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Burton DeWilde | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio


I’ve lived and worked at CERN for two years, and now I’m going away. This is a common story.

When I first moved here from Stony Brook, NY, I was a fresh PhD Candidate who had just finished up a hardware project, acquired a young new advisor, and started learning C++ in a serious way. I had no idea what research I would be doing at CERN.

I spent a couple of months thoroughly lost: in red tape and French bureaucracy; in a labyrinthine, nonsensically-numbered hodge-podge of office buildings and industrial warehouses; in a social scene dominated by physics and physicists; in supermarkets that close at 7pm, roads that go roundabout-to-roundabout, and conversations that start in one language and inevitably end in another.

With the return of beam in the LHC (after a well-publicized accident) came a new sense of urgency and purpose, for both CERN and myself. I remember how the pace of life on-site noticeably picked up, all of us marveling at the screens showing the beams’ status as we sped by on the way to a meeting, or a coffee. I got involved in the ATLAS 3D Pixel Collaboration. I took midnight shifts to help with data-taking on the prototype silicon sensors, jumped into software development on particle track reconstruction, and got started on a short-term analysis project to determine the hit resolution of the sensors, complete with smart, Swedish-made post-doc.

As with most “short-term” projects at CERN, mine became long-term, hindered by unforeseen complications in the data and, at all steps along the way, the analysis framework in which many of us do our work: ROOT. Complaining about this distinctly sadistic piece of software became a favorite pastime! And still is. In the end, my analysis was somewhat inconclusive — so it goes.

Fortunately, my group at Stony Brook was in the process of initiating a more cohesive, aggressive research program, and I got drafted by my advisor into an Exotics search for second-generation leptoquarks. I was able to help build our analysis framework from the ground up, and in the process learned how to code in Python. It was a revelation. Meanwhile, the LHC had begun its 2010 run, and it seemed like our dataset was doubling every other day! These were very exciting times. Nobody knew what we might find in all this data, be it supersymmetry or a Higgs Boson or, maybe maybe maybe, some sort of leptoquark.

The analysis went roughly as expected: An endless series of incremental changes, talks in weekly meetings, unanticipated crises, deadlines, plots, emails, interpersonal conflicts, and soul-crushing hoops to jump through on the way to publication. It was an awful lot of work and stress, all for the best null result in the world. Huzzah. To be honest, it was a bit disheartening that the LHC experiments hadn’t dropped a bombshell on the scientific community, like OPERA’s super-liminal neutrinos measurement or the discovery of a true “goldilocks” planet, but it certainly felt like something was just around the corner.

I went to Cambridge for a conference and Stanford for summer school, dated a native Genevois, visited Paris and Berlin and Rome, got trained as an ATLAS Pixel shifter, celebrated the holidays with friends and family back home, and had the chance to visit the ATLAS detector down in its pit during the annual winter shutdown.

For the LHC’s 2011 run, I basically picked up where I left off with my leptoquark search; it was meant to be a straightforward update. But, of course, nothing is ever as easy as we expect: the beams’ increased luminosity meant much more data but also challenges in simulating and effectively filtering out all the extra events; new software releases fixed some bugs but introduced others; new collaborators meant new interpersonal conflicts (or is it just me?!); and improvements to the analysis itself seldom worked out as nicely, or quickly, as we would have liked. Deadlines have a way of flying by… but that’s research! Or so I’m told.

Meanwhile, I visited New Orleans, Helsinki, and Zurich, got involved with LGBT CERN, filmed, edited, and co-produced a particle-physics-themed zombie movie, and started writing my thesis. ATLAS kept taking more and more data — until just a few days ago.

And that’s it! Two years at CERN. In less than a week, I’m going away — back to New York, to write my thesis full-time, hunt for jobs (decide what sort of job I’m hunting for…), and graduate. It’s hard looking back on a chapter in your life and assessing it for lessons learned and enduring connections made, accomplishments and moments of zen. While I have my share of regrets and what-ifs (why, why did I never finish learning French?!), I feel like I’ve come a long way these past two years. From slightly jaded, I-can’t-wait-to-start-my-analysis junior grad student to thoroughly jaded, I-can’t-wait-to-finish-my-analysis-and-get-out-of-here senior grad student. All these gray hairs must count for something.

Heads-up: This blog is about to get hardcore, thesis-style. But first… an international move, and a long series of good-byes.