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Robert Kutschke | Fermilab | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

How do you know when to Stop?

I’m back. Some family matters came up unexpectedly. There was no way to keep all of the balls in the air at the same time so I had to decide which ones to drop. This was one of them.

For me, the hardest part about science is knowing when to stop, particularly when working on a paper that will be the last in series. One of the experiments I work on is the FOCUS experiment, which finished data taking about a decade ago and is just now finishing its last few papers.

For a little over one year now I have been chairing an internal review committee for a paper being written by a group of my colleagues on FOCUS. This is the way that high energy physics collaborations ensure quality control: a group of people who were not actively involved in a particular piece of work but who are experts in that sort of work in general or in related fields, are asked to review what has been done, offer suggestions for improvements and ultimately to say that the work passes the standards that the collaboration has set for itself. Only after passing this internal review will the paper be reviewed by the full collaboration and only after a vote of the full collaboration will the paper be sent to a journal.

During the course of an internal review it is normal that new ideas on how to improve the work are suggested. Some of these will be a small amount of work and of obvious benefit; these will be done. Others will be a large amount of work and of uncertain benefit; these are usually not done. But many ideas will be in the middle, the toughest sort being an idea that has a clear benefit but which will require a large amount of work or, perhaps, an unknown amount of work. Some ideas look simple at first but eventually lead to redoing a major part of the work.

So this is the hardest part. There are some good ideas that, in the end, just won’t be done. How do you know when to stop? Last week we decided to stop.

If all goes well, FOCUS will submit our 57th physics paper. Look for it on the arXiv.org server in 2 or 3 weeks.

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