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Steve Nahn | USLHC | USA

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It works for Indy…

You know, a prolonged absence sparks interest, just like Indiana Jones. Right?

Things have been happening though. We’re actually starting to test our piece of the puzzle, the CMS Tracker. It has 10 million channels from which we get information about what charged particles come out of the collisions, and we’ve now completely hooked up the 78 km of power cables, 1000 km of optical fibers, and the last 1.4 km of copper pipe (in 3.5 m pieces) to be able to start to run the detector. My students Phil Harris and Pieter Everaerts are in the thick of things, and have embarked on the Checkout procedure – we’ve only looked at about 3% of our detector since its 23 km ride on the truck to the experiment, but so far, things look quite good. Really right now we’re learning more about how to test it out then actually learning about testing it out, but “production mode” of checkout is around the corner, and none too soon.

Other things have been going on too. Mostly I am frantically trying to reteach myself particle physics before teaching it to my students. I think typically in physics one has to go over things a few times, increasing the detail each time, before you really get a grasp on how the theories all work. I tend to have “premature senior moments” when I know that something is true, but cannot quite remember how one arrives at that true statement. And we physicists are pretty good skeptics-we don’t believe something until it has been demonstrated to us.

Another really fun activity I got to do last Month was be a “speaker” in a Science Cafe. This is an event organized by the folks at WGBH’s NOVA ScienceNow and Sigma Chi, the scientific research society, where some scientist agrees to meet a bunch of regular people who are interested in science at a bar somewhere and just talk about the topic at hand, over a beer or two. No powerpoint, no real preparation, just an off the cuff introduction to what I do and why, and then Q&A and discussion. It was very relaxed, and there was an appointed moderator there to make sure I didn’t wander into too much jargon or technical description that would just lose the general well informed public. I had a blast, and think it was well received by the thirty or so people in attendance – and the bar which was our gratis host was happy too, since those thirty people did in fact have some food and drink.

The discussion did tend to revolve around Politics and Science, and I tried hard not to use my bully pulpit to express my own political views. The hardest question I think I had was “I believe in the science for science’s sake argument, and I believe is all the spinoffs like magnets, the web, Bill Foster’s (excuse me, Congressman Foster’s!) theatre company, my friend (and former Rochester HEP postdoc) Tony Vaicuilis’s wanting to use HEP Monte Carlo to test data mining algorithms in conjuction with research for identity protection (oh hadn’t mentioned that one yet, huh? New things pop up all the time), etc, but what effect will your research have directly – if we find a Higgs Boson, then what?”. I have to admit that I don’t have in my back pocket a “killer app” to implement as soon as we find the Higgs, but I think that misses the point of basic research. Maybe we can turn our discoveries into real applications 50 years from now – that is the time scale for these things to happen, otherwise it isn’t basic research. The applications I could dream up sound like science fiction, but then again, so did almost all the implements we use every day, 50 years ago. You think the guys who built ENIAC had any idea how their work would change the world? My favorite crazy ideas include controlling a Higgs field to manipulate the mass of the electron, or making supersymmetric atoms – a whole new dimension in chemistry. Right now, these are totally ludicrous, but who knows what can happen when you turn a corner on the understanding of the universe. I do know that if we don’t do the basic research now, we certainly won’t get the 50 year payoff, whatever that may be.

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