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Susanne Reffert | IPMU | Japan

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The Week of Higgs

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

It has been an exciting week at CERN. Of course rumors had been flying for a while already. And even though most people in the theory division are not directly related to the experiments, people know people and information was passed around.

Certainly, I wasn’t going to miss the announcement of the results. To make sure, I positioned myself strategically in the auditorium already at 10 am, four hours before the seminar, armed with food, drink, and my iPad. At 10 am, the auditorium was already half full. And I wasn’t the only one from the theory group.

As time passed, more and more people were pouring in, many people who were part of either ATLAS or CMS had come in from their home institutions especially for this occasion. Security was stepped up and only people carrying their access batches were let in. By noon, the room had already gone past full capacity. People were sitting on the floor everywhere and security people did not let anyone enter anymore. Outside the doors, a disappointed crowd was forming. People who thought arriving two hours in advance was enough were in for a surprise.

Even though it was hard to concentrate on work waiting in the lecture hall, it was fun being part of this excited buzzing crowd, all waiting eagerly for the announcement. When at the beginning of the seminar, Rolf Heuer thanked the whole LHC team for their great work, the crowd broke into a huge round of roaring applause.

There’s no need reiterating the results here another time. There’s not enough data to call it a discovery yet, but we’re all confident that it’s just a matter of time until the discovery can be announced. I’m not sure whether on that day, there will be as much excitement in the air as on the day of the first announcement this week. It is a day worth remembering and I am happy to have been part of it, to have been right here at CERN. And I am looking forward to next year to see events unfolding further at LHC.


Retreating to the Mountains

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

By now, I can consider myself more or less settled down in Geneva and at CERN. And so far, I’m having a great time.
Two weeks ago, the whole Theory Division went for three days into retreat in the French Alps. Finally, I made it to the Ecole de Physique in Les Houches! The place is very secluded (as is fitting for a retreat), but the view is spectacular. Les Houches, even though a tiny place up in the mountains, is on the map of most theoretical physicists. The school is famous for its several weeks long programs and schools, but for some reason I just never made it there, definitely a gap that had to be filled. The school has one larger building housing the lecture hall and library, the restaurant, and a number of smaller chalet-type houses in which the participants are sleeping. Going “to town” necessitates a 4 km walk steeply downhill (and climbing back up afterwards).
During the Theory Retreat, every fellow had to give a 10-minute presentation, so everyone of the 70-odd people could get to know each other. It was essentially organized for the newly arrived fellows, and I thought it was a great idea. Even though three days were not enough to meet everyone in person, it feels nice to recognize the faces of the people I meet in the hallway every day.


Moving to CERN

Friday, October 14th, 2011

Life is exciting these days. At the beginning of last week, my husband and I arrived at CERN, where we will be working for the next two years as fellows.
CERN is a huge organization, so there is a lot of paperwork to do. The whole first morning was taken up by an introduction session. We were also informed of our new status: International Public Servants – cool! This is due to CERN’s special status as an international organization.
The Theory Division of CERN we are already quite familiar with, due to many visits over the last years (my first post at the Quantum Diaries was incidentally about such a visit). But apart from this, everything is new: new office, new colleagues, new life. It’s great to be here now with the LHC running and the excitement about the superluminal neutrinos. The place is really bustling with activity. We feel very privileged to be now part of CERN’s Theory Division and to be able to work alongside of many inspiring people. Hopefully, we’ll be able to start new collaborations here.
Our current homeless situation will also be remedied soon. We were lucky and already found an apartment into which we can move in a few days.


That time of year again

Monday, September 5th, 2011

It’s that time of year again, when countless postdocs around the world are packing up their stuff and preparing to cross the globe in order to take up new postdoc positions somewhere else. It happens to everyone every two to three years, and usually several times. While the possibility of traveling and living in different parts of the world is doubtlessly one of the advantages of the job, it also brings some disadvantages. I’d be lying if I claimed that in the weeks before moving which are filled with packing and selling off furniture, scientific productivity didn’t suffer. The same is naturally true for the first weeks after arriving in the new place when one needs to find an apartment, take care of all the paperwork and get settled in. But it’s no use complaining, since the same thing happens to all of us, so on average it’s not a disadvantage.

Three years have passed since the first postdocs arrived at the newly founded IPMU. It’s been an exciting time and a lot of progress was made. We started out in prefabs, but in the meantime IPMU has moved into a beautiful new building. From a place with a handful of scientists, it has developed into a lively community and has attained international recognition. This first crop of IPMU postdocs has done quite well and is now moving on to new positions, some of them even permanent. Some of our colleagues have already begun scattering around the world, and soon I will follow. In the meantime, stories of fortunes spent on excess luggage and lost suitcases are reaching us back at IPMU, and I can only hope my own move will go through smoothly. A large part of my belongings is already on its way in some shipping container somewhere on the ocean…

From October on, a new chapter of my scientific life will begin, this time at CERN in Geneva, where the search for the Higgs is in full swing.


Saving electricity, but looking ahead

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Flyer calling for power saving

Almost three weeks after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, daily life at IPMU is slowly returning to normality.

The first week after the earthquake, operations at IPMU were hampered by almost daily power cuts lasting for several hours. Luckily, the Kashiwa Campus has now been exempt from the rolling blackouts, and also the trains servicing the nearby stations are back to a regular schedule. While power conservation measures are still in effect (and will be for some time to come), they are at worst minor inconveniences. They mostly take the form of less lighting, less heating, less elevators and escalators running, and trains operating at a slightly reduced schedule. Compared to what the people in the disaster-hit areas are going through, Greater Tokyo is really well off and it would be inappropriate to complain.

Setsuden! (Electricity saving)

Unfortunately, the international media have passed around a lot of misinformation and have been hard at work to create a lot of hysteria surrounding what they call the ongoing “nuclear disaster”. Consequently some IPMU members, mostly yielding to pressure from their families abroad, have left the country. Understandably, also many foreign visitors have canceled their trips to IPMU and seminar schedules have been swept clean.
From my point of view, the tone of international reporting about the problems at the Fukushima power plant has been regrettable, bordering on irresponsible, and has done a great disservice to everyone who is living in the region and is being affected by the events.
Given that Greater Tokyo has not suffered much damage in the quake and that the problems at Fukushima Daiichi have never given rise to health concerns for people in the Greater Tokyo region, it is high time for us to resume our daily life. Every day, our tea time attracts more people again and IPMU is working to restart a regular schedule of seminars and group meetings again. As scientists, we must stick to the facts and avoid succumbing to irrational fears.


Thanks, Mr. Simons!

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

This week, I am attending the workshop “Branes and Bethe Ansatz in Supersymmetric Gauge Theories” at the brand-new Simons Center for Geometry and Physics in Stony Brook. While the theoretical physicists and mathematicians at the State University of New York in Stony Brook have been a force to be reckoned with for some time already, this new center came into being thanks to a large donation by Jim Simons. Simons, a successful mathematician (the one of Chern-Simons), had later in life made a fortune with his extremely successful hedge fund management company Renaissance Technologies, and he continues to support science generously. Upon entering the shiny new Simons Center, it becomes clear immediately that this is a well-funded place. We are fed breakfast, lunch cooked by an excellent chef in the center’s own cafe, and oven-fresh cookies during coffee break.
Scientifically, this workshop has been a success. Among many others, we’ve also had the chance to hear the talks of two Fields Medal winners.

Of course, nothing in life is free. I had to pay for all this by suffering through a 12+ hour flight and an 11 hour jet lag (the biggest I have come across so far).


Time-lapse Video of Earthquake Swarm

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

I am re-posting here a YouTube video of the earthquake swarm before and after Friday’s big earthquake. While not all of the earthquakes pictured, many of them could be felt in Tokyo as well. The aftershocks are continuing also today. Just an hour ago, we had another magnitude 6 event. No one is too comfortable here these days.


Earthquake in North-East Japan

Saturday, March 12th, 2011

On Friday, Japan experienced the strongest earthquake measured so far. The epicenter was off the coast in the North-East (Tohoku) of the country and also triggered a large Tsunami.
Greater Tokyo came away relatively unscathed with mostly logistical problems with electricity and gas supply and a breakdown of the entire train network.
I was actually on the way to IPMU when the earthquake struck. Thanks to the early warning system, the train I was on could execute an emergency halt and came to a full stop just before the shock waves reached us. I was stuck in the train for about 2 1/2 hours. Then, we were evacuated on foot and led to the next station. Train service only started to resume the next day, which meant that everyone on the train had to spend the night at a nearby city hall.
Even though I never made it to IPMU, e-mails inform me that everyone at IPMU is fine.

The loss of cooling capacity and a subsequent explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 250 km north of Tokyo was a major headache for everyone, especially since media coverage was hyping up the accident. We are reassured by a report of the International Atomic Energy Agency which states that “Containment remains intact at Fukushima Daiichi Units 1, 2 and 3.”

Aftershocks are continuing at a very short intervals, but we hope no additional damage will happen.


Talking Business

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Yesterday, I had a somewhat different kind of assignment. Along with three more colleagues from IPMU (among them a neutrino experimentalist and an observational astrophysicist), I was to meet with a group of business people as part of a course of continued education they were attending. The people attending were in their mid-thirties to fifties and came from big corporations, banks and the Japanese government. I didn’t really know what to expect. In general I am always worried that business people may think our work has too few direct applications to be deemed useful by them. After all, it is people like them who decide about all those budget cuts we are experiencing in science of late…

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was immensely positively surprised and touched by how much appreciation and support they were expressing for the scientific endeavor. I don’t know whether I was simply wrong about the perception of science in business circles, or whether in Japanese society, science is valued more than in other countries, or whether I chanced upon a particularly accommodating group of people. In any case, I was surprised. People not only expressed the view that basic science is important for a society, they even let us know that beyond the financial assistance society provides us with, they are morally supporting us in the difficulties we face in our quest. They were essentially cheering us on! Such a thing has not yet happened to me. It was great to hear that non-scientists care about our work and encourage us like this. This evening spent discussing about science and life as a scientist with the business people has turned out to be an unexpectedly rewarding experience.


Two-Body Problem Resolved (for now)

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

After the Christmas Break, we’re back at work, and I guess it’s time for an update. At the end of last year, I had hinted at it being application time, and in particular, at my two-body problem.
To make it short, through what seems like an incredibly fortunate miracle, both my husband and I managed to find postdocs at the same place again! So, yes, sometimes you can find two positions in the same place. Sometimes even twice in a row.
In October, we’ll be joining the theory division at CERN. We are extremely excited about this. I guess I don’t need to stress here what an amazing place CERN is, especially these days.

Of course, also this round of applications has not passed without doubts and worries. One can’t help thinking about what one would do if things don’t work out well. Now, I am just happy to have my peace of mind back, at least for two more years, and I’m also happy to be able to focus on science again.