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Where did I go? March 18, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in blog, life.

There was an almost 3 month gap between those last two postings. Several of you privately asked me if everything was ok, and a few publically (on the blog) as well. So, thanks for asking! And I’m just fine.

It was a collision of a bunch of things that took me out of posting. I don’t think any single one would have done it, but they came together. I thought it would be fun to list them – as it might give those of you not on the inside of this science-rat-race a picture of what goes on. On the other hand, most of you may find it amazingly boring and feel I’m whining as everyone is really busy.

That is mostly what it came down to: busy.

  1. I was teaching a graduate particle physics course. You’d think, as this is my field of research, I’d be expert in this. Well, some aspects I suppose, but basic field theory and phenomenology? Not really. I suspect that course was eating up about 20-30 hours a week, depending on what set of topics I was trying to teach.
  2. I am co-leader of the ATLAS b-tagging group over at CERN. This has translated into my traveling to CERN almost once a month for the past year and a half. Let me tell you – that trip takes a lot out of you. Sometimes when I get back my body declares enough! And I end up sleeping from 9pm to 7am several days in a row. For a guy that does most of his work late at night let me tell you – that takes a bite out of productivity. Another thing this job has caused me to do is often get up very early for European late afternoon meetings. Which means, in general, I’m more tired. But I wouldn’t trade these two years – doing this as data first rolls in has been exhilarating!
  3. If feels like our kid has started sleeping less or something else has changed – I get a lot less done than I used to on the weekends and in the evenings. Don’t read this wrong – our kid is about 3.5 years old and a hell of a lot of fun to hang around (and teach – she just learned how to spell her name with wooden alphabet blocks). But as any of you who are parents know, this takes real time!
  4. Some of the topics I often post about on this blog are causing me a good deal of frustration. In particular, watching what this state (and others) are doing to the US public education system. We already know that grade school and high school do not measure up well in the rest of the world. Our college and university system, however, is second to none. You’d think the obvious thing to do would be to try to bring the grade school and high school education up to par. Instead, we seem to be doing the exact opposite. And let me tell you, there is nothing more depressing, frustrating, and anger inducing for someone like me than reading the comments of the Texas board of education members after their vote recent textbook vote. At some point one gets worn out. 🙂
  5. HOLY COW. LHC DATA!!! Yes – that is right. And lots of it (ok, that is a relative thing). The group I help lead has produced lots of plots. Helping to guide these plots and analyses through ATLAS has been a great deal of fun, but it has also been 1000’s of emails and lots of headaches as everyone tries to figure out the right way to get these results out of the collaboration. Remember – technically all 2000 authors have to be given a chance to comment on these things. The resulting overhead is bound to be complex and will take a few iterations to get right. Further, the LHC has just restarted and now we are going to be running for an extended period at 7 TeV – it won’t be just performance plots anymore, but now real physics. And maybe hopefully some involving b-tagging. This means my summer will be “hell” [well, I’ll move to the south of France again for the summer, so hell is pretty relative].
  6. Facebook. Yeah, I know, I know. I do love that it has reconnected me with so many people and as a result I do spend probably an hour or two on that site during a normal week (much more when traveling or when I’m trying to write an exam or homework solutions! ;-)).
  7. Hobbies. These include things like photography and (yeah) computer programming (i.e. the deeptalk stuff). Actually, these have almost dropped to zero as well since December. Along with this blog I’m trying to restart them because they are, like this blog, things I enjoy and have missed.

I love my life. I’ve worked my butt off for many years to get to where I am now. Sure, there are things that could be better, but as far as it goes I’m amazingly lucky to be where I am now. Sadly, there are only 24 hours in a day, and so, sometimes something gets dropped on the floor.

At any rate, it is the start of finals week here at UW and next week is spring break. Which means I’m off to Chicago for a quick visit to Fermilab and my student and the D0 DAQ system, and then off to Geneva for a week long ATLAS meeting. But… no teaching. So I’m hoping I can get my blogging groove back.

But, honestly, the blog posts I do, I do because I like doing them. The second this feels like a chore… well… 🙂 At any rate, I should have something up for the logbook shortly – that is a fun topic to think about for a nerd like me!


If you don’t exercise that muscle… October 28, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in blog.

I apologize for the lack of posting. I’m teaching a course that is a lot of fun – but it is a huge amount of work. The last course I taught took me about one hour of prep time for each hour of teaching – that was great for getting research done, having time to write the blog. This course I’m doing now is about 5-8 hours per hour of teaching. So, some things have had to suffer… like my research time. 🙂

I’ve also found something that is normal, I suppose, in retrospect. Normally I see lots of things during the day that I think will make a good blog posting. Some of them I remember long enough to get into my blogging queue. Others are just left behind – because I have so many it rarely matters if I forget a few. But I’m not thinking up ideas as frequently as before. That is partly because of the time I have. The other part is because that idea muscle seems to have atrophied…

I’ll try to pick up the pace a bit, but with that muscle out of shape it may be a bit lame for a while!

Blogs of US Folks working on LHC May 26, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in blog, Blogroll, physics.
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I’m a little slow picking this up — my apologies. If you want to check out more about down-in-the-dirt people working on the LHC start up check out this group blog site. The blogs there

I should update my blogroll – it has little resemblance to the list of blogs I now read in my RSS feeder. Why can’t the two automatically communicate? 🙂

What Do I Spend My Time On? How do I Choose a Topic to Write About? March 25, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in blog, physics life.

One one of my lasts posts about computers and HEP, Kevin left a comment.

OK, this post forces me to ask this question: can you estimate the amount of time you spend on “science” questions versus methods development, programming or other things? After reading your blog (and enjoying it of course) for over two years now, I feel you have discussed a lot of issues in programming, ROOT, C++ vs other languages, computers and other things that are tools to do science but which are not themselves science (or at least not physics).

I am fundamentally lazy. Other bloggers — like Tomasso — are not. I’m afraid I do not spend much time on these blog posting (spelling errors!? Me!? Never!). As a result, I tend to write about things I can clack off without having to do any reading or extra research. This usually boils down to physics I’m working on or support work I’m working on, hobbies, or my social/family life. I don’t understand how Tomasso has the time to read and digest all those papers. I suppose once you get going you can do it more and more and more quickly, but I have not been willing to take the time.

The physics, however, suffers. For example, I’m working in the Higgs group at D0 – well, mostly my post-doc and my graduate student are this year – but I can’t really talk about some of the very cool stuff that is happening there. That is a sure way to get hit on the head by the collaboration. In ATLAS I’m also doing some stuff I would love to talk about – but ATLAS has an official blogging policy (i.e. don’t, unless the result or thing is public).

Now, part of the reason I got into HEP is I like that it lives at the corners of physics, software, and hardware. Since D0 has matured, I’ve not been doing very much hardware. The software side of things I’d always done as a hobby. I have always been a big fan of software and have made some fairly flexible and sophisticated frameworks for use in physics analysis. Since that, and watching people who are not me try to understand and read my code, I’ve come to believe C++ just isn’t all that great as a productive programing tool. Now here is the thing: no one cares about software! The byproduct of that is I can talk about software freely on this blog, as I work on it. Take ROOT for example, I recall trying to get a new plot out for single top. With that plot we were able to understand that the way we were doing our b-tagging in our background sample was correct. But in order to make that plot I had to fight through a ROOT bug. Guess what I can write about in the blog?

So, now a direct answer to your question. I’m on sabbatical this year. I would say it was about 50-50 for me. When I’m teaching a course I understand, it is probably 40% physics, 30% software, and 30% teaching. When I’m teaching a class I’ve never taught before it will probably by 10% physics, 10% software, and 80% teaching (ask me in November).

Thanks for the question/comment Kevin. I hope I’ve answered it!

Trouble Posting February 3, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in blog.

I’m having some technical difficulties posting (I use a bit of local software to make my posts). More posts as soon as I can get that working again.

Happy New Year! January 1, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in blog.
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It has been a great year! Thanks for reading and especially thanks for leaving comments! I hope you all have a great New Year!

Who Am I? July 24, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in blog.

There may be a few new readers heading to this blog, I suspect. So, a few introductions. Feel free to leave comments or ask questions. I’ll do my best to answer them (but I don’t have Internet at home right now, so I might be a little slow!).

The Rumor

Looking for more info? I’m afraid there isn’t much new out there. If you want to follow the trace of posts the best way is to follow the blog articles as they are all interconnected — which is why we call blogs echo-cambers. Here are my posts:

The Article

It was pretty good – I thought it was balanced. It is a bit odd because all of the people mentioned or quoted — we all know each other pretty well. I’ve been out for a beer with almost all of them. Well, there is Dr. Weinberg. I have seen Dr. Weinberg eat lunch at the University of Texas Faculty club (where I did my undergraduate work). I think I once carried a paper from a string theorist at Rutgers down to him for review. But no beer with him. 🙂

On a more personal note, I never use the word “Dude” in conversation. It was a little awkward reading that. But, that is blogging for you. How often does someone get the word “Dude!” into the NY Times? I think my family will have some fun with that…

I’m curious to see what effects it causes in the experiments. Considering that Dennis, the author, carefully talked with the spokes-people of both experiments I suspect there will be very little fallout from this article.

Who am I?

I’m a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle in the Physics department. I got my Ph.D. in 1995 from the University of Rochester. I then did 5 years of post-doctoral work at Brown University before finally ending up at UW. I’ve been there almost 7 years now. I have just started my first sabbatical — I’ve just moved to Marseille in the south of France. I’m working with some collaborators at a lab called CPPM (Centre de Physique des Particles de Marseille), and I’m here for one year.

I’ve worked on only four experiments in my lifetime. This is not very many! I started at AMY in Japan (so old it doesn’t seem to have an official web site!!), and then moved to CDF at Fermilab, I then walked around the Tevatron accelerator ring a short distance and went to work on D0. I’ve spent most of my professional life there, and I am now really delving into the next experiment, ATLAS at the LHC.

On a more personal note, I’m married to another physics professor at UW and have a 1 year old child (who I miss, darn it, because we are separated until mid-August when she will join me here in Marseille). Probably the best way to find out more about me is pick random posts on this blog and read them or look at my flickr picture feed.

My Job

I love particle physics because it seemed to me to be the perfect intersection of physics and computers and hardware. I’m not sure I could any one of those three full time. My job as an experimentalists lets me, on one hand, explore the secrets of the universe, talk  intelligently about dark matter, and on the other hand argue some obscure point about parallel computing, and perhaps also fiddle at the boundary between hardware and software (micro controllers and the like). That was why I got into this field. I’ve since discovered other things — the students and others I work with, for example. I even like teaching (seriously — people seem to think most professors at large research universities don’t like teaching — I’m sorry they had bad experiences; but it isn’t the norm among my friends).

Particle Physics

The NY Times article does a good job at describing the current hot topics. There have also been some great long articles recently in the NY Times and also the New Yorker

Where do I start? I have no idea. We are trying to unlock the secrets of how things work at the smallest scales (quarks and gluons) and then use that to try to understand how things works at the largest scales (the universe). We have had this beautiful model of now nature works since the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. We call it the Standard Model (yeah, I know, pretty boring). It is almost complete in the sense that we’ve seen every single particle but one that it predicts: the Higgs. The Higgs discovery will be a big deal when we finally find it (if we find it at all – but more in a second). I would not be surprised if its discovery made the front page of the New York Times. Depending on what else is going on, it may even be above the fold. 😉 Finding the Higgs is definitely winning the lottery, but not the jackpot. See, we know the Standard Model is broken — it doesn’t work at higher scales. The problem is all the measurements we’ve made have been at a lower scale that the Standard Model works too well! So we know that nature doesn’t have an infinity in it — so the Standard Model is broken — but we don’t know how to fix it yet. And there are a lot of proposals out there. Figuring out how nature solved this mathematical problem we have with our Standard Model is the big Jackpot.

The beauty of the Standard Model is that it describes all interactions of matter. In particular, it is fairly easy to use its rules to understand how the universe first evolved. And here is the key: if you can predict that, you should be able to predict a universe that looks a lot like the one we are in now. Only we can’t. Some key ingredients are missing — dark matter and dark energy. “dark” because we have no clue. 🙂

The LHC was built exactly to answer some of these questions. Ironically, the LHC was started before we realized the dark matter/dark energy problem existed. It would be a neat twist of fate if a machine not designed to solve the dark matter problem ended up solving it. But our luck is not that good.

All of us, in this field, are products of the people around us as well as ourselves. I say this especially in reference to the rumor: if you piss off your colleagues then they will not work with you in the future. Collaboration is the life blood of particle physics in a way that it isn’t in many other science disciplines. The lone scientist slaving away at his table in the basement for years and then winning the Nobel prize? Nope, it won’t happen here!

Here are a few links to explore further. They are of varying quality as I just picked them out this morning and have not had a chance to carefully review them. Let me know what you think!

What is this blog?

 I started blogging as part of an outreach program called Quantum Diaries (check them out, there are some much better bloggers than I). The constant fear is not enough people are going into science (women in particular). So, how to make it more accessible? Someone in the PR department at Fermilab came up with the idea of a group of us writing blogs for the 100’s anniversary of Einstein’s most productive year. And I found I liked it.

So what does this blog have? It has less science than most science blogs. There are some excellent science blogs out there (my favorite) — defiantly read them. If you want to find more, just follow one link or anther and you’ll find us all linking to each other. I am very impressed with how they are kept up — it takes me hours to write posts of that quality and depth (this one is over an hour in the making). This blog is much more informal. If there is something bothering me, or some trip I’ve taken, etc., I’ll post about it here.

You can click on some of the blogs I’ve listed in my blog roll if you want. You’ll quickly find they link to higher quality blogs than I do. My problem: I only read blogs sporadically. Never feel like I have enough time…

Thanks for stopping by!

iPhone Blog Comments June 30, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in blog.

Ok. Enough with the fun and games. It seems like every post of mine that has the works “cell” and “phone” in them has been hit with a comment that points back to some iPhone accessory. The people that leave these comments are trying to build up search-engine link-love for their products. I’m trying to keep up with deleting them, but, please, get on with actually making a good product so people will link to it rather than doing this!

Maybe I should freeze posts so that after 30 days (or some such) you can’t continue to leave comments.

Enough Already! June 5, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in blog, physics.

Just stop! The latest batch of rumors of a bump in a D0 analysis has gotten way out of hand. My original plan was not to say anything: I can’t participate in rumor mongering here: I’m a member of D0. So I have little to gain, and a lot to lose!

So, before I get to what pissed me off. If you want to read the rumors head over to Tommaso’s blog (here and here). He even left me a comment recently:

On a totally different matter, Godon: please leak something about the new evidence for weird bbbar production found by D0. Is it true it is a 5-sigma effect ? Is it at 180 GeV ? How about its width ?
Let us know!

I will now tell all. It is definitely true that there are people in D0 working on such an analysis. The people working on the analysis are some of D0’s best. And the review board for this analysis (a hot analysis long before any of these rumors started) has a number of very good people. The point is: D0 isn’t going to release anything officially until they are sure it is right. It is the same with every analysis we release. So, till then — rumor away (I’m keeping score) — but they are rumors.

So, when that analysis makes it out this blog will not be the place to see it first. I am not directly involved in it — or even in reviewing it (except as a collaboration member). The official D0 results page will have all the info you need. I’ll certainly put a pointer to it since there seems to be so much interest in it. When will it come out? Some of the speculation on release doesn’t seem unreasonable, but remember that the criteria here isn’t a conference deadline, but, rather, getting it right. I’ve seen a number of analyzers work very hard to make a conference deadline only to have their review board force them to spend an extra several weeks doing cross checks (and those analyses had no rumors associated with them).

Just remember, ladies and germs: Rumors are rumors, science is science.

So, two things set me off to writing this post. First, Tommaso did it in a minor way:

Will science magazines be willing to wait ? Hmmm. I bet there already are a few investigations ongoing (but I swear I personally have not been contacted by the press yet).

Dude! If you get called by the press to comment on this rumor — you will be making second hand comments on rumors! You have almost no position of authority to talk about this (at least last time you were a member of the collaboration releasing the result — and more importantly, it was public already). A minor misquote by a reporter and you’ll have all of DZERO yelling at the CDF spokes people about your behavior. The previous New Scientist article has already gotten quite a few people upset! Tread carefully here (just some friendly advice, eh…?).

But the thing that really got me angry was the Slate article.

The current rumor, which comes in time for the summer conference circuit, may be different. It claims an experiment at the Tevatron has found a peak twice as high as the previous rumors’ bumps. And unlike the other rumors, this one includes details: the new particle’s mass, for instance, which fits within theoretical bounds on the standard model Higgs. Some versions include a decay chain, which describes what the new particle turned into as the experiment progressed, and which may be consistent with the standard model’s predictions.

Wow. I’m a member of D0, I’ve read the note, and I still learned some new things from this article! But then it goes on to say:

So, if the rumor is true and the standard model Higgs has been found at the Tevatron, the LHC is in big trouble: Immediately, its “guaranteed” success—the final particle of the standard model, not to mention a couple of Nobel Prizes for European scientists—is gone.


The irony is that things look just as bleak for the LHC if the rumor is false, and the Europeans end up finding the standard model Higgs themselves.

WTF!???!? There are so many busted things about this. First off, simple discovery of a SM Higgs is not, at least to me, an obvious Nobel. Definitely worth something like that for effort! Isn’t a Nobel prize supposed to be for something that really changes people’s understanding of the world? A standard model Higgs won’t do that — it will confirm it. Perhaps a shared Nobel with Higgs himself? I suppose. Now, a non standard model Higgs. That is definitely worth a Nobel. No question there in my mind. So they give Nobel’s for guaranteed successes? 😉

His second paragraph, of course, contradicts everything he says in his first paragraph — if the LHC did find the Higgs and get a bunch of Nobel prizes then hey — that would be pretty bleak. Riiight.

The point he is making, I think, is that he doesn’t think there is much chance of the LHC seeing anything beyond the Higgs:

Physicists have developed such a complete description of elementary particles that, once the final piece of the theory is in place, the chances that the LHC will find anything the standard model doesn’t predict are almost negligible.

In short. The LHC just isn’t worth it once the SM Higgs is found. Just shut it down! Spend the money on something else.

He is right in the sense that it is certainly possible we will see a Standard Model Higgs at the LHC and nothing more. From the point of view of moral and the future of particle accelerator based physics that will be awful. From the point of science it will be very interesting. The reason? Because what we know about the Standard Model suggests that something must be happening around the 1 TeV scale. If there is nothing — then there must be a mechanism to “fix” the Standard Model.

What does that mean? Well, if nature does the simplest thing then we would expect the LHC to see something beyond the Standard Model.

Finally, even if the Tevatron does find a Higgs there is no way we will make enough of them to know if it is a SM Higgs or something more interesting. No matter how you look at it, the LHC will be scientifically interesting.

Turns out the Slate author has a web site of his own, and a blog entry where he has a few more details about the rumors. I’m not familiar with him, sounds like he is an ex theorist from Harvard from the blog entry.

Blogs, The Press, and Science March 16, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in blog, physics life, science.
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I’ve been pretty busy lately and so totally missed that a friend of mine, John Conway (dude — fix that picture!!), has joined Cosmic Variance. First of all — Congratulations John! I’m, all at the same time, happy, envious, and a bit nervous. The first is pretty obvious: I’ve known John a long time and like him and Robin a lot. The second is because CV is one of the largest blogs out there — and who doesn’t want a large audience!? 🙂

The third is a bit more complex. Check out his posts. One post (I think that is where it started!??) generated a news article. Conway is, of course, a member of the CDF collaboration and one of ~600 people that keep that experiment running and analyze its data. The article is pretty bad in the sense that CDF appears as a helper to John’s team, and it appears first quite a way into the article. It is pretty good in telling a story about what is going on (I think John’s posts are better, actually). Goodness knows that HEP needs more press like this, and more blogs or people like John and CV. But the thing that gets me is the press connection. CV has a large readership. I’ve seen science writers in the New York Times respond in the comments section of that blog — so it has a very direct access to the press — something that very few of us or our experiments have. Is that appropriate? I can’t tell. I’m really torn. We need to be out there and in the public: heck, the public funds the science we do. On the other hand, we are large experiments and it isn’t the individual: all of us contribute to these results.

Also, reading this, I wonder if I should alter the content of my blog. Because I started with the Quantum Dairies, I tended not to talk about the physics — at least, not in detail. A lot of this blog tends to be dirty details of my life (sorry). Also, frankly, it takes  a lot more time to write those types of posts (I don’t know how Tommaso does it and still maintains an active research career!). What do you guys think?