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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Curveballs are Fun

Friday, December 19th, 2008

We’re not big fans of rigid hierarchy in academia, not even on big experiments like ATLAS with multifarious coordinators and project leaders.  On the one hand, this means that nobody ever gives me orders — but on the other hand, it does mean that there are a lot of people who can give me “strong suggestions.”  And sometimes one of those people decides to throw me a curveball…

Friday was a day of two work days.  First I worked a pretty normal eight hours debugging code, then spent the evening at a few holiday parties before heading to the ATLAS Control Room at 11 PM for an eight hour shift.  After I arrived, while waiting for the expert running things to let me do my shift so he could go home and get some sleep, I found an email in my inbox which had been sent only that evening.  It asked me to give a talk at the ATLAS Inner Detector-wide meeting about the activities of the Pixel group over the previous week.  All of the work to be discussed had done by others rather than me, and some of it I hadn’t even been aware of — and the talk was on Monday.

I had never received a request like that before, but believe it or not, I’m not complaining.  Yes, it was rather short notice, but it wasn’t even a strong suggestion, really — I was allowed to opt out if I didn’t have time.  But more importantly, after I thought about it, I decided that giving the talk was entirely a good thing for me.  There are a couple of reasons I can think of to give an inexperienced person the responsibility of summarizing the work of the whole Pixel Collaboration.  One is to give everyone who’s done work on the Pixel Detector a turn to make their participation visible to the wider Inner Detector community, even if their work contributed only indirectly to the material being presented.  (In my case, the contributions were taking shifts and writing tools for analyzing calibration scans.)  Another is to give the person giving the talk the opportunity to learn more about the broader work on the detector.

In my case, it was an opportunity I had to take quickly, so I sprung into action: I checked the agenda for Monday, found that the meeting wasn’t until 3 PM, and decided I could delay the writing of the talk itself until Monday morning.  I did look at the list of topics to cover during my shift, and asked a few questions; then I printed out all the supporting material on Sunday night.  But otherwise I continued with my weekend as scheduled.  This required Monday to be a very productive day: I got up at 6:30 AM to start reading everything I had printed out, then got intto work by 8:30 am and started writing.

Most of the slides were summarized from elsewhere, or even provided for me.  The most important part of what I had to do was to understand what was on them, so that I could provide context for the work and avoid sounding like an idiot if I had to go “off script.”  The way I think about it was that the people who had done the studies had given me intermediate-level information to present, and nobody would expect me to answer really hard stuff during a summary talk, but that I absolutely had to have a command of the basic way in which the material I was presenting fit into the broader picture.  I needed some help with that, and got plenty of it, from the experts who did the original work as well as from the person who asked me to give the talk.

By 3PM, I was ready, but also nervous about talking in a new venue and in front of new people.  I hadn’t given myself time to be nervous up until that point, but I had plenty of it while watching the other four talks ahead of mine.  My strategy during the talk itself was to try to sound confident that I understood everything, unless I actually didn’t know something and had to punt questions to the other pixel people in the room — which it turned out I never did.  In the end, in fact, I was told the talk was clear and went well.   So I suppose I managed to hit the curveball, and it definitely made for a more exciting Monday than usual!


I’ve been meaning to write a quick note thanking people for their comments on last week’s post about tracking.  When I spend a lot of time on making sure a post really explains something well, it means a lot to me to know that my effort succeeded.  (A note to readers who happen to be my advisor: I didn’t spend too long on it, I swear.  And anyway I was waiting for my code to compile.)  So, thanks!  While I’m here, I figure I might as well share an observation that occured to me while reading the comments, and then answer a question that was asked.

First the observation.  In my experience, if you go to a baseball game and point out that the people on the other side of the stadium “look like” a particle tracker for the ball, your friends stare at you as if you’re crazy.  And yet, if you write about particle physics and manage to compare it to baseball, then it goes over rather well as a feat of science explication.  I conclude from this that the trick to being a tremendous nerd while still being cool is to manage expectations; get your audience to expect you to be an even bigger nerd than you actually are, and they’ll be impressed.

Second, the question: Didi Mouse asked who gets to name any new particles we find.  The answer is that we don’t actually know yet, but it depends on what’s out there.  Many particles — for example, the Higgs boson — have been named already; if we make a discovery that looks more or less like a Higgs boson, we’ll call it a Higgs boson.  There are also theories that predict lots of new particles; often those particles are all named, but according to some regular rule.  For example, Supersymmetry predicts a new particle for every known fundamental particle.  The superpartners have the same name as the original, but with an “s” in front for some spins, and an “ino” at the end for others; electron becomes selectron, quark becomes squark, photon becomes photino, gluon becomes gluino, and (my favorite) W becomes Wino.  If we were sure we’d found Supersymmetry, we’d probably keep those names, but we won’t be sure at first what new theory the particles we’ve found fit into — so what will we do?  I expect the decision will be made as part of the experimental collaborations’ processes for writing and approving papers, because the name for a new particle usually comes from the paper that announces the discovery.  As far as I know, nobody has specific plans for how to handle the naming, but it is a problem we will be delighted to have.


I’ve been thinking about it since this yesterday, and I’ve finally decided to take the plunge: I’m going to say a few words about the blogosphere debate on the CDF “ghost muon” paper.  I know that, by the demanding standards of the Internet, this is old news; the posts that started the mess were an eternity ago, last week.  In my defense, I have been traveling for the entire time, to Berlin and a few cities in Poland, in what now seems a confused blur of night trains and buses.  And in any case, I think my comments are universal enough that they’re worth making even if the debate is starting to die down.

I have relatively little to say about the paper itself, which was submitted last week but is not yet published.  Very briefly, the paper discusses a series of particle collisions seen by the CDF detector at the Tevatron Collider at Fermilab that appear to possibly contain muons which decayed from a very long-lived unknown particle — or maybe there’s a less dramatic explanation, and nobody’s figured it out yet exactly.  If you haven’t heard about this at all, I strongly recommend you go to Cosmic Variance for a more substantial summary.   One very big debate on the paper is whether it ought to have been submitted for publication in its present form; many experts who I know personally say that CDF should have been more careful in investigating the possible sources of the signal before publishing, and much of the CDF collaboration (including my colleagues at Berkeley) chose to take their names off of the paper’s author list.  The counter-argument, which won the day in the collaboration’s final decision, is that everything that could be done had been done, and that it was time to send the work out to the wider particle physics community to see if the signal could be understood and duplicated by other experiments.

A second “debate” is much more disturbing, centering on speculation that a group of theorists had written a new theory based on inside information from the paper before it was published.  When the group denied this, Tommaso Dorigo (who works on CDF and CMS) accused them point-blank of lying.  The exchange, originally in blog comments, is summarized here by Dr. Dorigo.  Although he qualifies his accusation a bit, he seems to stand by it and even reiterates it in the process of apologizing.

This kind of in-your-face accusation goes beyond the appropriate boundaries of professional discourse.  It seems to stem the bizarrely-prevalent idea that being really obnoxious in public is normal, as long as it’s on the Internet.  Would you, dear reader, put up a poster calling your boss an idiot, or give a newspaper interview in which you speculate that one of your coworkers is a liar?  No, you wouldn’t!  And nothing changes because our job happens to be physics, or the venue happens to be the World Wide Web.  Of course we all have the right to free speech, but what we choose to say has consequences; others have the right to choose whether or not to collaborate with me, whether at the personal level or the level of a large-scale experiment, and one thing they can and will think about is whether I’m going to publicly insult them.

One of the theory paper authors, Professor Nima Arkani-Hamed, wrote a several part response to these accusations, but one part of his comment really struck me.  It was about the physics blogosphere as a whole: he called it “brown muck” and said that he has “a very dim view of the physics blogosphere, and avoid[s] interacting with it.”  Upon reflection, this is a fair comment.  Many — though by no means all — of the physics blogs seem to spend a disturbing amount of time on personal “clashes” between “epic” personalities.  The ultimate example of this is found in the insults exchanged between Peter Woit and Lubos Motl, each of whom command large opposing followings (at least on the Internet) in the so-called “String Wars.”  The problem is that their extreme viewpoints and aggressive tactics don’t reflect what most physicists think about the issues; their drama, like these latest accusations about the ghost muons, is largely manufactured for consumption by the blogosphere.

I would like to think that the US/LHC Blogs offer a different vision, one that falls outside of Dr. Arkani-Hamed’s criticism.  We are, first and foremost, an outreach site.  We seek to explain the excitement of our work — the wonder of the Laws of Nature we’re trying to investigate, and the fantastic machines that we use for that investigation.  Of course we tell you about our lives in the process, to give you an understanding of what our work really involves.  We want to explain what our work means to you and why it’s worth your tax dollars, and we want to get young people excited about learning and maybe getting into careers in science.  Of course we also have interpersonal conflicts, nasty suspicions, and hallway rumors — just like anybody does — but in my opinion we’re not here to tell you about that stuff for two reasons: first, because all that nonsense is not what’s essential or exciting about our work, and second, because we owe our colleagues (and potential colleagues) the courtesy of not being rude to them in public.

I hope those of you who read our blog are looking for the stories that we think are important to tell; if not, sadly, it appears that you have a wealth of alternatives to choose from.  But I have been wondering about something, and in the words of Tommaso Dorigo, “I should like to open a poll for those heroic readers who came to the bottom of this post.”  Do you think all this infighting is valuable to know about?  Does it help the overall cause of expanding interest in, and knowledge about, our work?  (In fairness, Dorigo, Motl, and Woit are also known for writing very informative posts about subjects within their expertise.)  Or does the partisan warfare and discourtesy simply serve to distract readers seeking real knowledge?

You know my opinion on those questions, but I’d like to hear yours.  Until then, I’ll leave you with the words of Nima Arkani-Hamed: “I’m sure you’ll agree that there is more critical physics to do than there are hours in the day to do it, and I for one would like to get back to work.”


One Reason I Love My Job

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

One of the things I like best about being a physicist is that, when I wander aimlessly through the halls, unaware of my surroundings, with disheveled hair, bare feet, and a look somewhere between intense concentration and lunacy on my face, this is considered entirely normal behavior.

Well, mostly normal, at least.


http://www.ignorancia.org/ )

Like most other large particle physics experiments, CMS has a lot of management structure, physicists who effectively are just managers. As you can see these organizational charts are usually represented with a lot of inter-connected boxes. Which is why positions like this are sometimes referred to as boxes. Most of the important boxes, like the spokesman, our representative to the rest of the world, are elected by the collaboration. In the case of mere lower convenors, a team of wise senior physicists typically just finds you worthy, then nominates you and if you accept you have the job. Particularly for post-doctoral researchers these positions are quite coveted, as it proves (if you do your job well) that you have some form of leadership capabilities, one of the alleged requirements for a tenure track job.

Today is a special day for me, as I have accepted to help run the CMS pixel detector software group for a year (at least). I find this all highly exciting, as I suspect I will be learning a lot in this time, not only about our detector but also about how particle physics experiments, or at least CMS, are run behind the scenes. I even have a title, as I now am a Detector Performance Group convenor for the CMS pixel offline software. My own acronym and a box to put it on, whoo whoo! Essentially the title means that I have to make sure the software that is used to analyze and reconstruct pixel data is in a good state. And that means keeping track of all different actitivities that go on in the development, making sure things stay up to date, etc. And that means… guess what: meetings.

So, I got my little (and yes this really is quite a minute) box. I wonder what’s next. I suspect many more meetings.


Big Explosions

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

Hubble Telescope image of the Crab NebulaNow that I’ve gotten your attention with the entry title, I of course have to admit that there are no big explosions at CERN. That’s a good thing, too, because I’m talking about really big explosions.

CERN, like any big laboratory or university, has a fair number of lectures and colloquia on various topics in physics. One of the great things about being a physicist, and a physics student in particular, is that going to these lectures counts as work, at least if it doesn’t get in the way of things that have to be done. Since my work this week was mostly meetings about getting a new project and passing the old one off to another person, along with writing an ATLAS Infernal Internal Note on the old project, I had the opportunity and need for any educational breaks I could find.

As it happened, there were three very interesting talks by Princeton Professor Adam Burrows. Their nominal subject was “Black Holes and Neutron Stars,” but what he really wanted to show was stars exploding. The first talk, which was definitely my favorite, had a lot of movies and simulations of exactly that. A particularly pretty example is this movie of a Type Ia Supernova:

The neat thing about that video is that, not only does it look good, it’s also a real simulation. One of the main things I learned from the talks is that a substantial obstacle to understanding the details of supernovae is a lack of computing power: there are a lot of ideas about how they work exactly, but none of them come out quite right in simplified simulations. For example, Type II Supernovae probably need to lose their spherical symmetry so that the explosion can spread along one axis while new material collapses into the core from other directions, but it’s not clear exactly how this happens, and it can’t be simulated properly in only two dimensions.

Jokes about avoiding real work aside, it’s quite valuable for physicists to keep up with work in fields that are somewhat removed from our own work; you never know what interesting connections might come up. The details of supernovae have a lot of particle physics in them; for example, there are a tremendous number of neutrinos produced. In fact, neutrino detectors were the first instruments to “see” Supernova 1987a, because the weakly-interacting neutrinos escaped from the star a few hours ahead of the rest of the explosion.

[Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)]