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Burton DeWilde | USLHC | USA

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Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

As I wrote just last week, the 2011 dataset is going to be huge. And as a promising sign of great things to come: The LHC has already surpassed its previous instantaneous luminosity record!

That means more data, faster. Keep it coming!

I swear I’m not just sitting at home, watching the OP Vistars web page refresh… which it does automatically, btw. You can even have a program announce changes in the beam status out loud! Just saying. 🙂

— Burton


LHC is GO!!!

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Hi, all!

It feels like forever since the LHC last delivered proton-proton collisions (… in early November). There was a very productive stretch of heavy-ion collisions followed by the usual winter shutdown, and then a few weeks of machine development that ended… just now.

Yes: The first stable beam p-p collisions of the year are happening at this very moment! As always, you can see the LHC status live: here.

The 2011 dataset promises to be EPIC. Stay tuned — lots of physics to come!

— Burton 😀


Playing Politics with Science

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Hi, folks!

As many of you are undoubtedly aware, the U.S. federal government is in the midst of a budget crisis. The prevailing wisdom in Washington is that deficits are out of control and will soon bring America to ruin; therefore, drastic budget cuts are necessary to ensure the nation’s future health and prosperity. Okay. Let’s take for granted that this is true. Let’s also ignore the official policies and recent acts of Congress that fly in the face of fiscal responsibility. We should probably also narrow our vision to the short-term — say, the next two years — to avoid unpleasant long-term realities.

Still with me? 🙂

This is now: The FY 2011 budget proposed by Republicans and passed in the House of Representatives would cut non-defense discretionary spending by roughly $60 billion compared to current funding levels. Unfortunately, science funding takes a particularly hard hit:

– Environmental Protection Agency: -$1.6 billion

– Department of Energy loans: -$1.4 billion

– Office of Science: -$1.1 billion

– National Institute of Health: -$1 billion

– Energy efficiency and renewable energy: -$899 million

– Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: -$755 million

– NASA: -$379 million

– National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: -$336 million

– National Institute of Standards and Technology: -$186 million

– National Science Foundation: -$139 million

Now, I am not an economist, but it seems clear that this is absolutely devastating. If the budget proposal is passed as-is, thousands of scientists will be laid off, operation of current experiments will be disrupted, and many new projects simply won’t receive funding. Cutting-edge research will be especially hurt — and yes, dear readers, that includes high-energy physics. (Recall the impending shutdown of Fermilab’s Tevatron, for lack of funding.) A wide swath of American scientific research will be stifled. Since basic research and resulting scientific innovations drive long-term economic growth, this is, at best, a short-sighted attempt at reducing our national debt. At worst, it is a self-destructive travesty of pandering and ineptitude that results when politics and reason become mutually exclusive.

I won’t force my position on this issue, but I will point you to a place where you can work the US budget out for yourself: http://public-consultation.org/exercise/. (See how easy public policy decision-making is when you aren’t beholden to the funders of your previous election campaign?) After that, perhaps you would be inclined to contact your elected officials to let them know what you think about all this: http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml.

By any measure, science is an excellent investment in the long-term success of our nation. It should not be a political punching bag. Make some noise, folks! This is serious.

— Burton


On Going Home(s)

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Hi, folks!

I’ve been absent for a while on account of switching jobs: from “graduate student/research assistant” to “plot-slash-table-making automaton.” The cynical among you may argue that these are essentially the same thing, but it helps me sleep at night to believe otherwise. Well. At any rate, I’ve had several blog post ideas sloshing around in my head for months now, and rather than age to perfection, they’ve gotten all… mushy. Here is your first serving of mushed thought.

I went home to Michigan for Christmas. Things were pretty much the same, modulo the effects of prolonged regional economic distress and the strange sensation that everything and everyone was larger than they should be (cars, portion sizes, distances to points of interest, family members). Naturally people wanted to know what I’d been up to, but I was mostly at a loss for words: How does one condense high-energy physics and la vie CERNoise into a quip or anecdote that connects with non-physicists?

“I work a lot.”

Surprisingly, that seemed to satisfy most questioners. Also: “Haven’t managed to destroy the world yet.” For more thorough and eloquent answers, I turned to CERN’s visitor center and gift shop, bringing home a few CERN/physics books as both gifts and conversational references. When a friend asked about “the Higgs Bassoon,” I pointed her to a fully illustrated children’s book showing the basics of the Standard Model and how physicists are able to study it. “No, it’s not a woodwind instrument, it’s a hypothetical fundamental scalar boson.” This was the same book I gifted to my mom; tomorrow, on her 50th birthday, I will be sending her a quiz to assess what she learned. I am a terrible son. My dad had mentioned to me a drinking buddy who fancied himself a physics enthusiast, so I gave my dad a more advanced but still brief introduction to particle physics in order to impress this guy and, one hopes, get a free drink or two out of the exchange. See? My field has practical applications. In related news, my grandma found the Higgs Boson.

The whole experience has underscored the importance of accurate, accessible communication between scientists and the general public. This US LHC blog is a nice venue for such conversations, right? 🙂 But as for a much wider scale, let me just say that I’m incredibly thankful for all the science journalists and other folks out there engaged in outreach (Daisy, Bryan, Katie, …). We all benefit from your excellent metaphors.

I went home to New York for New Years. I was surprised to find that people in bars really like hearing about the LHC; I was not surprised to hear some call it the “Large Hardon Collider.” Emergency physics lessons ensued.

It’s easy to forget about (or at least willfully ignore) my institution, Stony Brook University, when it’s so far away, but since I was in the neighborhood, I swung by to say hello to my advisor and physics friends who don’t work at CERN. This was a dangerous move: advisors are pretty much obligated to request plots and tables from their advisees, and I quickly reverted to the automaton existence I’d left behind. Sigh. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder — will keep in mind next time I consider visiting.

Oh, one more thing before I get back to making last-minute plots for the ATLAS note I and my colleagues have been working on for some time (and will soon be submitting!) : Let’s please have a moment of silence for the Tevatron, a pioneer and workhorse in high-energy physics for the past two decades, whose funding won’t be extended beyond 2011.

It’s time for the LHC to really, really shine.

— Burton


Holiday Peaks

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Holidays at CERN continually take me by surprise.

Between ever-pressing to-do lists, meeting schedules, deadlines, and emails, they just don’t demand the same anticipation — and participation — as they used to. Are there no holiday peaks above my day-to-day background?! Halloween was a 2-sigma deviation in an otherwise unremarkable work-week; Labor Day was observed only in theory; Father’s Day got swamped out by a 3D pixel test beam (sorry, Dad!). I mean, if you look up from your code one Friday and realize you still don’t have a costume for or ticket to the [email protected] Halloween party, and you attempt to print out a Mark Zuckerberg mask to pair with that grungy old hoodie you used to wear, thinking maybe you could crash the party anyway, but the printer on your floor is out of toner, and the IT people are already gone for the weekend, and you could just go to that other party in Geneva where costumes aren’t even mentioned, all you have to do is pay a cover and buy a drink — I mean, physics never sleeps, and it rarely takes a holiday.

Also, for no particular reason, I keep missing holidays by traveling away from the places where they are observed. I spent Memorial Day in Hamburg for a beam telescope workshop at DESY; 4th of July in Paris to visit an old friend; Bastille Day in Cambridge for a conference on advances in radiation detector technology; la Fête de Genève in San Francisco for a summer school on neutrinos; and, most recently, Thanksgiving in Rome to visit another old friend. I didn’t find much in the way of holiday cheer, though I did keep finding the Higgs boson.

Plus, as an American living in Europe, I run into lots of holidays I wouldn’t normally celebrate — or know about in advance. A visit to Paris on May 1st coincided unfortunately with France’s Labor Day, on which even the Louvre was closed. November 5th was Guy Fawkes Day in Britain, which my friends and I celebrated in international company at a British store located in France, complete with fire and fireworks. An upcoming weekend is l’Escalade, a holiday unique to Geneva that commemorates a night four hundred years ago when a hard-working and quick-thinking housewife poured hot soup on an attacking French army and thereby saved the city. Seriously. If the snow clears up (Did I mention that the area has had record-breaking snowfall this week? Winter arrives with a vengeance!), I’ll probably celebrate in Old Town with hot soup and spiced wine. So good.

This post began like a complaint, but it wasn’t meant to be! I fault my opening: I should have written “Holidays at CERN continually surprise me.” It’s true! And without the negative implications and ensuing negative paragraph. (Amazing how that happens…) Yes, some holidays are spent at work, some are spent away, and some aren’t spent at all. Many are spent in unexpected or unconventional ways compared to holidays back in the States. Regardless, sometimes you just have to cut hard on the day-to-day background and celebrate a beautiful holiday peak. Happy Holidays, All!

— Burton 🙂


Fall at CERN

Monday, November 15th, 2010

You know it’s Fall at CERN when…

… you’ve forgotten what a sunny day looks like, because it’s been cloudy and raining since the end of September.

… you’ve forgotten what a sunny day looks like, because the sun rises after you’ve gone to work and sets before you’ve gone home, and your office blinds are mostly shut because any glare on your computer screen impedes your research.

… the snow line starts creeping down the Juras.

… ski season starts creeping into conversations.

… fondue is once again an acceptable — and delicious! — dinner option. (N.B. Only tourists eat fondue in the summer. Seriously.)

… Christmas lights go up in Saint-Genis-Pouilly, but they don’t get turned on for some time, possibly because the French have built a certain amount of flexibility into the schedule to take into account strikes and coffee breaks.

… people are preparing for Winter Conferences, and you already begin to resign yourself to a holiday break filled with both cookies and code.

… protons aren’t colliding in the LHC. (Zing!)

… the days keep getting shorter, so how do your workdays keep getting longer?!

… [Readers, what have I missed?]

— Burton


Coming and Going

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

Hi, all!

It’s 6am, and I am just entering the night shift doldrums. (Again.) I won’t lie: Lady Gaga is the only thing keeping me awake right now. Ra ra, ah ah ah. Roma, roma ma.

I had thought to write about the LHC’s big switch from proton-proton to heavy ion collisions, but another blogger beat me to it. Kudos, Ken. I’m tempted to write about how I’m spending my weekend — 3D pixel sensors, and the R&D thereof — but at this point in my shift, I’m trying very hard not to think about it. So… here’s a human interest (fluff) piece instead. 🙂

I moved to CERN 1 year ago, and I mean to stay for another one, at least. (I celebrated my anniversary by working until 9pm. Very fitting.) By CERN standards, I believe this makes me a long-term resident, since the community here has such a high turnover rate: physicists are constantly coming and going! Short stays for meetings, conferences, shifts, testbeams, “the experience,” cleverly-disguised European vacations, etc. are common and easily worked into a busy schedule. Longer-term stays, on the other hand, require a certain degree of independence from one’s institution or employment at CERN itself, but of course these eventually come to an end. All good things do.

Let’s take my university, Stony Brook, as an example. This 3D pixel testbeam (still going…) brought out a pair of grad students for two weeks, but they’ve already left. Last week an e/gamma workshop near Marseilles, France drew an SBU friend (and former US LHC blogger!) to CERN, but she’s only here for a few days — zut! This fall, four professors have been or will soon be here, but only briefly. And my advisor often shows up unexpectedly; not long ago we actually crossed paths at the Geneva airport going in opposite directions. Now multiply this by the (five?) hundreds of institutions doing work here. It gets a little intense.

To accommodate the transient physicist population, CERN operates three hostels on-site. When I first moved here, I stayed in one for a couple weeks; I could see my office from my bedroom. Yikes. For medium-term visitors, there’s the St. Genis “Aparthotel,” an unfortunate hybrid located kitty-corner from the only bar in town. This is, I think, a necessary convenience. And for longer-term CERNois like me, there are apartments all around, as far as the eye can see. Although the housing market can be quite competitive in the vicinity of Geneva, we have our own CERN Market that provides international movers a much-needed leg up. It’s a great source of apartments-for-rent, used cars, ski equipment, and of course, cheap Swedish-made furniture. (I love you, Ikea, but please don’t make me lecture on the sustainability of disposable furniture.)

Now, finally, I arrive at the point of my post: This constant flow of people from all around the world results in a diverse mix of cultures and experience that enriches and informs our scientific research. There’s a CERN Market for ideas, too. I think this goes to the heart of having a global laboratory: All together, it’s much more than the sum of its parts.

Well, my shift is over, and I’m overdue for some much-needed sleep — followed by the weekend! Gaga give me strength.

— Burton


Night Shift

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010


It’s late at night, and here I sit in the control room for the H6B beam line at CERN’s SPS North Area facility. The light is harsh fluorescent, the air is redolent of espresso, and the room is thrumming to the sound of heavy machinery. I am on a night shift.

(An aside: If you thought particle physics stopped for the night — and particle physicists for sleep, ha! — please recall that we have accelerators that create light, and calorimeters that eat light for breakfast. Besides, as a world-spanning collaboration, the sun never sets on our empire.)

There’s a certain charm to working the night shift, or at least a comforting familiarity. One generally follows a similar routine:

[00:00] Arrive a few minutes early and catch up on events from the previous shift(s). Scan through the e-log, then start an entry of your own. Don’t forget timestamps!

[00:15] Follow some sort of start-of-shift checklist. Ensure proper data-taking in spite of your presence. Find the most comfortable chair around and settle in for a long haul.

[01:00] Time for coffee.

[02:00] Continue checking up on the detector at regular intervals, updating the e-log as necessary. Engage yourself with work, or entertain yourself with Internet. Now is a good time to tick items off your to-do-but-not-urgent list.

[03:10] Snap out of a daze that lasted for five minutes.

[03:15] Time for coffee. And lunch.

[04:45] Check email repeatedly in case some industrious person over in the States is still working. Be productive regardless: Your advisor is visiting CERN, and he may appear without warning at any given moment.

[06:00] Enter the night shift doldrums, and despair.

[07:30] Note when the beam shuts off for a planned intervention. Take this opportunity to run a couple of scans on your sensors, if only to break the tedium.

[08:00] Look back on the past eight hours and take pride in the amount of data you’ve helped collect! Finish writing up the shift e-log, make sure the control room is in order, then head home for sleep. Mind that extraneous step in front of your apartment building. Definitely do not trip on it.

Fortunately, this was a smooth and trouble-free night shift during which boredom was the biggest problem faced, but you can imagine how some shifts are made truly terrible: no (stable) beam, sensors failing for mysterious reasons, repeated software crashes, too many emails from industrious people over in the States, the dilemma of whether or not to call an expert at 5am for something that may incite their ire… Clearly, I lucked out tonight.

Oh, one last thing! Be sure to check your work from last night before submitting it for other people’s approval. (Really, “eat light for breakfast”??? It’s staying in, but only as an instructive example.)

— Burton



Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Hi, all!

This is my first post as a US LHC blogger. Please allow me to introduce myself in standard CERN style:

Hi, I’m Burton. And you are…? [response] Nice to meet you. [reciprocation, follow-up question] Ah, I’m a graduate student at Stony Brook University — you know it? [indication of familiarity, next question] I work on ATLAS, doing Pixels and an exotics search. You? [elaboration of details, physics]

And that’s it! Conversation ensues. Note the three items that form the basis of a standard CERN introduction: Name, Institution, Experiment. It’s a surprisingly solid conversational foundation. If you’ve worked hard and gotten your name out there, the other person might have already heard of you (this is ideal); if not, chances are you have friends and/or colleagues in common. The world of particle physics is, as its name suggests, quite small. Now, institutions have reputations and spheres of influence, and your association with one carries a certain weight. This weight will vary from person to person. If nothing else, it serves to indicate where you’re coming from and, occasionally, the focus of your research. Since there are six primary experiments at the LHC (though this number depends on whom you ask), and many others based at CERN, the experiment you work on is crucial information: It attaches you to a point on the LHC ring (or not), as well as a set of working groups, reconstruction algorithms, results, publications, and life choices. The tone and topics of your conversation may depend on it!

Okay, I am exaggerating — just a little. Not every CERN introduction follows the N/I/E format, and the character of an individual can not, in any way, be conveyed by such broad strokes. It’s a safe and sure starting point, yes, but hardly sufficient. Besides, second-order corrections tend to be more interesting:

I’m a photographer. Viewing the world through a lens helps me put things in perspective, and it brings everyday beauty into sharper focus (yes, that was two photography puns in quick succession — it’s a passion!). My photo archives also serve as a memory backup, should something (e.g. senescence) ever happen to me. I am an avid consumer of music; I listen to it constantly. Right now, for instance, I’m approaching the end of the new Sufjan Stevens album “The Age of Adz,” and it’s putting me in a chaotic but accomplished mood. This post will probably end soon. I love language. I used to be fluent in Spanish, but I’ve found that the more French I learn, the less Spanish I remember. Apparently there’s only room in my head for two full languages… I also love (in no particular order) cats, video games, the Python programming language, tortilla española, playful banter, and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

“I got into physics by way of consecutive childhood obsessions: dinosaurs -> astronauts -> Star Wars -> computer-generated physics simulations. The jump to the LHC came about naturally.” [1]

I look forward to our next conversation. Here is a picture. 🙂