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2009. Ready or not January 2, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, CERN, D0, Fermilab, LHC, politics, science.

We’ve made it through the first day of 2009. I have mixed feelings about this coming year.

  • Federal Science Funding Levels. The economy is crashing down around our ears. Business responds quickly (layoffs :() – government is a bit slower. If things followed their natural course of action that would mean science funding, along with everything else, will take yet another hit. However, the incoming Obama administration seems to be committed to spending the USA’s way out of this recession, so in the end funding might not change very much. I am hopeful that hard sciences funding will remain at least stable.
  • Federal Science Funding Directions. Climate change is what the Obama administration is focused on. There is a good chance that if you are researching something connected with climate change you may have access to increased funding opportunities. I would expect a funding profile similar to NIH’s funding during its years of increase. I would like to think that funding will spill over into the physical sciences – it should because there are connections between the physical sciences and clean air technologies. All of this is applied scientific research. I hope that the pure research funding gets an increase as well, as an investment in this countries future (particle physics is pure research, of course). I’m feeling neutral here.
  • Federal Science. Obama’s science team is just a BLAST of fresh air when compared to the current administration’s. After all, his DOE nominee is a Nobel prize winning experimental physicist. Even if the science advisor isn’t elevated to a cabinet position (PDF), there will be someone in the room that knows a great deal about science, research, and how it is done. Even if there are cuts to science funding, I’m very hopeful there will be intelligent cuts rather that unscientifically motivated cuts. I’m very hopeful in this respect.
  • State Universities. The economy in states is depressing. Some states, like my own (Washington) that rely on sales tax are being hit hard and very fast. State universities can’t escape that, obviously, and my university is no exception. Unfortunately, this usually translates to reduced raises, inability to counter offers from outside, reduced support for research, etc. In our own department I wouldn’t be surprised if some people left for other universities that, for whatever reason, were able to make good offers in this awful climate. There is, in fact, already evidence this is happening. The only consolation is most universities are in the same boat, and so most of them are having similar problems. I know less about private universities, but I do know the endowments of many of them are also having difficulty. I’m very downbeat about this: it will be a rough two years at least, I think.
  • My Science. When it comes to the Tevatron and the LHC… Well, I see no reason that the Tevatron shouldn’t continue to break records in luminosity (they just broke one earlier this week). And the experiments will continue to be flooded with data. While it is possible for one experiment or the other to have a catastrophic failure, I doubt that will happen. And they should continue to produce papers and science at a furious rate. I also am looking forward to real LHC collision data this year. While I hope it will be at the full 14 TeV, I suspect it is more likely to be at 2 TeV, just a hair above the Tevatron’s luminosity. We’ll hopefully know what the machine scientists think about that sometime in February. I’m really hopeful about this.
  • New Years Resolutions. Well, I made only one. That way I have a hope of keeping it: make bread more often. 🙂 I think there is a chance that I will keep this one. Especially now that I’ve said it publically. 🙂

Of course, this should also be a fun year, as noted by the Beacon News:

Frustrated with their failed attempt to destroy the world in 2008, the scientists at Fermilab and their counterparts at Switzerland’s CERN physics lab resolve to perfect their new device, the Large Planet-Sucking Black-Hole-o-Tron.

Here is to another great year of data collection and science at the Tevatron and first collision data at the LHC!


Will There Be LHC Beam This Year? September 23, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in CERN, LHC.

Well… I wrote this post last night – before the press release that arrived in my email this morning at 10:50am (pacific time) – there will be no beam in the LHC until early spring… I’ll leave the rest of the post below, though I don’t know if it has any value at this point… But I’m too lazy to write a new one!

I’m not privy to inside information (if I was I wouldn’t write this post!). But you can do the following calculation yourself.

The LHC is going to be down for 2 months. That means the machine will be cold and ready to start power up in mid November. The current winter shutdown will probably commence at the end of November. That means only two weeks of time to power the machine up, put beam back in, try collisions (at 900 GeV), sync up the RF system and perhaps try acceleration. 900 GeV, by the way, is the beam injection energy: one doesn’t have to commission the whole acceleration sequence in order to run the LHC at 900 GeV.

Not a lot of time. From the accelerator point of view I’m not sure it makes sense. ATLAS and CMS, as well as others, however, are probably dying for any data they can get their hands on. They have had a taste, but even a week of collisions at 900 GeV would go a long way to helping with the commissioning. That isn’t to say that both experiments won’t have plenty to do during the winter shutdown even if the collisions don’t occur. I believe both will want to open up their detectors and get inside to the parts that are not easily accessible, for example.

Finally, there is politics. Closing out the year without collisions will be “a tough beat”. The newspapers are watching everything we do and they will surely report on this as a disappointment. Scientifically (given the information I have – which is the same that everyone else has and is undoubtedly not complete), it seems like the case for beam this year is on thin ice.

This whole post is based on the premise that the problem that occurred is as the LHC accelerator division expects: something that will take one or two days to fix. If a magnet needs to be swapped out with a spare or something similar to that, then I’d guess we will almost certainly not have beam. We should have the answer to that question as soon as they have a look inside the magnet, which will occur when it is warm in a little less than a month. As CERN has said:

“It’s too early to say whether we’ll still be having collisions this year,” said James Gillies, chief of communications for CERN, in an e-mail message.

The winter shutdown is due to the very high electricity costs in Geneva. I’m used to electricity use spiking in the summer as everyone turns on their A/C. Anyone know what causes the high cost in Geneva during the winter?

Will it really take ATLAS 3 years to see 5 sigma Higgs? August 20, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, CERN, D0, Fermilab.

Probably (for ATLAS new predictions on this should be released in a few months). But in the context of the Tevatron and the LHC Higgs search that isn’t really what is important.

The ATLAS prediction that it might take 3 years to reach the 5 sigma level for a low mass Higgs discovery got a lot of airplay. It got me to thinking. Lets say the two accelerators are in close competition for the Higgs. The Tevatron can really only speak to the 3 sigma level. It isn’t ever going to get to the 5 sigma level. Further, at the Tevatron the CDF and DZERO experiments will have to combine their results to even reach this 3 sigma level. So, I find it highly unlikely that the LHC will sit back and let the Tevatron get away with this. I certainly wouldn’t (and I’m on a LHC experiment). So what to do? Obvious – beat the Tevatron at its own game: combine results from CMS and ATLAS and the 3 sigma level will be obtained much more quickly. At that point the LHC has stolen the thunder from the Tevatron and CMS and ATLAS can now race each other to individual discoveries of the Higgs at the 5 sigma level.

I don’t expect the experiments to combine for the 5 sigma discovery (I could well be wrong, of course – I know of no plans to not do this or to do this!). There are many forces at play that are driving each experiment to make the first paper submission of a 5 sigma signal. This may, indeed, be what gives the Tevatron space to slip in with a 3 sigma evidence paper. And in the grand scheme of things – the Tevatron goes out with a 3 sigma evidence and the LHC with a 5 sigma discovery – that doesn’t seem like a bad “split”. But who has ever heard of the free market working like that!?

As a member of DZERO I want to push as hard as possible to nail a low mass Higgs. As a member of ATLAS, I want the experiment to scramble as fast as possible to get the Higgs – evidence and discovery. After all, that is one of the LHC’s main points.

Play it safe, or… August 17, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, CERN, D0, Fermilab.
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There was an unspoken theme at the DZERO workshop this week. Stick with the Tevatron for a huge, but iffy, payoff. Or switch to the LHC now because it is a “sure” bet (as sure as anything gets in research).

This is all about the Standard Model Higgs search at the two accelerators. If such a Higgs does exist the LHC is bound to discover it. The LHC has some “difficulty” at low mass Higgs (below about 125 or so). Difficulty for the LHC means it could take up to 3 years for a single experiment to declare a 5 sigma discovery, the gold standard of “discovery”.

At the Tevatron the Higgs analysis is all about difficulty. Each new Higgs result you hear or read about is a tour-de-force of new techniques and new methods of extracting every last bit of signal out of the experiments. As a graduate student I never remember techniques this sophisticated. And the LHC pre-trial analyses are not as sophisticated either (on the other hand, they don’t need to be).

Global fits to the Standard Model currently predict the Higgs to be low mass – between 114 GeV and 120 or 125 GeV. The Tevatron is currently x2 away from being sensitive to this mass range. By doubling our dataset to 6 fb-1 of data and making a number of improvements to our analyses, we expect that we should be there. These improvements are not easy – it will require a lot of work and a lot of people. Nor are they assured. At best, if the Higgs is there, and we aren’t unlucky, we should be able to see it at the 3 sigma level. But never the 5 sigma discovery level. That will have to be left to the LHC in any case.

So is it worth sticking with the Tevatron? Well… the payoff would be huge to see something at the 3 sigma level. So it is like a lottery with high stakes. The chance of winning is not all that sure, but the jackpot is big!

Me? Well, I’m working on both the LHC and the Tevatron (as are many US physicists). I have a student working on the Higgs search at Fermilab, for example. I’m deeply involved in a number of topics at the LHC as well.

What will happen? Hard to tell. Things to watch? Well, that is easy. There are only two things that really matter here – the performance of the Tevatron and the performance of the LHC. Each physicist who is on both collaborations is performing some complex calculus to optimize their time on the two experiments depending on the chances of success.

I wish us all luck. 🙂

Angles and Demons – ATLAS June 5, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, CERN, photography, physics life.

Apparently the ATLAS detector will make an appearance in the film based on Dan Brown’s book Angels and Demons (at least, if the detector scenes aren’t left on the cutting room floor).

Quote from the article:

Anyone at ATLAS who has read the novel is sure to have their own opinions on the author’s particular “creative” take on the laws of physics and his representation of CERN. But, like it or not, CERN plays an important part in the story – as the location from which antimatter is stolen by a secret society intent on creating a bomb to destroy the Vatican.

Right. ’nuff said about the book.

What I thought was very cool was instead of trying to film a scene in the detector – it is almost impossible now as the detector hall is so crowded – they will instead do a 3D model of it and use that. How cool is that? Too bad we can’t do that to all the various bits of equipment that we install and then save them. Sort of the way we currently take digital photographs.

Stammers, who is doing the 3D work for the movie, described the process as follows:

We use these [images] with our own in-house software – an image-based modelling tool – to pinpoint certain areas within each image that are also in other images,” he explains. “From that we can extrapolate a 3D model which is scale accurate, and the photographs can then be used as textures to apply to that model.

This sounds a lot like the PhotoSynth project out of Microsoft Research. I’ve been waiting for someone to make this sort of thing available to someone like me to play around with (read: basically free except for CPU time). While I’m sure I’d never do as high quality job as someone paid for the movies, imagine what you could do with all the detector bits, some of the collision halls, etc.? Now, that would be cool. And then if you could make decent 3D viewing software – what a great outreach project (well, I think it would be cool – no telling what others would think, of course).

LHC On Blogs March 6, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in CERN, science.
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The small wheel (sensor array) arrives at CERNLHC has shown up on some blogs in the tech-sector recently. Gizmodo has some fantastic pictures of the ATLAS detector under construction.

Scoble also got a tour of the LHC, led around by Frank Taylor, a prof from MIT I know. Scoble has a huge readership in the world of tech-blogging (one of the “a-list” bloggers).

I like these efforts – inviting non-particle physicists into our field and everything we do takes continuous work. After all, most people don’t live this science day and day out – and when we suddenly show up with a new W mass measurement… well, hard to expect people to get excited out-of-the-box. The only way it works is continuous communication – and these sorts of things are just the ticket.

On Fleecing Tourists March 5, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in CERN, travel.

I visited Lausanne last night to have dinner with some friends. I don’t have a rental car on this trip to CERN. So I had to take public transportation. Round trip that was 6 CHF for the bus/tram and 41 CHF for the train. That comes to 47 CHF – which is about $47 bucks for about 1 hour of being on public transportation (and standing at bus/tram/train stops for about 40 minutes). That is some serious money!

On the way out I ran into a friend that happens to live at CERN. She makes that commute every day – so of course she gets passes to make things cheaper: 10 CHF round trip.

The 5 bottles of wine that were consumed over dinner took some of the edge off, but that was a crazy expensive! It is cheaper to rent a car for one day – about 35 euros!!

You Need To Be There August 6, 2007

Posted by gordonwatts in CERN, physics life.

Many people ask if you can do ATLAS physics at UW and never travel to CERN. The answer is no. You can do a lot of physics at UW — in fact, I suspect you could do all the physics you wanted — but it would take a lot longer — and you’d never be able to keep up with the people that did travel to CERN.

Coming back from dinner this evening is a case-in-point. The #9 bus, which goes from downtown Geneva to CERN, was packed at 10:30. By the time it thinned out I found myself standing next to a group that sounded like they were from CERN. One thing lead to another and I discovered they were working on GRID software, and, in particular, condor.

This has been one of my pet things — using VM’s (Virtual Machines) to run GRID jobs so you can avoid all the setup issues that generally one has to deal with (i.e. did you get the version of python right? etc.). And it turned out they were experts in using VM’s for doing GRID jobs. I got lots of good ideas out of that — we stood at the bus stop for perhaps another 20 minutes after the bus left exchanging email addresses and names.

All from a chance meeting. It is like the coffee house cooler, but on a bus. 🙂 Travel will always be a necessary part of all types of physics. Too bad, on one hand!