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Regina Caputo | USLHC | USA

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Aggravating the gods

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Sigh…
I was reading the New York Times today (ok so I’m a couple of days behind because I was reading it from October 12th) and I came across this article:

The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate

To save you some time, the article references an arXiv paper posted in 2007 about backward causation and time travel. (for those who don’t know arXiv is not a publication, articles are posted, and not necessarily reviewed – although it has to be approved). They argue that any collider searching for the Higgs is destined to fail because god/nature/or whatever doesn’t like little Higgsies. They then point to the failure of the SSC, and the recent failures at CERN as proof.

Instead of trying to refute this, because I think it’s silly, I’d like to discuss correlation. I’ve been watching a lot of baseball recently because the play-offs are going on (poor Rockies just got defeated by the Phillies in a nail biter on the 9th). Anyway, baseball is littered with uncorrelated statistics. Batter X hits a 0.280 on Thursdays against right handed pitchers as opposed to Fridays when he bats 0.320. Does the day that the batter is at bat really change how well he hits? Maybe he’s working for the weekend, but it could be a coincidence or other factors that we’re not taking into account which are correlated and this result is just part of the picture.

I’m sure those who are versed with pastafarians are familiar with the argument that the decreasing pirate population is causing increased global temperature. Sure, the number of pirates has decreased over the past 150 years, while the global temperature has increased (seen below), but does the presence of pirates inherently cause a decrease in the global temperature. I think I’m going to go with probably not. There are clearly other factors to take into account.

Pirate number vs. golbal temperature

Pirate number vs. golbal temperature

Anyway, why do I bring this up? People like to find correlation between things. Our inherent nature as humans forces us to like to try to understand relationships between events. That’s why I want to be a scientist when I grow up. That being said just because as one thing is happening, another happens too, doesn’t mean that they have anything to do with each other. To say that there is evidence to show that god/nature/or anything else is spiting scientists for searching for the Higgs is not only destructive, but unprovable and not science. Fermilab is currently running just fine and searching for the Higgs (a couple people in Stony Brook’s D0 group are doing just that, in fact.) But it also takes away from what the engineers and scientists are doing to make machines like this work. The LHC is a brand new machine pushing the limits of engineering. Of course it’s expensive and things don’t work as we expect. (we have no examples to base our expectations on). And as for the SSC, I think that’s more an example of how scientists need to better explain to Congress why science funding shouldn’t be cut than someone out to stop us from finding the Higgs.

But I guess that’s what I get for reading essays in the NY Times. I should stick to the food section 🙂

Until next time,

-Regina

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Congratulations to Physics Nobel prize winners!

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

I don’t know how many of you have had the chance to see the new Intel commercials (not that I’m advocating Intel) but they pay homage to the people who developed the technology used in Intel products instead of the products themselves.

Who’s your rock star?… you are Ajay Bhatt for co-inventing the USB. Now we have more to add to the list. Today the three winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize in physics were announced. Charles Kao is a recipient for inventing fiber optic cable, and jointly Willard Boyle and George Smith for inventing charge-couple device sensor (CCD). Although we’re usually obsessed with winners like Jon and Kate plus 8 (now just Kate… omg! famous for having a ridiculous number of kids), it’s a little sad that no one knows even the name of the people who make things like the internet possible (myself included). Granted physicists generally aren’t as interesting as those created by the tabloids, but it’s important to recognize their accomplishments – something that all too often people either don’t understand or don’t trust. I know I’m preaching to the choir – I don’t need to tell you how important fiber optic cables, and CCDs are for pretty much everything we do – we just need to be louder in our support.

So who are my rock stars?

my rock stars

my rock stars

Congratulations!

-Regina

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LHC TV

Monday, October 5th, 2009

I was perusing one of my favorite physics magazines, Symmetry breaking, this morning I came across an article which said:
“Check out CERN’s LHC News video series on YouTube. The regular reports use video, animations, interviews, and commentary to inform the public about the status of repairs and the start-up schedule of the accelerator, as well as the major milestones of the LHC experiments.”

So for all you LHC enthusiasts who haven’t heard about it, check it out! I’ve spent a bit of time this morning going through some of the archived news articles and they’re actually pretty cool.

-Regina

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grad student disappearance

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Rumors spread like wild fire for wee little grad students (1st and 2nd years) and one thing we would chat about around the chalk board was that grad students for some “unknown” reason disappear during their third year in grad school. Sometimes they return, sometimes they don’t… and they’re never seen or heard from again. What happens during this time? Do they turn into trolls… get eaten by trolls… go off to fight trolls… (and why am I talking about trolls)? Having just finished my third year, I thought I’d reflect a little on this.

Ha! you caught me, I just liked this picture :)

Ha! you caught me, I just liked this picture 🙂

It’s an important time in any young grad student’s life because you’re growing into a little scientist. Like teens finally getting the keys to drive, you’re finally out on your own… in that your parents still mostly cover for you, but now you can drive yourself to school.

students first keys

students first keys

You start to answer your own questions about research, realize that sometimes you have to figure things out for yourself, and that sometimes your advisor isn’t going to answer his/her email as soon as you’d like.  It’s weird because in essence we’re in 19th grade (20+ years of school) and we’ve done pretty well with that, but research is different. There’s no more 8 am classes to go to or tests to study for. And finally you also are able to help other people – those now pesky younger grad students who joined the group a year or two after you did.

I have to give the disclaimer that I’m speaking mostly for myself and the friends I’ve spoken to, but at least in my circle this is a pretty common. I know my postdoc buddy, and fellow science blogger, thought that my naiveté when I first arrived at CERN was (I hope) endearing. I eventually learned better ways to fit functions, found more efficient ways to write code, updated my operating system (yeah, got lots of bad times about that), and had more realistic ideas about experimental research. Although I still have child-like innocence to shed before I become a grizzly post doc (probably a couple more years worth), I hope one day I too will be a wise learned scientist who with a mere glance can force code to compile, grants to be granted, and students to work harder.

-Regina

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Meetings in my PJs

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

My close friends (and now blog enthusiasts) are familiar with my favorite part of a pair of pajamas. They’re a pair of green flannel pants with monkey faces on them, lovingly referred to as my “monkey pants”. They look something like this:

MonkeyPants

Upon arriving home from work – most typically in the winter, I’ll relax by slipping into these comfy pj bottoms. Once this happens I’m not leaving the house. I’m already in comfort mode, and there’s no going back into restricting jeans. So as great as these pants are, why am I telling you all this? I promise I’m not a part of the vast monkey pants lobby.

One of the best changes about being back in New York is attending meetings at CERN. Since ATLAS is a global collaboration most of our meetings have access via the CERN phone system or the internet. This is now how I access all the usual meetings I would attend a few months ago. Lucky for me, most meetings at CERN are held in the afternoon (so that the North American colleagues don’t have to call in at 2 a.m.). They usually fall from 9 – 11 a.m. I’m usually on campus for most meetings. Nothing really special about this scenario… However, every once and a while a meeting  falls at 7 or 8 a.m. in New York, I’ll attend the meeting from home. Which means…. meetings in my monkey pants!

Could it be any better? Maybe with one of these…

ice_cream_sunday

Unfortunately last time I checked, there were no complimentary sundaes from the LAr group. But with that exception meetings in my pjs (with no guilt about it) are a big bonus to being back in the US. Until next time 🙂

-Regina

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On working in physics

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

Since the workshop in Leysin, I’ve been in the process of moving back to New York. Why move back now, you may ask? It’s a very typical story. I thought a long time about whether or not I wanted to actually blog about this. I decided to go ahead only because it’s an interesting problem that I haven’t quite figured out how to get to work out. I’ve heard it called it the “two-body problem” – which gives homage to something freshmen in college hear in physics 101.

The nature of the “two body problem”
The basic idea is that increased women in the scientific work force lead to couples in which both people are income earners.  Many women (and men) in physics marry people who also have careers; many are also academia, and some even in the same field. The problem lies in that both people have to find a career in the same place. Some universities have created funding to hire multiple professors at once for just this reason. But other than that, I haven’t heard of anything but a case by case basis – and definitely nothing for graduate students. Many times, it involves someone sacrificing their career (partially or wholly). This creates an especially difficult problem for those of us who are working on an experiment located half-way around the world.

Briefly about me
I – like all other students in my group – was expected to move to CERN while working on my PhD. My husband, Richard, works in the television industry in New York. Like me, he’s just starting out his career. Our solution was for me to move to France, with the start of the LHC, and him to stay in New York. I thought I would remain for the first year of running, then return to New York and finish my PhD there. Then, one thing lead to another and as it turned out, my year stay ended a few months before new start up is supposed to be. Instead of staying out here another year, I decided to return to New York. Why you ask? many reasons. Not to mention, we already spent a year apart. (Something that some colleagues seemed unmoved by).

What does this mean?
The next few years I’ll be between 2 places. Like most people starting out, I’ve had to try to find balance between work and a personal life. I guess the point is that I’ve found this balancing act tends to be particularly prevalent especially among women in science, and is something – I believe – isn’t talked about enough.

Next time, I’ll talk about the joys of attending meetings in my pajamas. 🙂

-Regina

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Leysin, Switzerland

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

This week I’ve had the pleasure of attending the egamma conference in the quaint mountain town of Leysin nestled in the Swiss Alps. As I look at the beautiful scenery from my hotel room, I can’t help but be reminded of songs from the Sound of Music. In the distance I can imagine a traveling band of singing youngsters wearing drapes while crossing the mountains. (The Sound of Music is my mom’s favorite movie and on her birthday she makes us watch it). I also think back about my home in Colorado. I was fortunate in that I learned to ski young, so I don’t have the completely rational fear of death by tree. I guess it’s the wrong season for that now, but it’s clear that the town is more geared towards winter than summer (which I’m sure is why we had the conference here at this time of year).

A view of the conference hotel

A view of the conference hotel

In reality, the conference could have been in any place since the meetings run consistently from 9 am to 7 pm (breaks for lunch and coffee, of course). As I sit in the room trying to pay attention to the person who holds the microphone just far enough away so that no one can hear him, I think to myself people weren’t meant to sit in meetings for 8 hours a day for days at a time. As I look around the room, my feelings are validated by a sea of people with laptops that have terminals and emails open. Maybe later this morning I’ll convince myself that it’s OK to skip a session and go up the telecabine to the top of the mountain.

Until then, back to fake rates and signal efficiencies

-Regina

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Ode to the AC

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

I’ve never fully appreciated air conditioning until I spent a summer in Europe. Summer of 2004 – August – Rome. I understood the true feeling behind the phrase “I’m mellllllllting”.  Although it’s not quite as hot as that, France has it’s moments. My car doesn’t have an AC, the buses don’t have it, the building I work in doesn’t have it, and my apartment doesn’t have it and it’s 97 deg F. So I decided to give my brain a rest, and went browsing through one of my favorite web comics. I remember one particular that I’d like to share:

xkcd... it tells us about life

xkcd... it tells us about life

This hits close to home since as a HEP (High Energy Physics) grad student, I do most of my work at the computer.  While waiting for code to compile, and in between reading papers and sword fighting. I’ve come up with my own way to pass the time: rewriting Shakespeare. I’ll share.

Inspired by Hamlet:

To fit, or not to fit: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous divergences,
Or to take arms against a sea of parameters,
And by opposing converge them? To analyze: to plot;
No more; and by a plot to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That work is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To analyze, to plot;
To plot: perchance to present: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that analysis of plots what presentation may come

(you can guess what I was doing when inspiration struck)

Inspired by Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps by and so we wait from day to day,
Until the first byte of recorded data;
And all our software rels. have lighted grads
The way to endless updates. Out, out, broken splice!
Work’s but a hiding particle, a deviation
That appears to be within acceptances
And then is understood no more. It is a tale
Told by a student, desperate to graduate
Signifying discovery.

Dorky, yes. Sad, maybe – but I’m a physicist in training so cut some slack. Now back to work.

-Regina

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Pessimism and the LHC

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Part 3 in a <> part series 🙂

As Ken and others commented this and last week, the LHC has been getting negative press recently which has overshadowed the generally positive new run plan set for this year. With the machine not running it’s easy to let despair and doubt overtake your emotions. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel at least a little depressed after reading all the negative press and seeing my fellow graduate students switching over to the Tevatron.

But there’s something important to remember regarding the pessimism and the LHC: negativity sells. Journalists aren’t there to candy-coat the situation – they’re here to keep us accountable, and it’s our responsibility as scientists to explain why repairing the machine is taking as long as it is. It’s much easier to write about things not working and falling behind schedule. Plus, CERN does have a history of being optimistic – and rightfully so. A machine like the LHC has never been built before so we don’t have a lot of experience in dealing with the potential problems that can arise. This is the inherent reason why science takes longer than expected: we’re exploring new frontiers. Did Lewis and Clark say how long it would take to reach the shore? (they fortunately didn’t have graduate students to worry about). It took over a decade and a practically unlimited budget to land a man on the moon, but with the success of the mission, we forget the failures that happened along the way. If we could build the LHC again, we could avoid the some of the problems we’ve encountered thus far, but as scientists that’s not what we do.

We must however be wary of haste. Of course, we do need accountability, but we also need understanding. External pressures and impatience cause mistakes to be made. We must realize that schedules are made and sometimes must be amended not because of some casual oversight but because of the unexpected. We’re not taking a car trip to grandma’s, we’re landing a man on the moon.

(Regina Caputo, Stony Brook)

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LHC update

Friday, August 7th, 2009

On Wednesday, the ATLAS collaboration had a meeting to decide what we wanted to request to the Director General (DG) and LHC operations people regarding the initial energy of the first run. After waiting impatiently, we finally got news about the decision from DG Rolf Heuer yesterday evening. You can also read about it more in-depth in Symmetry Magazine.

Apparently the repairs have been going well. The plan is still to start in mid-November. We’ll be running at a Center of Mass energy of 7 TeV (that’s 3.5 TeV per beam). We’ll stay at this energy until we get a significant data sample and the LHC operations team will get experience running the machine.

After this we’ll aim to hit 10 TeV. Hopefully by the end of 2010 we’ll get to heavy ions.

A significant data set means enough collisions to start calibrating the detectors and make sure the machine is operating properly. Keep your fingers crossed and we’ll see what happens.

(Regina Caputo, Stony Brook, NY)

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