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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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A rock to cling on to

WARNING: this blog might be a little in the theme of the upcoming Father’s Day. 😉

In a constantly changing world, it is good to have something constant to cling on to.

In the madness of start-up for the LHC, a huge experiment that is about to explore unknown lands, little is certain. This becomes clear these days as I attend some of the many meetings in which different groups gather to touch base. Theoretical expectations for the data vary depending on the perspective. Detector availability, start-up schedules, plans and intended parameters fluctuate by the minute. “Known status” becomes outdated by the time you finish hearing about it. This confusion reminds me of being at school, and of the unpredictable, up-and-down nature of relationships at that time of one’s life. You have a best friend one day that you aren’t speaking to the next, sometimes you are a social wizard and sometimes everyone in the world hates you. I was lucky enough to have my Dad to turn to in these times, as no matter what extreme my current status was, he always reminded me of the normality.

But where does an experiment about to reach further than the known reality find its normality?

This feeling of uncertainty for LHC’ers is only just beginning. Once the data starts flooding in, we will be overrun with data that looks completely different to what we were expecting. At first glance this is an exciting prospect, but unfortunately, most of this unusual data will be lying. As my supervisor has warned me many times,

“If you see something unusual, your first assumption must be, you have done something wrong.”

Much of the first work done by LHC experiments (alot of which is being prepared for now) will involve careful calibration of detectors, estimation of efficiencies and uncertainties, and so on. In the early days, it is extremely useful to be able to cross-check your measurements to more long-term, precise ones made in the past by experiments that understood their data very well. Similarly, when probing a part of the universe where the current solid theory breaks down, it can be reassuring to continually check back in the place you know that theory stands perfectly.

In the same way, as my life continues to evolve and take me to places I have never been, it is a wonderfully safe feeling to return home to my family, where I always know exactly who I am. My father has put up with my occasional crisis of confidence and despite knowing my abilities better than I do, he makes sure I know that to him I am not defined by my successes but by my efforts and intentions.

Recognizing when your data is lying to you is very important. Most important though is to understand why it is lying to you. If your results seem unusual, they are likely to be highlighting a problem for you. For example, a detector may tell us there is a gap in one region, looking like some exotic thing such as a black hole. However, this is most likely to be caused by a temporarily dead detector region. It is important to have something in place to tell the difference. These unusual “lies” protect you by showing you something isn’t right, and are useful provided you can work out what they really mean.

This is quite similar to the way we are lied to a little as children, so as to “protect” us. The world is given to us in a simplified, magical and more black-and-white version. We are told horror stories about things that are bad for us, and fairy-tales about what is good, because the grey-area is difficult to understand. When we eventually grow up, we learn what these “lies” really meant, and we see why they were there.

Knowing the truth might not be nearly as exciting, but it is reassuring and wonderfully solid.

My father is a wonderful man who, when questioned, always told me things straight.

On the bus one day when I was 6 or 7, after mild interrogation, he gave me the full truth about a jolly red-suited myth that had been puzzling me (upon which I shan’t elaborate), and despite the tears (that surprised me, as I knew what I was expecting!) I was eternally grateful and I respect him a great deal for it.

You see, although my job-location and work-area may imply otherwise, as a scientist, what I pursue is not the exciting, the dramatic, the fun, the obscure or the scary. Those things just come along by accident. What I really pursue is the truth.

Today’s blog comes with thanks to my Dad, for being a rock to cling on to, for understanding me, and for always being straight with me.

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