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Steve Nahn | USLHC | USA

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Dancin in the …

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009


Ok, forget the song business, noone is apparently that interested, but there was some dancing going on, notable for the locale: the CMS cavern, rather than the quality of  the participants.   Perhaps we all better stick to our day jobs.


20 years of surfin’

Friday, March 13th, 2009

Happy 20th anniversary (or Bonne Anniversaire), “uniform resource locator” and “hyper text transfer protocol”!


The King Kong of Protons

Friday, March 13th, 2009

I was wandering through some of the media results of last fall (procrastinating on writing more lecture notes) and came across the Scientific American podcast with both Frank Wilczek and editor George Musser talking about the LHC and all manner of particle physics stuff.  At some point the interviewer asked George whether the “Large” in “Large Hadron Collider” described the hadrons or the collider.  George of course said it’s the collider, the hadrons are all about the same size, “ten to the minus fifteen meters”.  However, the transcription says:

Musser: … and the energies they have, but they are all 10 to 15 meters across, the protons.

A proton the size of a bus!  Now there’s a Nobel winning find for you.

This just shows the pratfalls of all the media interest – it is a tricky business to convey the message in terms people can grok.  Here a simple slip-up in transcribing scientific notation leads to an error of a factor of 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000)- (although I’d expect Scientific American to do a little better).  It’s a little like playing the “telephone game” – you whisper something sensible to someone, they whisper it to the next person, who whispers to the next, and 10 people down the line the message is some odd permutation of the original.

Anyway, I got a kick out of the idea of a gargantuan proton.  I hope no lawsuits ensue.


Song of the LHC

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Science writer John Tierney held a Darwin Birthday Song Contest and just announced the winners, one a non-Darwin tribute to Einstein called “I’m a Genius” by a Broadway song writer and Einstein look-a-like  Ray Jessel, and the Darwin-based “Mr. Darwin, Mr. Wallace, Mr. Matthew” by British songwriter David Haines.   (I was very intrigued to hear that the contest was judged by Richard Milner, singing scientist, thinking I had discovered a completely unexpected alternative career of my colleague at MIT, but it isn’t that Richard Milner, it’s another one…)  Thinking about how katAlp’s rap raced around the world last year, I propose the same-write a song about the LHC or particle physics in general, put it in a comment here, (or better yet, record it and drop in a link) and we’ll have a doodle poll to pick the winner.  I’m hoping we do better than my last attempt at musical adventure.  I have yet to conceive of a prize, so suggestions along those lines are welcome as well, but remember, we do physics for the love of knowledge, not for the money.


A kSteve

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

As a proud member of Project Steve I am happy to hear and disperse the news that the kiloSteve milestone has been achieved, and in fact Steve #1000 is  Steven P. Darwin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.  I am somewhere between Steve #200 and Steve #400 chronologically, according to the list of Steves , and joined back when I was at Yale – I have the 400 Steve tshirt to prove it.  As my good friend Steve Hahn (in my same range, probably just before me) was fond of saying:

You get three or more Steves together, and something wonderful happens

It happened a lot back on CDF for a while: There was Steve Chappa, Steve Hahn, Steve Kuhlman, Steve Levy, Steve Miller,  Steve Mrenna,  Steve Nahn, Steve Tether, Steve Vecjik and maybe I’m forgetting one or two, all in near proximity.  It was so dense you couldn’t move without bumping into someone named Steve, not to mention Stefano Belaforte, Stefano Torre, Stefano Moccia, and Stefano Giagu.

And yes, Steve Hahn’s name differs by one letter from mine, which occasionally created fairly humurous results (although he is actually a “ph” where as I am a “v”).  Some day I will relate the story of the two Michael Schmi(d/t)ts, but only in person.  There are two Bob Wagners too, “Argo” Bob, and “Fermi” Bob.  It got kinda surreal.


Women in Physics

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Well, I am a bit leery of this potentially inflammatory subject, but this issue has been popping up with considerable frequency lately, including  Colette’s comment to new blogger Vivian (Hi Viv), a NYT article from some weeks ago, and a Physics division all hands meeting to try to brainstorm about what we can do to increase diversity within our ranks.  Yes indeed, the gender ratio of bloggers is not representative of the field.  I suppose this is true for all jobs which aren’t “9-5”, but in Physics it is apparently more pronounced.

Now, for fairly obvious reasons I do not feel like I have a reasonable appreciation for what creates this disparity.    There are some common reasons I think I at least can rationalize:

  • the pipeline: that culturally we have unconsciously swayed young women away from the hard sciences at a young age, so there just aren’t as many female candidates for advanced degrees and academic positions in Physics.  There is truth to this, but some inconsistencies too, mentioned in the NYT article.
  • the critical mass: potentially excellent female physicists are dissuaded from the field because they don’t want to be the only woman among coworkers-it is always lonely in the minority.
  • an MIT specialty- the firehose: success in this field is quite demanding, like drinking from a firehose, there is a deluge of things to deal with in a very short time – many hoops to jump through, lots of long hours, very little time for non-work pursuits, none of which is particularly conducive to family life, although I do not understand why this should have a gender specific effect.

There are probably others, but as I am not female, I am not really in a position to speculate.   I welcome suggestions.

If I think about my own situation, it is definitely true that my (wonderful) wife does the lion’s share of the child rearing tasks these days, and being away at CERN for multiple weeks at a time is not something I could do if she weren’t so flexible.  This seems to be the case for (almost?) all of my male peers with children- the spouses are typically at home or have flexible working hours and do most of the heavy lifting in terms of child care.    For married female peers, first, there aren’t a lot of statistics, that’s the point of this blog.  I know a few who have  solved the “two body” problem and have husbands also working a strenuous schedule, even some who work in different cities/states, but they do not have kids, and arrange to fly a lot to be together when schedules allow, etc.  I know less that do have children, and depend on a nanny/daycare for child care.  Still, those options require someone to be home at the end of the day and on weekends, which is not always possible for the aspiring physicist.

But here’s the real kicker, I guess: I cannot think of a single example of the opposite of my situation- the wife is working the time consuming job and the husband has the flexible job and does the child rearing.   Maybe there’s another “critical mass” which is lacking, and that is the “stay at home” Dad, so a woman is forced to choose between a less time consuming career and having kids, or going for that time consuming career and either finding that rare partner who takes on the role of primary child rearer, or ending up without kids.  (Note I am not saying there is anything wrong with not having kids, but my impression is that most of us have the expectation that we’ll have offspring at some point.)  It is certainly true that physicists tend to have kids late, (perhaps post-tenure? there’s  study for someone) – I know because I am the exception, with a 13 and 11 year old- the vast majority of my peers have kids ~5-8 years younger than mine, or more, and maybe that delay while the biological clock is still ticking plays a role as well?

I do know that both at MIT and in the field as a whole we are trying to do something about it.  The American Physics Society has a Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and a  Women in Physics program, which offers site visits to improve the climate for fostering women (and other minorities) in your department, and the results of a survey titled “Is your Graduate Department in Physics Female Friendly?” which 168 insitutions (including MIT) have responded to.  At MIT, the Physics Dept. supports both graduate women in physics and undergraduate women in physics groups, and in my own division 2 of the last 3 hires were women (who are also excellent physicists).  My point is that there is desire and effort to improve the situation, but exactly how to do that is not particularly clear, at least to me- part of the meeting today was to raise awareness and brainstorm a bit, so that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for writing this blog- you are invited to share your opinions (although we will censor with a conservative fist lest this turn into “the battle of the sexes“).


We can exhale…

Monday, February 9th, 2009

Some of us have been holding our breath all weekend, but the announcement about the LHC running schedule which was under discussion last week at Chamonix has come out. The official word will most likely appear in a Press Release from CERN – it isn’t there yet, which is a bit surprising since all CERN users got an email confirming last Friday’s news regarding the proposed schedule coming from the Chamonix workshop. Anyway, an email sent to thousands is certainly public, and there’s no warning not to disseminate, so my own synopsis – (for quotes, see press release when it arrives):

  • First beam in Sept 2009, collisions in Oct 2009
  • Short break during Holidays
  • Extended run in 2010, until Autumn

Without details I won’t speculate too much about the timeline, but certainly implementing new protections based on the lessons learned from the Sept 19 incident plays a significant role.


Here we go again: Congress guts science

Friday, February 6th, 2009

Science is going under the knife again in Congress.

I echo Peter’s outrage, although I am starting to get jaded. Science loses again? But it isn’t over – you too can contact your senators and representatives and tell them what you think. If that doesn’t work, let the Obama administration know that this is not indicative of “putting science in its rightful place”. From the white house agenda on technology:

  • Invest in the Sciences: Double federal funding for basic research over ten years, changing the posture of our federal government to one that embraces science and technology.
  • Invest in University-Based Research: Expand research initiatives at American colleges and universities. Provide new research grants to the most outstanding early-career researchers in the country.

Doesn’t look like that right now. Maybe he would veto the bill although that is tough given the Economic situation. But at least if you want to see the US participate in the LHC and other endeavors to expand the frontiers of human knowledge, let the people who represent you know how you feel.


This Just in

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Thanks to Harvey Newman, a brief update on how the repairs are going.  This is all good news – it means they have a way of detecting this sort of problem before it becomes catastrophic,  and implementation of better means of mitigation is also proceeding well.  Even the ping pong ball test, where they send a ping pong ball around the beam to test for obstructions which may occur when the magnets are warmed, has been effectively utilized.  I see this all as very encouraging.


Invading Sludge

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Just a quick blog to add a little strangeness to your life, or mine anyway. Back in Boston, where we’re getting yet more snow today – we’re running out of places to put it.   Anyway, 8 inches of snow (or sleet or rain) does not make for a great bike ride home so I slogged to the bus, and on my way, encountered this:

A river of rather dirty smelly water in travelling down the Mass Ave in Arlington, deep enough to leave the street and start invading the sidewalks.   There was talk at the bus stop about manning the lifeboats.  Seems a sewer pipe somewhere uphill broke – the real problem will be cleaning this up before it freezes and turns the main thoroughfare into an ice skating rink!

Not much to do with the LHC or physics in general, but scientists do do ordinary things like take the bus to work too.  They don’t often encounter sludge, however.