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Posts Tagged ‘CERN statistics higgs’

CERN and statistics.

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

I arrived in Switzerland on Thursday, and right now am sitting outside at the CERN cafe, feeling pretty jetlagged. With no internet in my apartment, I realise how essential it is to everyday life now: skype has become the main way I stay in touch with friends and family. Going straight to CERN after a week of packing and a transatlantic flight meant I also ended up with my worst ID photo yet…

Still there are good things: the sun us shining, there are mountains in the distance, and I have a 20 minute walk to the lab instead of a 45 minute drive. I found podcasts were the best way to deal with that drive, and I usually enjoyed “More or Less” from Radio 4. It’s about statistics. But in a good way.

Based on this photo of Chicago, how many CCTV cameras are there in the USA? And how many Higgs bosons?

Based on this photo of Chicago, how many CCTV cameras are there in the USA? And how many Higgs bosons?

On the show, they investigate the sources of various claims that come up in the media, like: Britain has 1 CCTV camera for every 14 people. It turns out this is based on a a survey of two streets in London. The number of CCTV cameras in those two streets was extrapolated to the whole of London, then the whole of the UK. So even if 1:14 is the right number, this study arrived at it completely accidentally – and nobody really knows the right answer. Yet this number crops up every now and then as though it is true.

At the Tevatron, I worked on a Higgs search, where we looked for a handful of possible Higgs particles amongst millions of collisions that look very similar in the detector. A careful statistical analysis of those data is needed to be able to determine if the Higgs is really there or not. This is probably the reason I’ve heard particle physics referred to as glorified statistics (and it wasn’t meant as a complement!), and I’ll admit it’s not the kind of thing I imagined physics was about when studying at university. But I do find it very interesting: working out exactly what we can say about nature, based on the data we have. And yes, we do check our analysis more thoroughly than the CCTV claim.

Now I have to work out how to make time for all those podcasts…

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