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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Perks of the job

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Life as a high energy physicist is not without its perks.  I recently got back from my latest trip to CERN for the EMCal test beam.  I spent about a week on the midnight to 8 AM shift and then stayed a week to work with some of my collaborators in ALICE.  The hours are long and the work is hard but the company is good and there are many perks.

I’m an avid hiker so I took a day off to go hiking in the Juras.  My friend Daniel organized it and we ended up with a group of two physicists from ALICE, one from CMS, one from ATLAS, and one from a university in France.  We had one American, one Brit, one Spaniard, and two Mexicans.  A multicultural group in many ways.  Here you can see the view from the Juras:

Somewhere down there is CMS.  It was a nice hike but next time I’ll pack my good compass and get my own trail map.  We had some unintentional adventures.

After my trip to CERN I went to a conference in Sicily – which means I had to work on a talk while I was at CERN.  Of course Sicily is beautiful:

(This is the view from Taormina during the excursion.)

Then I packed up and left, first to Geneva and then back to the US.  Five flights and four countries in two days.  My luggage made it through Paris to Atlanta but then decided to take a vacation in Atlanta without me.  I’m now looking at a grueling travel schedule in the next four months.  Plans have changed and our detector, the electromagnetic calorimeter, is going in during the Christmas shutdown.  This is great news but it also defines my holiday schedule – November and part of January at CERN.  On top of that I have a few meetings and some personal travel.  I’ll be lucky if I manage to be home for two weeks in December.  However, I did not get much sympathy from my father the other day when I was complaining about how I might have to get extra pages in my passport because I’m running out of space.  Go figure.


Sorry, can you repeat that?

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

This post is meant to have a positive tone. Really.

The LHC experiments all rely heavily on some form of teleconferencing to get their work done. As experimental collaborators number in the thousands, we can’t get by without conversing with each other. And with collaborators all over the world, we can’t expect people to physically appear at every single meeting. This could work fifteen or twenty years ago, when people typically participated in experiments on the regional or national scale. I know a whole fleet of professors who used to drive a car or take a plane to Fermilab once every two weeks, or even every week, so that they could be in the room for some particular meeting. Now that we are spread over so many miles, it seems too much to ask. But teleconferencing has allowed us to move past that era. It is absolutely not as good as being there in person, but given the monetary costs of moving people around, and the amount of people’s time that can be wasted in transit, not to mention the wear and tear on all of us when we are away from home, it makes sense to take advantage of teleconferencing technology.

The good news in all this is that we have reached a point in teleconferencing technology where anyone who has a computer with a microphone, speaker and network connection can take part, from any office that they might be sitting in, making teleconferences much more convenient than ever before. The bad news, of course, is that we have reached a point in teleconferencing technology where anyone who has a computer with a microphone, speaker and network connection can take part, from any office that they might be sitting in. Not all microphones are of such high quality. Some microphones tend to be rather close to computer speakers. Some connections are unreliable and have limited bandwidth.

So today I found myself on yet another conference in which we had to remind people to mute because we were hearing other speakers echo through their sound pickup, and had to work our way through some parties becoming inaudible or distorted at times, and had to listen to the occasional background conversation, and had to ask people to repeat themselves, a little louder please. It is, honestly a bit of a drag. I’ll admit that I pine for the days when you really just could sit around the table with a couple of co-workers and point at the plots in your notebook and be done with it.

But this post has a positive tone, really. I just try to keep in mind that yes, we are able to work with people who are scattered all around the globe, and actually get things done, thanks to this technology, even though it gives me fits.


Off to Geneva

Friday, August 20th, 2010

I’m off to Geneva for a couple of weeks. While I’m there I’ll work on the test beam for the ALICE electromagnetic calorimeter. I’ll tell you more about that in the next posts. But I thought I’d share with you the contents of my long trip survival kit:

A travel pillow, a bandana (which serves both as an eye mask and a lazy hair style), an outlet adapter, a netbook and mini-optical mouse, ear plugs, an mp3 player with a 30 hour battery, a hair brush and extra hair bands, two change purses (one for Euros, the other for Swiss Francs) and little mini-toothbrushes with toothpaste already on them.  I don’t deal with sleep deprivation very well so these flights are never very fun – but they’re easier to take than flights between the US and Asia.


Almost There

Monday, July 19th, 2010

The official ATLAS conference note describing the analysis I worked on was approved on Saturday morning. My poster was finalized, approved, and printed — possibly not in that order — just in the past few hours. Now the only challenge left is to get myself and my poster through a French air traffic controllers’ strike and to the Palais de Congrès by Thursday morning.


Feeling squeezed

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Here I am at CERN, after fairly smooth travels. (At least this time I didn’t show up with the flu.) The weather here is very nice for this time of the year, and the only evidence I can see for the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull (I love that name!) is somewhat lower attendance than usual for the semiannual CMS computing and software workshop. A number of people who had planned on flying here last week had their flights rescheduled far enough into the future such that it was not worthwhile for them to come.

While changing planes at Washington Dulles, I ran into a colleague (headed in the other direction, back to Chicago from CERN) who had some very good news to report. Over the weekend, LHC operators tried “squeezing” the beams for the first time, as Mike had alluded to last week. This is a focusing of the beams that, like the name says, squeezes them so that all the particles are closer together. A greater density of beam particles means that there is a greater chance that the particles in opposing bunches will actually collide. And that was in fact what happened — the observed collision rate went up, by about a factor of ten. It’s not every day that you gain a factor of ten! As a result, more collisions were recorded in a single day than had been recorded in the entire month beforehand.

The next steps include things like adding more protons to each bunch, and adding more bunches to each beam. We hope to get another four factors of ten in collision rate yet this year. The big question is how quickly they will come. But in any case, it is very encouraging to see such progress.


Physics operations

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Yesterday I (virtually) attended the CMS “physics operations” meeting, the first meeting of this sort in the 7 TeV era. We’ll be having a few of these per week for the foreseeable future (but I probably won’t attend all of them). The goal of the meeting is to check in on how everyone is doing in the day-to-day, hum-drum work of getting our physics business done. This includes everything from checking the reconstruction of the basic objects (leptons, jets, etc.) in the detector through full analyses that lead to publishable measurements. Does everyone have the simulation samples that they need? Have we learned enough about the data that it seems useful to reprocess all it with our new knowledge applied? What sort of problems are they running into with accessing the data or using the distributed computing system? (I came to get the word on the latter, which falls in my purview.) This meeting should be useful in helping us get work done efficiently, especially given the crush of activity that is occurring in the enthusiasm to study and understand our early data, and to prepare our first results from 7 TeV collisions.

That being said, the concept of “physics operations” sort of turns my stomach. Poking around on the Web, I found a definition of “operations management,” which was “the maintenance, control, and improvement of organizational activities that are required to produce goods or services for consumers. Operations management has traditionally been associated with manufacturing activities but can also be applied to the service sector.” This suggests the idea of physics as a factory — there is an assembly line, you put some raw materials into it, you make sure that all the machines run smoothly, and out come publishable papers at the other end. Of course this isn’t how physics research actually works — throughout the process of making a measurement, we need to apply plenty of human judgment and creativity, at least if we want to advance the field in a real way.

But perhaps this is just the way things have to be these days — when you have hundreds of humans being creative at the same time, you want to make sure that they don’t all collide with each other, that they are getting the resources that they need, and that the systems and tools that we have provided don’t hamper anyone’s creativity. And perhaps this was a natural evolution: I have certainly been among the people who talk about “physics commissioning,” the work you need to do to get data analyses up and going, in analogy to getting a detector up and going. And once you’ve commissioned a detector, you operate it, of course.

In other news: I’m supposed to be going to CERN in a week for the semi-annual CMS software and computing week, but the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced EY-ya-fyat-lah-YO-kut) volcano in Iceland and its impact on trans-Atlantic air traffic has me spooked. Apparently when the volcano last erupted, about two hundred years ago, it did so on and off for about two years. Will I make it over there? Will I be able to come home? Answers in my next post.



This past Monday we had our annual US CMS Tier-2 computing workshop. Once again, we held our workshop as part of the Open Science Grid All-Hands Meeting. Those of you who have been reading the blog for more than a year will remember that last year this meeting was held at the totally neat LIGO facility in Louisiana. This year the meeting was at totally neat…Fermilab! OK, I’ve been to Fermilab before, so no travelogue this time, but as usual it was good to meet so many collaborators face to face.

I don’t want to jinx ourselves, but I’m feeling pretty good about the state of the computing for the experiment right now. As we reviewed the status of the seven CMS Tier-2 sites in the United States and two in Brazil, we generally saw that everyone is operating pretty stably and happily. A year ago, there was a lot of discontent with existing large-scale disk storage systems. But since then we’ve developed and implemented some new systems, and there have been a lot of improvements in the existing systems, so it all just looks a lot better.

That being said, this all just dress rehearsal — we’ll see how it really goes when thousands of physicists start using the system to do hundreds of data analyses. Now that the LHC running schedule has been defined for the coming three years, we have a much better handle on the needed computing resources for for this period. Overall, we’re going to be running at lower collision rates than previously anticipated, but with pretty much the same livetime. This means that we’ll be recording the same number of events we would have at higher collision rates, implying that the density of interesting physics will be smaller. It creates a more challenging situation for the computing, but at least we now know what has to be done, and have a reasonably good idea of how to get there.

As for the second half of the title — the real excitement was on my trip home. I had an 8:10 AM flight out of O’Hare, which would arrive in Lincoln around 9:40, giving me plenty of time to be ready for my 12:30 PM class. But there was fog in Chicago, and an aircraft was late, and then the crew was swapped, and then the aircraft was sent to Peoria instead while we waited for the crew, and in the end we didn’t leave until around 10:45. The plane touched down on the runway in Lincoln at 11:57. And I was in my classroom just on time. Ah, lovely Lincoln, where the airport is small, you park right next to the airport, and you can drive to campus in minutes!



Friday, October 16th, 2009

Ciao!  I just returned to CERN from a few days in Milan.  It was a very productive trip (unfortunately that meant I didn’t see much of Milan).  I met with two people from Milan and one who came from the US, and we basically sat in a conference room for 3 days working together.
This was a very effective way for us to work because we were able to discuss our long term plans (for the ATLAS MissingET software), and to design and even write some software.  We ended by coming up with a plan to carry out the rest of the work.
This trip highlights the positive and negative aspects of the international character of particle physics.  It is positive because it brings together the best people from around the world, but it is also negative because it sometimes requires people to travel halfway around the world just to talk together for a few days.
It also reminded me that even in the modern interconnected world where everyone is a phone call or email away, there are certain advantages to meeting in person.  One of the big advantages is that it is hard for someone you are talking to to be too distracted by other things.  A meeting like this forces a focus that is really useful.


Not a day at the beach

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Only two weeks left until the end of the academic year! This is always a very busy period, which is my excuse for not writing anything recently. Very little academic business gets done around the university during the summer, so all sorts of things need to get wrapped up before we get to the end of the term, and there are always so many year-end events for our students too. And of course I still have my class to teach; this is going farily smoothly, but I will probably need every last minute in the next two weeks (or at least until I have prepared the final exam) to bring it to a happy ending.
As it happens, I also have a cluster of research-related travel right now — not helpful for getting my teaching done, but it gives me something to write about. I spent some of this week in San Diego, where those of us working on CMS software and computing gathered to discuss the state of the world. These meetings are more typically at CERN, but someone (I’m not even sure who, actually) came up with the brilliant idea of doing them next to an ocean this time instead. That’s great for me — not the ocean part, so much, but it’s always a challenge for me to get to CERN, what with the long distance and the fact that it’s hard to go for less than a week. For these meetings, I was able to teach on Tuesday morning and catch a flight here that night, and still attend most of the workshop.
As has been true for some time, the question we have been struggling with is are we ready for the start of the LHC, and if not what do we have to do to get there. I think that the greatest value of this meeting (heck, any meeting, I suppose) was to bring together groups of people who don’t usually talk. It turns out that there were cases of people working on different aspects of particular problems who had very different understandings of some of the issues. For instance, there was a dispute over whether “24 hours” actually meant 24 hours, or something more like 48 hours. And in some cases, one group of people didn’t know about work that another group was doing that could in fact be very useful to the first group. In short, there’s nothing like actually getting people in the same room to explain themselves to each other.
But once again, I was struck by just how complicated this experiment will be. The challenge from the computing perspective is how interconnected everything is. We want to make sure that a user can’t do anything that could essentially knock over a site (or possibly the whole distributed computing system) by accident. Certainly there were times in the meetings when someone would ask, “why do we have to make it so hard?” but honestly, sometimes it just is that hard.
Anyhow, next week I’ll be in Denver for the April general meeting of the American Physical Society. I’ll write about it then…much more physics content, I promise!


En route

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

Regular readers will know by now that I am one of the few bloggers at this site who is not resident at CERN; I live in Lincoln, Nebraska.  But this week I am taking one of my semi-annual (at the moment) week-long trips to CERN.  To the delight of our blog editors, I will try to give regular updates on my journey.

Traveling to CERN is hard for me.  I don’t go all that often because of my teaching schedule (I was able to reschedule a lecture and hand lab responsibilities off to my TA this time), and my two small children.  Already I have gotten the news that when the doorbell rang this afternoon and it wasn’t me, my two-year old daughter burst into tears.  The poor thing has seven days to go yet.  But, while we do as much as we can on this experiment over email, the Web and videoconferencing, there is nothing that can match face-to-face communication.  So off I go.

I’m writing the bulk of this on my flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam.  This is Northwest 56, which with a 9:15 PM departure is the last trans-Atlantic flight out of Minneapolis.  I like leaving late because the flight hours overlap well with my normal sleeping hours.  I won’t arrive in Geneva until 4:30 PM, but that’s OK; I wasn’t planning on doing anything Sunday anyway.

Do you care?  Probably not, but many of my colleagues do.  I find that the favorite lunch-table conversation topic for Americans at CERN, after the business of the experiment itself of course, is travel plans and preferences.  If you make this trip enough, you end up with some firmly-held opinions.  “I always make sure I have at least two hours if I need to change in Frankfurt,” one senior physicist told me once.  Another one refuses to fly through Heathrow.  Personally, I’m fine with changing at Schiphol in Amsterdam, which isn’t too dismal-looking, and, if you are into that sort of thing, there’s an excellent selection of herring in the gift shop.

I managed to sleep for about three hours on the first leg, and then took a short nap on the flight from Amsterdam to Geneva.  I made it to my hostel room on site just in time for the regular Sunday night jet-lag pizza outing that some software and computing people take after arriving.  About a dozen of us gathered in Restaurant 1 at 6:30 for a walk towards Meyrin.  Before we left, I mentioned my travel-themed blog entry to one colleague, who pointed out the hand-held devices that about half of them were fingering.  “I don’t know,” he said, “we probably talk about our iPhones more than our travel plans.”  Oy, what geeks!