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Monica Dunford | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

The Fear of Pursuit

When I was in college competing for the university rowing team, my coach, Carrie, was a mastermind at inventing new and creative torturous practices. I remember one land practice in particular. Our boathouse was located in Back Bay of Newport Beach, CA, nestled into the bluffs. We’d had a heavy rain the previous day and the water had cut trails down the bluffs. Carrie led us out to relatively shallow-sloped bluff and told us to sprint up the bluff, along one of the water cut paths. Then repeat that 30 times. And just to spice the practice up a bit, a few seconds after one person started up the hill, she started a second person. The purpose was the first person must reach the top without being caught; the second person must catch the first. And the person who fails must do N number of push-ups, squats, sit-ups, etc. where N is a large number. By construction one person must fail.

To this day, I can still remember every detail of that path up the bluff. I can remember sprinting up that hill, trying not to trip on the rugged terrain, focusing on this little patch of bushes that marked the end of the hill and thus salvation, hearing the pounding of my teammate’s footsteps behind me. The ears are remarkably bad at estimating the speed of an object behind you. In this case, it was impossible to judge if those pounding footsteps were approaching or retreating. And you dared not look back for fear of stumbling and losing precious seconds. All you could do was run as fast as you possibly could, knowing that you were being pursued but having no idea where your pursuer was.

So, how does this story relate to particle physics? Well, every time someone asks me about the interactions between ATLAS and CMS, the memory of this practice always inadvertently comes to my mind. Although it is rarely in the open, the fear of pursuit is always in the background. ATLAS and CMS both have the same experimental goals in mind: discovery of the Higgs, discovery of new physics. And they both want to be the first experiment to make those discoveries. It is not that as individuals people on ATLAS don’t associate or like people on CMS. There is plenty of interaction between the two experiments. But on the other hand, as an experiment there is the goal to be the first to discover new physics. And there is the fear that the other experiment is closer to making that discovery. But how much closer? That is the unknown.

This leads to the question, ‘Will the fear of pursuit, the pressure to be the first cause either ATLAS or CMS to publish before they are ready?’

Well…it probably wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened in particle physics. Right now, though, we are all (ATLAS and CMS) focused more on just making it over the next hill—being ready to take data when the beam turns on. But who is to say what will happen when we have that almost-convincing Higgs plot in our hands? A peak in a mass plot that just might be evidence for supersymmetry, but might also be the miscalibration of our energy scale? And then you hear whispers in the CERN corridors that your rival is seeing “something” in their data. You hear your pursuer’s footsteps behind you and wonder if they are getting closer or further away.

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