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Adam Yurkewicz | USLHC | USA

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I hate meetings

Friday, June 5th, 2009

In this article in the new york times, Professor Reid Hastie writes that “every organization has too many meetings, and far too many poorly designed ones.”

I was in a meeting recently and I counted 35 people, 28 with their laptops open.  About 10 appeared to be following the talk going on at that time.  Every talk is a powerpoint-style presentation where the speaker essentially reads the slides to the audience.  The question periods after each talk are the one redeeming feature, but they don’t fully redeem most meetings, not even close.

I think that with the large size of our organization, it is necessary to have a lot of meetings for coordination and dissemination of information, but the current number of meetings we have on ATLAS is staggering (about 5,000 in 2007).  I checked and there were about 6,800 in 2008 with 30,000 presentations.

In the article linked above, two of the author’s guidelines are:

  • Whoever calls a meeting should be explicit about its objectives.

On ATLAS we have weeks (like the current one) every few months where we review the progress of the past few months and lay out the plans for the next few months. Since these are high profile meetings, everyone wants to give a talk, and the meetings wind up being long and unfocused. One meeting this week was scheduled to go from 9am to 6:20pm. And one of the grad students from my group had the talk he had prepared postponed due to lack of time (it was already 7:30pm when this happened)!

  • Everyone should think carefully about the opportunity costs of a meeting: How many participants are really needed?  How long should the meeting last?

People often attend meetings out of a feeling of obligation.  And very few meetings end on time.

Fortunately for our productivity, with wireless internet in most meeting rooms, most people are just doing the work they would have been doing in their office, on their laptop in the meeting.  And in fact I think this is the ultimate cause of the explosion in the number of meetings. I gave a presentation this week, and it was pretty dispiriting to look around the room and see mostly tops of heads instead of faces as people were looking at their laptops.

So the solution is simple.  There would be many fewer, very productive, meetings if one simple rule was enacted:  No laptops in meetings! This is not going to happen.  Good thing I have a good laptop.

But seriously, the solution is on the way. ATLAS has formed a committee to review ATLAS meetings and hopefully reduce the number of meetings. And this committee on meetings has scheduled some meetings in the near future.


Still busy

Friday, May 29th, 2009

Since the detectors were ready for proton collisions last year before the explosion in the LHC forced a long delay for repairs, you might think we have nothing to do but wait right now (for those of us not working on the repairs).  After all, we were ready last year, weren’t we?  Well, yes and no.  I, for one, am busier now than I have been in quite a while.
While we were definitely ready for data last year, we were only expecting to have a short data-taking period before the usual long winter shutdown of the LHC.  So we planned to use the small amount of data during the long shut down to calibrate our detector and prepare for a longer run where we could accumulate enough good data to produce our first results.
After the LHC incident, we instead ran our detector for several months with no beam, and accumulated data about millions and millions of muons traveling through our detector.  And in fact with these data we have been able to do much of the calibration work we had planned to do anyway with the collision data.  So we’ve still been able to do a lot of the calibration we planned to do, although we haven’t been able to do all we could have done with collision data.
We also always have some small parts of our detector which fail and need to be repaired or replaced.  And we also have found that a few things that need to be extremely reliable (such as parts to transmit our data from usually inaccesible places underground to the surface that we rarely have access to for repairs) that we installed last year just weren’t as reliable as they were supposed to be and already need to be replaced with redesigned parts.  So this part of our work also hasn’t changed much with the LHC delay.
Another thing we are working on right now is putting in place software to analyze the first data when we get it.  While we were ready to record data last year, we did not have done all the software tools to analyze it quickly.  If we have collisions this year, we plan to already have in place the tools to analyze that data and have first results ready in a few months.
Finally, we found out a few months ago that next year’s run of the LHC will be at a slightly lower energy than the final design calls for (10 TeV instead of 14 TeV).  This affects us a bit because our simulations were done with the 14TeV energy in mind, so re-doing these simulations at 10TeV is another thing people have been working on.
So we are quite busy, and not just waiting for the LHC folks to finish the repairs.  But whenever the repairs are done, we will be even more ready for the data than last year!


Daily Show at CERN

Friday, May 1st, 2009

I wanted to add a few points about the Daily Show piece on LHC safety.

First, it was great. I totally agree with Seth that it is amazing that a comedy show is one of the few places we can turn for an accurate picture of this story.  Most media outlets are more interested in scaring people with nonsense than giving an accurate picture of the lawsuit.  Although it isn’t surprising given the profit motive.

Second, this piece almost didn’t happen.  The Daily Show wanted to do a piece on the LHC, and contacted US media people about it.  The reaction was not totally enthusiastic, as it was possible whoever got interviewed would be made to look foolish on camera.  The Daily Show eventually decided to ask for permission to come to CERN, and CERN had to be convinced this was a good idea.  Why should we let a comedy show not only come to CERN but even film in the tunnel?  Fortunately, the decision was made to allow them to come.

This is a great example of getting a message out about CERN in an unconventional way (another example might be making a rap video at CERN).  I think the lesson is that when the truth is on your side, it is better to be as open as possible.  The scientific attitude is that all points of view should be heard.  All theories are tested and only the ones that can stand up to scrutiny remain.

Finally, a few of us here at CERN had lunch with John Oliver (photo here), and we told him people were nervous about the Daily Show visit.  He said basically that “we are on your side” and it would be obvious to anyone watching the piece how seriously Mr. Wagner should be taken.  He said that they often do these kind of pieces and of course they always attack the person they agree with and agree with the other person for comedic effect.  But the other person is always happy with the piece when it airs, no matter how bad they are made to look, and usually they request a DVD of the piece to show their friends and family.  It makes you question their true motive.


Happy Birthday Carlo Rubbia

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

One of the best things about being at CERN is that you often get to attend interesting events like seminars that happen here all the time. Most of the prominent scientists in high-energy physics speak here at some point, and hearing them explain their ideas first hand is better than only reading their published papers. Also, CERN often hosts events like the one I attended yesterday, a birthday party for the nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia (the video and talks are linked to from this page).
There were interesting historical talks by many of the key players from CERN’s past. Parallels between the start-up of the SPS collider where the W and Z bosons were discovered in the early 1980’s and the LHC were drawn as several speakers drew a line from the work Prof. Rubbia did in accelerator physics decades ago to the LHC that is going to start operations later this year.
Carlo Rubbia is a legendary figure in the field, and many of the people yesterday emphasized how his intelligence and knowledge combined with his forcefulness to get projects done, even when many outsiders were skeptical they could be made to work.


Astronomy in Chocolate

Monday, March 30th, 2009

I went to the Chocolate Festival in Versoix, Switzerland on Saturday. As a tie-in with the International Year of Astronomy (by the way, here is the cosmicdiary blog), 13 chocolatiers made astronomy-related chocolate creations. You can see a few of them above (click twice for big versions) including my favorite, the bunny. Yes, that is a chocolate bunny astronaut planting a carrot flag.


The Trampling of Ignorance

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

On March 9, Barack Obama signed the Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrity.

The memo basically says:

  • Candidates for science positions should be selected based on the candidate’s knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity
  • Scientific information considered in policy decisions should be subject to peer review
  • Scientific findings should be made available to the public

You probably won’t be surprised that as a scientist I think this is fantastic. Hopefully, this change in attitude towards science by the federal government helps improve the attitude towards science in our society overall. I think that we can only solve many of today’s problems by relying on a scientific approach.
This statement, along with the recently passed stimulus and budget bills seem to indicate the start of a period where we are investing heavily again in basic research. Time and time again, this has been shown to be a great use of resources.

The sculpture in the photo is just outside my office. The Nataraja is trampling a dwarf that represents ignorance. Scientific research is an organized fight against our ignorance of the universe. Let’s make trampling ignorance our goal.


Higgs Hunting News

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Physicists at the Tevatron made news at the AAAS meeting in Chicago by announcing an estimate of the chances of finding evidence for the Higgs boson at Fermilab in the next few years.  And they claim the chances are quite good, as you can see in the plot above.

The chances depend very strongly on the actual mass of the Higgs boson, which no one knows.  Depending on what the mass of the Higgs boson is, it will decay into other particles that are easier or harder for an experiment to detect.  So for example if the mass turns out to be about 170 GeV, the Tevatron experiments say their chances are almost 100 percent of finding it by 2011.  If the mass turns out to really be 135 GeV, the chances are below 30 percent.

The articles I’ve seen on this topic always play up the angle that the LHC and Tevatron teams are in a competition or race, which is definitely true to some extent.  But I for one am certainly not rooting against the Tevatron!

First of all, many people are part of both Tevatron and LHC experiments.  I, for example, was part of a Fermilab experiment, DZero, for about 7 years, and I would feel proud if DZero found the Higgs boson.  Second, all of us want to know if there is a Higgs boson and what it looks like, so to speak, and have wanted to know for a very long time.  If the Higgs boson is discovered, we will all be celebrating, no matter who discovers it.  Finally, there is plenty of great physics coming at the LHC that the Tevatron has no hope of doing, and wasn’t designed to do.  If the Higgs boson is found at the Tevatron, it doesn’t diminish the excitement of what is to come at the LHC.  If anything, it would make us more eager to see what else there is.  So I am rooting for the Tevatron!



Friday, February 13th, 2009
During the Tom Hanks and Ron Howard visit to promote Angels and Demons at CERN were two Entertainment Tonight broadcasts (one last night and one tonight).  I just watched the one from last night online, and I thought it was pretty good.  Maybe my standards have been lowered after seeing so many bad accounts of CERN.  A few other physicists I talked to did cringe.  A few comments:
  • Tom Hanks has dubbed us “CERN-ites”
  • Tom Hanks asked “With the supercollider, can you reheat a cup of coffee?”

I respond, “Have you seen how much coffee the people here drink?  Do you think the coffee ever gets cold?”

  • Ron Howard said “Everythings’s practical, they’re not trying to put on a show here.”

Very true.  Maybe a polite way of saying that CERN is messy, but we can take it as a compliment.

  • Entertainment Tonight described antimatter as “a potentially volatile and lethal substance”, and CERN as “the top secret location where the antimatter is made”
Now I know this wasn’t a serious piece about CERN, but it’s frustratingly common for people commenting about CERN to suggest the research is somehow dangerous or has something to do with weapons. CERN is not at all top secret.  Anyone can visit, even movie stars!  All results are made public.  As for antimatter, nothing like what happens in the Angels and Demons book could happen in real life.  See CERN’s web page on Angels and Demons for some clarifications.
All in all, I suppose it’s good publicity for CERN and particle physics.  And it was a fun diversion from the long wait before collisions.

Oui nous pouvons!

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009
Barack Obama is sworn in.

Barack Obama is sworn in.

Yes, the coverage of the historic day is just as intense here in France.  We watched the big ceremony on TV (you perhaps can see the french subtitles of the swearing-in ceremony on the TV).

Favorite line in inaugural address: “We will restore science to its rightful place…”


Happy 2009!

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Happy 2009 (or 12009 for those of us using the Holocene calendar)!  I was on a New Year’s Eve flight back from the US to Geneva, so I got to have Champagne over the Atlantic to celebrate the start of what will hopefully be a very fruitful 2009 for particle physics.
It didn’t start so wonderfully as the heat at CERN wasn’t turned on until Monday morning when CERN re-opened.  It also has been an especially cold winter for Geneva so far, so we have had to keep ourselves warm with the happy thought that since the calendar flipped to 2009, collisions are finally back to being later THIS year instead of NEXT year.
I had a good time visiting family and friends in the US.  Even in my third year of living in France, it doesn’t get any easier to say goodbye to everyone and get back on the plane across the Atlantic.  I do miss my country as well, although not the plethora of 24-hour news channels so much.
I had a few conversations with people over the past few weeks about CERN (inevitably covering the chance of Earth’s destruction by the LHC), and realized we definitely still have work to do in getting the message out about what we are doing here at CERN.  Fortunately we have some pretty fascinating days ahead in 2009 that should interest just about everyone.
It should be interesting in the next few months as repairs are completed to the LHC, it is cooled down to operating temperature, and then protons are sent spinning around again.  We are still planning to see some high energy collisions in the summer, which will make the wait all worth it, and give us an even better reason to drink Champagne.