, while I was going back to the US within a week or so.


Room for promotion?

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

Yesterday about a dozen or so people from our university research group were asked to sit down in a room here at CERN and talk with a professor who is the DOE reviewer for our main grant.

This fall our 3-year grant is up for review, and he’ll help decide our fate, basically.

Our group had about 9 graduate students there and he asked questions to figure out what problems we were experiencing either within our group, within particle physics, or living in Europe.

Towards the end he also asked us about what we all wanted to do after we graduate.  He then led us through a somewhat sad “back of the envelope” calculation:

“Lets say the average professor’s tenure at a university is 30
years, roughly.  That typical professor has about 2 graduate students
at any time, and the average time for completion is 6 years.
So, the typical professor produces a total of about 10 PhD’s.
Well, they only need 1 to replicate themselves, and 1 more to
replicate positions available at national labs.  And that’s it, that’s
all there is room for in academia, typically, 2 out of 10.”

It’s an over-simplified example, but I think not too far off the mark.  About 1,000-some physics PhD’s are awarded in the US every year(AIP), but the number of vacant positions at universities each year is only a fraction of that(AIP Chart).

Update June 13:  I began searching for the names of my advisor’s former students and happened upon an on-topic article from the American Physical Society, Sean Mattingly, PhD High-Energy Particle Physics, Dedicated Client Support, Bank of America.  Sean is quoted as saying “I think every student should be thinking about a job outside physics.”  And that “in grad school we all think that we’re on the academic path, but you’re not – there’s a lot of competition for the few jobs available and most of you are going to have to leave the field.”


Scoring Points!

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

In our collaboration (CMS), every institution involved is required to do a certain number of shifts watching the detector, making sure it runs smoothly while recording data.  The number of required shifts depends on the number of members in the institution’s group, and it’s up to each group to split up the work among their members as they wish.

For example, this means that if a professor doesn’t want to do shifts, their scientists, post-docs, or students must do them.

One complicating factor is that not every shift is worth the same.  The least popular shifts, or the ones “harder” to do – like overnight shifts – are worth more than others.

Here’s how many points each shift is worth in our collaboration:

  • Weekday morning shift (7am-3pm) is 0.75 points
  • Weekday afternoon shift (3pm-11pm) is 0.75 points, and
  • Weekday overnight shift (11pm-7am) is 1.5 points.
  • Weekend shifts add extra +0.5 points to above.

And since we are asked to do 24-points worth of shifts in a year, what kind of shift is most attractive to me, an unmarried, childless, young graduate student?

The weekend-overnight shifts, of course!  At 2-points each they’re pretty attractive.

Sometimes you have to take the shifts you can get, however, so I’ll be do weekday overnight shifts starting tomorrow.

Control room for the CMS detector.


After a short stay in the US, I have returned back to CERN.

I flew on a Boeing 767 for about 9 hours.  That was not a comfortable flight.  An Airbus A330 has much more leg room.  Also, on the Airbus, each seat has it’s own personal screen to select from a couple dozen movies and shows to watch, whenever you want.

The science of a nicer airline flight isn't so complicated.

Airplanes could be more comfortable, but there are things you can do yourself to make trips better.  The best thing I ever did to make all my flights more comfortable was to buy noise-canceling headphones.

I was skeptical of noise-canceling headphones at first.  I didn’t have any friends that owned a pair, and most stores don’t have them out in the open for you to test.  I did research on them, all the way from the basic physics of noise-canceling headphones, to actual reviews of headphones.

Basically, noise-canceling headphones reduce low frequencies the most.  That means engine noise, low rumbles, wind, etc are reduced considerably, but you’ll still be able to hear a baby cry, cat meow, or a phone ring.  (I hope you never have to sit next to a cat on a flight.  I love cats, but I’ve found they’re not so pleasant on airplanes.)

I’ve been using noise-canceling headphones for two years now on all my flights, and I can’t recommend them enough for people that fly a lot.


How would have Richard Feynman or Enrico Fermi felt about having to use PowerPoint every week?

High-energy particle physicists involved with CERN experiments spend a lot of their time creating, editing, and reading three types of things: emails, computer code (C++ & Python), and PowerPoint slides.

The New York Times recently had an article about PowerPoint use by the military in an article called, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.”  It quotes several people in the military who are quite sick of the program.  One general is quoted as saying “PowerPoint makes us stupid,” and another says, “It’s dangerous because…some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

The article also references a popular essay by a retired Marine colonel, “Dumb-dumb bullets” which describes in detail why the author believes that “PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making.”


There were hundreds of comments on PowerPoint after that NyTimes article that I’ve only read a sample of.  It’s interesting to hear other people’s experience, because PowerPoint is such a big part of life in particle physics.

I’ll avoid mentioning how I personally feel about PowerPoint for now, but let me describe its use within high energy physics (along with Apple’s Keynote).

As a graduate student working for a detector at CERN (specifically: CMS), I attend about 4 meetings a week.  These meetings are attended by a dozen or so people and are usually 1 to 2 hours long with, on average, about 5 PowerPoint presentations.

Click to englarge. Length of PowerPoint presentations from a sample of 25 physics meetings in Spring 2010 for the CMS detector. "Backup" slides were not counted. Bins inclue their lower-bound (i.e. a 5-slide talk goes in the "5-10" bin).

Thus, every week I spend about 6 hours a week in meetings watching PowerPoint presentations – and I know this puts me on the low end of a particle physicists’ “meeting-attendance” distribution.

Our collaboration has about 1,500 physicists – is it the best use of their time for each of them to be spending spending several hours a week watching PowerPoint presentations?  Management doesn’t seem to think so – they’ve created a task force to try and reduce the number of  meetings.

But there’s a related problem: the time spent in the existing meetings is already too high.  This is partly the result of the long tail in the graph shown here.  It shows the size distribution of a representative sample of presentations.  Most people hit a sweet-spot of 5 to 15 slides.  What about the talks longer than that?  Are those presenters making effective use of people’s time?  Or could they summarize their work more effectively?

I’ll put forward the claim that the long tail in that graph is not from most people occasionally making a long talk – but rather, it is from a few people who consistently make long talks.  They should be encouraged to cut slides, summarize, and focus on showing only the most important plots.  (Other ways to reduce the burden of meeting were given by another blogger here in the post “I hate meetings.”)

So yes, physicists are dependent on PowerPoint, it is simply the way they share information in a meeting.  So much time is spent watching PowerPoint presentations that it’s easy to say, in general, reducing the length of most PowerPoint presentations would benefit everyone.  Put details in the back-up slides – it would help put an incredible amount of human hours towards more productive activities.


CERN Offices

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

My office at CERN.

I’m curious to know what the best-looking office is at CERN. (If you know someone or if you think your office would be in the running for that let me know and I can post a picture!)

From what I’ve personally seen, most offices here aren’t all that different from mine.  A little cramped, but at least they have big windows.  The plant was my own doing – and it is still a little pathetic now due to a lack of watering over the holidays in December.

Looking at that picture now it just occurred to me you would notice we use mac laptops (mine is plugged into a monitor).  The use of macs among high energy physicists is pretty high – higher than the overall population – and I wonder how it became that way?



monster follow-up

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

After reading everyone’s comments to my previous post, both positive and negative, let me first say thanks to those who took it with a sense of humor.  And also, thank you to those who like to hear about the human side of doing science.

I will say my last paragraph there was a bit of a sucker punch.  I said it in jest, but it was unnecessary, and distracts from my initial point.  (A commentator reminded me are plenty of cool people in physics, and that is true!  Also, I like nerds, for the record.)

My initial point, the important one, was simply: as great as it is to be a part of such a cutting-edge project, it does have its downsides.  Those downsides not unique to CERN or France.  They exist for many jobs, in many countries.  And certainly, they are not anyone’s fault in particular.  I was just trying to explain some of the strains & complications that exist for those involved with CERN that aren’t as prevalent in other areas of physics research – which is what gives me hesitation when giving a recommendation for joining this field to potential new recruits.

C’est tout!

PS – To the readers who want only the facts and news about LHC status and science: I hear you!  I recommend:

There’s also a site called Meltronx, which combines a dozen live status pages for the beam and the detectors.  It might melt your eyes.



Monster Inc.

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

“This place eats relationships.”

He doesn't consume them so much as he crumbles them in his mouth and spits them back out.

Don’t get me wrong.  Working at CERN gives a student many unique opportunities.  This includes being able to live and work in a foreign country, to collaborate with scientists from around the world, and to help make discoveries on the cutting edge of physics.

Those advantages and others make it that much more unfortunate that I simply can’t bring myself to recommend this job to any new grad student who is in a relationship.

There are many other areas of research in physics where a new student can work on an interesting project for a PhD that don’t instantly create a conflict between their career and personal life.  Conflicts include:

  • Unless they are are married, their significant other won’t be able to get a VISA that allows them to stay & work legally more than a few months in France or Switzerland.
  • Not only are the experiments at CERN, but collaborators are here too – so a student is more efficient and useful when they are at CERN.
  • Even if they manage to spend most of their time in the US during grad school, what are they going to do after they graduate?  Are they going to want to continue working on a CERN experiment?

Basically, it’s a fantastic opportunity to be at CERN, but is always pressure to spend more time here – away from significant others.  So if a student is in a relationship and they want that to continue, then they’ve got some tough questions to face.

Ok, now, to all the single grad students out there: CERN is awesome.  Come to my singles-mixer Friday night!  Just kidding.  Actually, don’t expect to find that special someone at CERN – unless you are into dudes.  Dudes who are grown men that:

  • Haven’t had a real haircut since the last time they were in their home country.
  • Think their exercise for the day was taking the stairs.
  • Have discussions about stuff like this during work.



Screen shot 2010-03-15 at 5.05.58 PM

Websites I’m used to using daily in the US deny me from visiting when I’m here at CERN.  Maybe it’s their way of telling me to get back to work – those particles aren’t going to detect themselves.

Screen shot 2010-03-15 at 5.13.37 PM

So no Pandora, no Hulu, and…

Screen shot 2010-03-15 at 5.18.48 PM…you too, youtube? Sad!