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Science First. Competition Second. May 5, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life.

Being an American, I’m a capitalist. Thus, I’m greatly in favor of competition. And there is a big competition coming down the pike: ATLAS vs. CMS. Both are going to be racing to find the not only the big discoveries but also to be the first to see a Z boson, or the first to see a top pair production. In the long run I think this competition will be healthy – it will make sure results come out in a timely fashion and keep the two experiments on their toes. It is most embarrassing, after all, when your competitor points out a big mistake you’ve made!!

A bunch of us were discussing this over lunch the other day at the ATLAS Genova b-tagging workshop. One person was very against the idea of the competition, pointing to the damage it had done at CDF and D0. This surprised me; I’d always thought the competition there was pretty healthy. No, he said, from the outside he sees lots of name-calling and trashing of each other’s results.

Yuck. I hope there are very few people doing that. I can understand where the feeling comes from- you work for months or years only to be beat in the last few weeks. The science is intensity personal. Still…

This lead to us trying to sort out what was good and what was bad about competition. The title of this post was the tag line we came up with.

N.B. Not all American’s are capitalists!



1. Akira - May 5, 2008

Hi Gordon,

At the end of the post, did you forget to add:

“N.B. Not all capitalists are in favor of competition?”

2. gordonwatts - May 7, 2008

Akira — I’m not sure I totally understand how to be a capitalist that isn’t infavor of competition??

3. Akira - May 8, 2008

Hi Gordon, I’m far from being an expert on this. Capitalism is probably to do with free trade but I’d like to think that does not directly imply competition. On the other hand one can be extremely competitive being a communist. I just thought maybe the reason you are in favour of competition is not because you are capitalist. But going back to your main issue, I think competition makes anyone stronger and it should make science stronger too. Probably there is no evil in competition as long as people are set to the right goal not just outdoing others.

4. gordonwatts - May 8, 2008

Akira – that is hard. Competition implies that someone is trying to win. That implies that, if they do win, one is better than the other — which means we must have a yardstick to measure and judge by. Who determines that is where your comment “as long as people are set to the right goal and not just outdoing others” gets tied up in. What is “the right goal”? Getting funding? Measuring the top mass better? Measuring the W mass better? All of these are goals we need to accomplish, but your focus might change depending on what you are going for.

5. Chip - May 9, 2008

Wow. I can envision a wholly different particle spectrum and a set of less-tight analyses which would have resulted had there not been both a CDF and DØ over the whole lifetime of the Tevatron. This experience has confirmed the craziness of having only one experiment when the stakes are as high as they are. Plus, think of all of the marriages which are so much stronger as a result.

6. Dave Eaton - May 9, 2008

I’m no economist. Or a physicist. But capitalism implies competition because prices are supposed to be set by a market. You might argue a market could be controlled, but another cornerstone of capitalism is freedom to own private property, so too much market control makes a society progressively less capitalist. Being a ‘competitive communist’ doesn’t make any sense and would probably be something Marxist would call ‘false consciousness’. Or ‘completely missing the point’.

Or so it seems to this chemist.

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