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Mike Anderson | USLHC | USA

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Radiation Exposure

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Screen shot 2010-01-14 at 3.55.45 PM

My foray into particle physics began with a summer at the linear accelerator at Stanford in California. It’s the longest accelerator in the world, which makes it easy to find on google maps.  (I also must say that during my time there, the weather there was consistently perfect.)

Warning 01 Aug-3-2005

A welcome sign at the Stanford Linear Accelerator.

One of the first signs you see when you enter the site has a somewhat disconcerting message about chemicals and cancer.

I don’t know what chemicals they were referring to exactly, but one safety topic I learned about when I began taking SLAC’s mandatory safety training courses was related to radiation exposure.

In these safety courses I quickly learned that frequent fliers and airline employees are exposed to far more radiation than any employee at SLAC.

I hadn’t thought about it before then, but it turns out that being at high altitude exposes one to high energy particles produced when even higher-energy particles from sources elsewhere in the universe collide with particles in Earth’s atmosphere.  Being lower to the ground provides more protection than being high up where there is less atmosphere to absorb the radiation.

“A single, long international flight will expose you to a week’s worth of natural background radiation.” (Air & Space Magazine).  But that’s still well below recommended yearly exposure limits.

So in the end, I learned that particle physicists should be more concerned about the radiation they’re exposed to while traveling to their experiment!


Grad School is Free

Monday, January 4th, 2010

While visiting friends and family over the holidays, I was surprised by the number of people asking how I am paying for graduate school.

Lots of loans?

Not a lot of people know, so I thought I’d share: attending graduate school in a hard science is typically free.

You see, generally, when someone attends graduate school in a field such as Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Math, Physics…, their tuition is paid for in full and they get a salary on top of that.

This is the case as long as you do work for the department by being a Teaching Assistant, Research Assistant, Grader…or some job. Typical grad student salary is roughly between $15,000 and $25,000 a year, plus health benefits. (Pay, of course, depends on the institution, department, job, and the % of time committed.)

One difference between graduate students in physics doing research in “theory” vs “experiment” is that, generally, there are more positions and more money available for students to do experimental research. Students who work on theory research typically teach some or most of their years in graduate school, while students who work on experimental research typically do not teach past their 2nd year of graduate school (and are paid entirely as a research assistant). That’s only in general.

So, different strokes for different folks (see others’ posts about doing research in theory: 1, 2, 3), but in the end, either way, grad school tuition is free, and students get paid on top of that.


Security Theater

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

The attempted terror attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit was basically the same flight I had taken less than two weeks prior on my way home from CERN.

Already my least favorite part of international collaboration was traveling by air. Somehow, I imagine my future flights to Genève are going to involve even more unpleasant security checks and rules.

There has been a lot said on the ridiculousness of many airline rules (xkcd: “A laptop battery contains roughly the stored energy of a hand grenade…”).

I have little to add, except to say that having spent a lot of time in aiports and on airlines myself, I agree that rules like prohibiting liquids adds little to our safety when flying.

Bruce Schneier summed it up nicely recently in Is aviation security mostly for show?:

Despite fearful rhetoric to the contrary, terrorism is not a transcendent threat. A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy a country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage. The more we undermine our own laws, the more we convert our buildings into fortresses, the more we reduce the freedoms and liberties at the foundation of our societies, the more we’re doing the terrorists’ job for them.

I hope airline companies and the TSA listen and someday make flying a more pleasant experience.


You don’t have to go home, but…

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

CERN is closing and turning off the heat for two weeks starting this Saturday. This is the typical annual closing – mostly done to save money. In France/Switzerland, electricity costs about three times as much in winter months compared to other months. Also, from what I hear, labor laws here might also make it hard to be open around this time of year.

Many people (including me) have or will be heading back home for the holidays. Once CERN opens again on Jan 4th, 2010, repairs will begin to take place of the next month and a half on various things. Our detector, CMS, should be ready by around Valentines Day, and then the LHC should start back up a week or so later!

Here’s a recent, and rare, sunset seen from my office building (most days are cloudy and rainy):


The days are about 8 and a half hours long this time of year, so I cherish whatever sun we get.


Celebration Time!

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009


These past few weeks have gone by in a blur. The LHC provided us with the first collisions, then it became the highest energy accelerator, and for a few minutes last night, the LHC became highest energy collider.


It’s been busier than usual at CERN, with people in a rush to examine the first collision data to try and learn as much as possible. But tonight, at least some of us, took a little time to celebrate. Our detector, CMS, held a Christmas Party near Prévessin-Moëns, with food, drink, and music. 800 people showed up: physicists, engineers, post-docs, students, and their friends and family. Everyone has been working so hard, putting in extra time, they deserve it.

It is an exciting time to be here.


What I Miss

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

When I’m out here at CERN, living in France, there are a few things I look forward to when I’m back in the US.

Being able to buy groceries late at night

By “late” I mean “after 9pm,” because some of the larger grocery stores around here stay open as late as 9pm sharp, and many other close at around 7pm.

These early closing times also lead to grocery stores being very busy with long lines after 5pm when people start finishing work.

When I’m in the US it’s nice to be able to relax after work for a few hours and not have to worry about quickly rushing to the store to get needed supplies.

Large areas without people

DSC01724When I look across the countryside in the valley here between the Jura and Alps mountain ranges, every piece of land is either a farm or a city.  It’s almost all owned by someone and put to use by people.  There’s always at least a village or more within view, and it’s hard to get far from them.

In contrast, the population density of my home state (and the US average) is about 1/3 the pop density of France.  I love being able to drive, get away from the city, and be surrounded by forest and wild animals.

Although, I’ll admit, it is a bit too cold this time of year for me to be able to enjoy The Porkies.

Wider Roads

DSC01716Back home in the US, I only feel minimally comfortable riding my bicycle on the side of a busy road.  Unfortunately, out here in the French countryside, there’s even less space for bikers.  The roads are so narrow that cars have to go into the next lane to pass you, but if there’s traffic both ways there’s no room for that.  It’s scary tight.

Also, the first time I came to the Geneva area two years ago I knew within a week I’d never want to drive my mother around.  She gets stressed out enough as it is driving on US highways.  But out here, people drive at higher speeds, with more acceleration, and all on much tinier roads!


Learning a little German couldn’t hurt

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009


With all the encouragement I give others to learn French before they, you know, move to France, I’ve forgotten to mention that you’ll often encounter appliances with German on them. I don’t know what they’re doing here in France, maybe they’re cheap.

All I know is, we just set the dishwasher to “Universal Plus” and let it do its thing.  I’ll have to see if WordReference can tell me what KALT VORSPÜLEN is…



Holiday Gift?

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

There’s a decent amount of publicity out there about last night at CERN.

From the New York Times, Proton Beams Are on Track at Collider:

About 10 p.m. outside Geneva, scientists at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, succeeded in sending beams of protons clockwise around the 17-mile underground magnetic racetrack known as the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest and most expensive physics experiment…

If all goes well, CERN says, the protons will start colliding at low energies in about a week…

CERN is hoping to achieve that landmark as a symbolic Christmas present before a short holiday shutdown.

I’m looking forward to that – I’ll be on shift to watch CMS several times in the coming weeks.  (As for Christmas gifts, I still also hope to get a fancy rice cooker.)



CMS Detector Control Room

Thursday, November 19th, 2009


I’m getting word there will be circulating beams as early as tomorrow evening – another LHC milestone!  (As mentioned on CERN twitter)  First collisions are not too far away after that.

This image above is an almost-live updated image of the CMS control room – this is one of the two general-purpose detectors at CERN. (See image correctly at the US LHC blog site) Using some fancy CSS I overlaid some text of the different areas in the room.

I’ll be on shift in the Trigger area starting next week.  There’s about 6 wide-screen monitors back there that I’ll be watching to keep track of (too) many things.  (The Trigger decides what collision events to record or throw away.)

Feel free to spy on people in there.  Geneva is +6 hours from New York and +9 hours from Seattle, so it might be late there compared to your time, but people are on shift 24 hours a day!


Learning French

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

From a grad student in particle physics, these are my recommendations for learning a bit of French.

Before You Know It

Screen shot 2009-11-17 at 11.22.21 AM

I’ve tried out several language programs, including really expensive ones like Rosetta Stone.  Out of them all, this flash-card program has been my favorite. With each card there is a picture and sound recording of someone pronouncing the word or phrase. It quizzes you on cards and repeats ones you get wrong.

The free version lets you download sets made by other people from the main site, and also comes with a handful of card sets.  The paid version gives you a few thousand cards and lets you make & record your own flash cards and upload them to the site for others. It cost me about $50.

(I should find a native speaker and create a useful set of cards for physicists who come to CERN…)


Les Nombrils


As a comic book about girls in high school, I do feel a little weird buying these, but they’re so funny and filled with a lot of French I never learned in textbooks or class.

This has been my favorite source to learn modern slang or just informal phrases and such.  Words I’ve learned include: mec for “guy”, biche for “girl,” hyper-top for “cool” (I think?), and caleçon for “boxers (shorts).”  A mini-jupe is a mini-skirt.

So if you’d like to learn informal French related to relationships, clothing, teenage life, or the like, check out these comic books.

Alright, I’ll admit it: I own the whole series.


Coffee Break French

Screen shot 2009-11-17 at 12.17.26 PMI download these podcasts and listen to these when I’m driving. They’re slow and clear and leave space for you to try pronouncing words and phrases yourself.  With this you can learn about simple things as well as more complicated topics like tense and grammar.

These are definitely more useful when you are alone and can talk out loud without looking weird.