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Lucie de Nooij | NIKHEF | The Netherlands

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A future’s view

Monday, November 16th, 2009

When telling high school kids what I am doing, I compare the experiments done at the LHC with colliding two trains with cargo. After the collision, you examine the debris to find out where the trains were going. (I have a very suggestive movie to support this story.) In colliding protons, we collide two “bags” of fundamental particles. Only considering the clean-ness of the collisions, it would be much better to collide electrons on their anti-particles positrons. As was done at LEP. Unfortunately, electrons radiate of energy when they are forced around a corner, and the LHC is a circle, so they need to follow a curved path. Protons radiate far less, so they can reach higher energies.

At these high energies, we hope to see all kinds of New Physics. But: it is going to be hard to study the characteristics of the new processes. Because the collisions are so messy. So some people are already anticipating on the construction of a new collider. An electron-positron collider at energies in the same range as the LHC. This collider will need to be straight (in jargon: linear), and large to reach the high energies. Last Friday one of the other fifteen Lucie’s working at CERN gave a talk at Nikhef about CLIC. Lucie Linssen is leading the linear collider detector R&D group, so is an real expert. It was a very interesting talk, I like R&D. But it made me wonder.

The LHC is not producing any collisions at 14 TeV any time soon. The detectors are working very well, but at the low frequencies of incoming cosmics. Birds fly in and out the accelerating complex. I do not doubt that the LHC will run, I bet my PhD on it. But don’t we need to focus now? What need do we have for a new accelerator if LHC finds nothing, or everything? And how do we know that another collider is the only answer after the LHC?

On the other hand: No guts, no glory. That today’s ambition is the future’s reality is only interesting if the ambitions are set high. And if we learned one thing from the LHC it could be that we do not get the New Knowledge without effort and ambition.

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Physics (and) life

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Monday we got a phone call from a friend who had two pieces of good news: 1a) he had asked his girlfriend to marry him and 1b) she said yes and 2) she is pregnant. Wauw. Of course, such an announcement makes you think. Is (almost) 26 old?

The career planning in physics is not exactly child-proof. During university, nobody I know wanted children. During a PhD most people live abroad for a while and work very intensively towards the writing of the thesis. After the PhD you need to do two post-docs abroad. So after up to ten years of doing research in three or four different countries, you hit thirty and it is time to have a family. At that moment you find out that your boyfriend has married someone else, you probably don’t have a permanent position yet and I don’t want to raise my youngest without a father in a carbon box.

In the meanwhile, my mum has been saying stuff like: “Did you know that your PhD is an excellent time for children?” and

Apart from the hair color, this could be me.

Apart from the hair color, this could be me.

“The good thing about having children before thirty is that you will have lot’s of energy for them” and when I told her about my low blood pressure: “That is very handy during pregnancy”. The last one comes from experience, and although she never did a PhD herself, I start to think that there may not be a non-inconvenient moment anyway…

These are the kind of moments I am jealous of my male colleagues: they can have children until they are 60. Tja.

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Something to look forward to

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

It is 5.50pm and completely dark in Amsterdam.

But not to worry: this weekend the first protons have made their first small journey through the LHC. They were injected close to ATLAS, and traveled in the counter-clockwise direction through the ALICE experiment. According to the CERN website: “All settings and parameters showed a perfect functioning of the machine, which is preparing for its first circulating beam in the coming weeks.” This is something to look forward to!

According to Physics Today there is more to come: “The LHC will operate at 450 GeV per beam when the machine becomes operational on 23 November, and eventually ramp up to 1.1 TeV per beam in December.” Today nothing seemed to work, me inclusive. But I will go home shortly and give my horse an extra hug. The LHC will run!

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ATLAS control room

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

In reply to Zoe’s post on pre-beam shifts at ALICE, I will tell you about these shifts in ATLAS. You can watch the shifters in the ATLAS control room live using the ATLAS web cam:

You can see me: thrird from the left, right in front

You can see me: thrird from the left, right in front

This is my first week of doing shifts and it is very exciting to be controlling a 50 million CHF device from a 100 meter distance. I mean: the thing is really down there, and if we push the button it really shuts down. It should be noted here that I am no shift leader (yet). I am trained to be an SCT shifter. The SCT is the silicon strip detector, a part of ATLAS’ inner detector. The SCT needs to be controlled all the time: the high voltages, its cooling, whether the strips are still active and configured and if its data are written to the database properly. We keep an eye on that.

In these pre-beam times, we take cosmic data, but as if the LHC is actually running. At some point the shift leader will ask us “are you ready for beam?” and we need to check that our detector is configured and pass over the data taking monitoring to the shift leader. Then we put the detector in a Stand-By status. This is the status it should be in when the beam is going to be injected later this year. When the shift leader tell us “Stable beam!” we can switch our detector from stand-by to ready-for-data.

This is me keeping an eye on the SCT together with the DCS-ducks

This is me keeping an eye on the SCT together with the DCS-ducks

Next thing you know, the cosmics start to appear on the big screen in front of us. It is really great. I am not sure if it sounds too exciting, but it really is. When the detectors are running we can perform all sorts of test to see if the SCT is still OK. Today, we have to run with a very high threshold, so we need to make sure the high threshold is not only set in system but also implemented down in the pit.

The eight hour shifts are now mostly used to see how the different detector parts start up and to train the shifters. By the time the LHC is running 24 hours a day, I don’t think an eight hour shift will be long.

The SCT is measuring cosmics.

The SCT is measuring cosmics.

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CERN hotels

Monday, October 26th, 2009

This is probably where the real blog begins. I have come to understand that most people blog on something specific they do. Like how they cook all the recipes in a cookbook in one year. Or their trial and error while practising for the marathon without any hope that they will ever finish one.  I have a different, nonetheless ambitious, goal: I will move to Geneva in three months and work at CERN for a year.

Within a couple of months, everybody who wants to move to CERN can use my blog as a reference. I will write about our search for a house, what to bring for work and what books on Geneva are good. But, my first piece of advice is on hotels. My colleague R and I travelled to CERN last week for the ATLAS software tutorial. The tutorial was to begin on Wednesday at an inhumane 9 am. Coming from Amsterdam, you will need to take the plane before 6 am to make it in time. There were no flights available at that time, so we flew in on Tuesday. Tuesday evening, to be more precise. And here is the tip: phone the hotel if you are arriving between 5 pm and 6 am. Basically all French and Swiss hotels are fermé at “night”. With some luck, you are assigned a no-show and your room has been booked by a random CERN person.

We arrived at the hotel, romantically situated next to a high way, and found nobody at the reception. In the agenda we saw “no show” next to our names. By that time it was 11 pm and we already saw ourselves sleeping on the bathroom floor, our head resting on the reception carpet, because the bathrooms are tiny. We were saved by a CERN physicist, who phoned one of the other hotels in the village and drove us there. We spent the night in a real bed, and on Wednesday morning we could check in our rooms. Who says the LHC is cursed?

It is time to go to sleep in the high way hotel. There is a meeting of the local government in the restaurant, so I can dream about French cuisine while not training for any long run.

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natuurkunde meisje

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

It is going to be hard to answer to question why there are so little women in physics. This will not stop me from coming back to this issue every now and then. I am not so much bothered by the fact that we are outnumbered, but it annoys me that I can not come up with a good reason for it. Over the last week, I have heard different arguments and I will discuss three of those here:

1) “You need a role model, and girls cannot find role models in physics.” First of all, this is not a very optimistic point of view in terms of change. Let’s not assume that few women will lead to few women forever, please. I do think everybody needs a role model. But why can’t my role model be a man? And why does he/she need to be a physicist? My role model is not really one person. It is more the optimized physicist. We should dream big.

2) “Girls are less self-confident and physics is notoriously hard.” Physics is notoriously hard. I am probably not the right person to judge whether physics can live up to its reputation. But if girls do not choose physics because of its reputation, all teenage girls should have a course in bluffing. They should believe that they can do anything, and that they just don’t do it because they don’t want to. But I think there is a truth in here; most girls I meet in physics are the self-confident type. They “dared” to go and study physics. But in general I don’t think that the people in physics are the bluffing-daring types. Is there a real difference here?

3) “In high schools girls are not encouraged to study technical subjects.” This may be the biggest hurdle to take. My mentor at high school mentioned physics being “very difficult and highly specialized” at our discussion on my future plans. He has studied Classical Literature, which was my best subject in high school. Luckily I expected him to be sceptical about my choice. Mentors should support everybody in their choices, again everybody is served best by honesty.

I am aware of the fact that these arguments only refer to choices people make. In The Netherlands, the drop out rate for girls is not higher (I would say even lower) than for guys. So why do many Italian girls study physics? Maybe they can come and study physics in The Netherlands?

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Powerchick II

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

The question whether it is a problem that there are fewer women than men in physics, is very subjective. Even only asking the question raises a paradox. It suggests that there should be more equality, namely better emancipation would lead to more women in technical professions. But to achieve this equality you need to treat girls differently from boys, which contradicts to the aim for more equality. In response to my last blog, Zoe writes: “I was told by one university that ‘entry requirements won’t matter because you are a girl’ “. Nobody feels better if you are accepted for other reasons than your relevant capabilities for the application.
In another response to my blog (on email), my mother sarcastically notes: says: “more women in physics, less women in justice”. This makes me realize that the discussion physics is not the only branch where the fraction of men and women is out of balance. In the Netherlands, more than half of the judges are female. Recently a member of parliament argued that punishments were become less strict due to this effect (see the picture). Apparently crime is perceived differently by men than women. In Dutch universities the female medicine students outnumber their male colleagues grandiosely. This is considered a problem, because all these doctors will want to work part-time and nobody will be able to care of the baby-boomers when they grow old.
Personally I think if people are pushed to make a certain important decision, they will reconsider. You cannot make a girl finish her physics bachelor and you cannot force the successful male attorney to become a judge. In the Netherlands the publicity for physics had become from mildly biased to downright unfair: what is my head doing on the master of physics poster? (I like my head, of course, don’t get me wrong) In the little booklet five of six interviewed students are girls. This makes future students skeptical: “they seem to want to prove something”.
I think everybody benefits from honesty. Male and female.

Translation: (above) "Fokke en Sukke so not understand Eerdmans" (left) "Women cannot punish tough enough?!" (right) "I don't think that guy is married!"

Translation: (above) "Fokke en Sukke do not understand Eerdmans" (left) "Women cannot punish tough enough?!" (right) "I don't think that guy is married!"

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Powerchick

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

With the observation that there are fewer women in physics than men, the question is often raised how to “solve” this. But from a more metaphysical point of view (I am reading a book on philosophy) I think we should address this observation a little bit more careful. Is the low fraction of women a problem? And if so, do all problems need to be solved?

To start of with some numbers: in the master particle physics in the Nikhef there are yearly about twelve students of which typically two girls. In the master that started this September there is none. We are highly dependent on Poisson statistics: when the expected number of instances is two, there is a 14% change that the outcome is zero. So if you repeat this experiment six times (as we have done with this master now), the change that there is a girl in every year reduces to 42%. The scientist in me is now happy, but my girly side still would like more female colleagues.
I will for sure come back to this subject. Please read this very interesting presentation for more stats within ATLAS:
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The new employee

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

After six months of working at the Nikhef, the people who are paying me, invited me for their introduction day. “An informative and relaxed afternoon. You will find out the benefits of your contract, meet other new employees and lunch is served. Your attendance is compulsory, please let us know if you will be there.” I think the last sentence of this paragraph is an excellent introduction to the Dutch mindset.

In Holland we have different kinds of forbiddeness. Most things are legal: biking, eating, normal things. Some things are illegal: please refer to the Dutch law for an extended list of illegal actions. But there is also a third category: things that are illegal, but allowed. This would include the use and owning of cannabis, prostitution and riding a bike on the wrong side of the street. It is now easy to spot a tourist in Amsterdam’s city center: they wait at the sign “do not cross”. To the Dutch such a sign only indicates: “please pay extra attention when crossing here.”

This makes the rather paradoxical statement that you have to be there AND announce your attendance a little less confusing. To me “obligatory” is as binding as “informative”. If you ever visit the Netherlands, don’t take us to seriously, we don’t do that either 🙂

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What the Q do we know (part II)

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Einstein was right. We are pretty sure. The Universe is filled with massive things that interact by the gravitational force. Good. The Standard Model is predictive. It can be seen from the math in the Standard Model that there must be four particles that carry the Electro-Weak force. This seems true. Good.

The Standard Model is a quantum field theory. In quantum mechanics statistics play a central role. Objects have some probability to be in certain point in space-time carrying a mass within some mass-range and showing one out of many expected behaviors. Just like humans, in a way. The Standard Model predicts that these objects interact in particular patterns. By studying the different behaviors of an object, we can find out what particle we are dealing with and test the model.

The probabilities for a particular interaction to occur are only predicted in terms of the other parameters of the model. “If A happens ten times, B happens twenty times.” The numbers themselves need to be measured in experiments. The Standard Model has proven itself very believable when it predicted the Z-boson, which was later on explicitly measured in Geneva. A predictive model seems better than one that only explains Nature afterwards. You rather know the timetable of tomorrows than yesterdays trains.

But the Standard Model only works so well as long all the masses of the objects in the model are set to zero. But Einstein tells us mass exists in the Universe. And the Standard Model explains the fundamental particles of all. This does not go together. You could claim that we need to reinterpret General Relativity and set all masses in the Universe to zero. The outcome would highly interest me. No more diets ever! But physicists have tried to expand the Standard Model so that masses are allowed. This extension can be done and leaves the model unchanged enough to still explain Nature as far as we know it now. One iny-winy-tiny problem needs to be solved: the particle that is predicted in this extension, aka the Higgs-boson, needs to be found.

By the time it is found, don’t trust your physics friend who claims that (s)he is a little disappointed that Nature is as boring to do what we thought: we will be very relieved. We have no clue how to catch nature into formulas without the Standard Model and Higgs particle.

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