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Good-bye, Uli November 30, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life.
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Uli Baur passed away this last week. Uli is well known in my field. Not only did he do good physics, but he was also personable, nice, and a lot of fun (see image above and below for proof of that last bit!). He was great for an experimentalist like me – willing to answer basic theory questions w/out making me feel too stupid – very accessible. For whatever reason one of my more vivid memories is sitting outside the CERN cafeteria some evening. He’d just arrived – I think it was a day late… because his plane had a flat tire. The tire disintegrated during takeoff – or the crew was worried it had – as the landing gear wouldn’t lock when they tried to put it down. His description of everyone running around the cabin, pulling out manuals, etc., was typical of him – enjoying life and what life had handed him. We will miss you Uli. A memorial web page has been setup (and there are lots of remembrances on Facebook as well).

I hope this picture gets used in a talk tomorrow.


As many of you know, I’ve accumulated a very large collection of images from physics conferences. While not all are on my flickr account, many are. You can find ones that have Uli in them from this link (sorry – my tagging isn’t perfect, as one or two other Uli’s appear in that stream). Enjoy remembering him!


You put *WHAT* in there? March 16, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in logbooks, physics life.

It seems like I wrote the post asking folks what they used for their log book about a year ago. Ahem. Sorry.

The main goal of that post was to find out what people were actually using for a logbook. Looking over the responses and thinking a bit more, I decided that perhaps I should start off by a catalog of what people put in their logbooks first – before discussing what is out there. Actually, this might be a bit more interesting in the end than just a catalog of the stuff people do use.


This is probably the most popular thing I saw referenced. I’m speaking of things that you can easily type in… thinking on a typewriterkeyboard, perhaps a summary of a conversation or a thought. From personal experience these can range from a short sentence to a long diatribe. I suppose basic formatting (similar to this blog) is nice – but for a logbook the main point seems to be to get an idea down so formatting isn’t so crucial. The other thing people mentioned liking is being able to quickly search for things – which text does very well.

A sub-category here, I suppose, are latex documents. Latex is the premiere mathematical typesetting language. Useful also for writing long books or papers. It has been mentioned to me more than once that when some new mathematical expression needs to be written into a logbook, the person will just latex it and then insert that in the logbook.


I imagine many uses for this – especially if you are in a lab constructing things or perhaps inspecting something. As a result the logbook should have a simple capability to insert pictures from a camera. In general, what this turns into is insertion from a file (jpg, png, etc.). And if it to be easy on the computer it should be either automated or drag-and-drop.

This got me to thinking… if you had to do this often you could probably automate the process using something like the Eye-Fi SD card. You could take the pictures and by the time you got back to your office and had a cup of coffee, all the pictures you just took would be pasted into your logbook awaiting detailed annotation.

Ironically, the use I saw mentioned most in my post was to take pictures of handwritten notes. I’ve used this technique often to record a whiteboard or some paper scribbles – I can email it around to a student if we were discussing it or paste it into my logbook for later reference.

Screen Scrapes/Clippings & Plots

This was mentioned most commonly in conjunction with plots. You have your plotting program running one window and you now want that plot in your logbook. So you fire up your screen clipper (or perhaps it is part of your logbook) grab the plot, and then paste it into your logbook. Poof, the plot is in your logbook.

I’d like to point out two problems I have with this technique: when it comes time to make a presentation the screen clippings are rarely high enough quality for talks. The resolution is often small – and certainly not resizable. Second, the size of a screen capture of a plot is often quite a bit larger than the data in the plot (i.e. think about 10k or less for a histogram bin data vs the 100k or so for the image).  But for keeping track of some intermediate plots this sort of thing is just fine.

Storing the raw data of the plot would of course be ideal, however then displaying that is hard – if you are using a general program you would have to write a plug-in that would translate that data into the plot. Certainly possible, but…


This was mentioned much less than I would have guessed in the responses to my blog posts. I find myself constantly dragging files into my logbook to keep the notes I’ve taken on a paper or something like that close to other similar ideas. The most common file types are probably PDF’s for me. But I’ve done other sorts of files, including Excel and small ROOT files.


Ok. For this you gotta remember who is talking here. I’m Mr. Tablet and I don’t think I could part with the ability to write things. However, I claim as long as one is living in a world where one wants to write down this sort of thing:


Now, I’m totally sympathetic to the idea that one can take a picture of a whiteboard (as I’ve done here). But if you have to do this sort of thing with any regularity – and perhaps on your own – being able to write it down is much better.

The other great use for writing is thinking (a few of you mentioned this in your comments to my post). Free flow drawing, arrows, etc. does work. However, as my wife has pointed out on numerous occasions when I bring this up – most people learn how to think on a keyboard now and they don’t suffer for it!

I did a quick scan of my log book to look where I had handwriting:

  1. Markup of papers/notes I’m reviewing for physics correctness (i.e. I’m not going to send my markup back to the authors as much as I’m going to send a question like “If you make this cut here you are biasing your mass distribution here… please convince me you did this right.”
  2. Free thinking. Probably about 50% of this in my own notes could have been done on a typewriter – it is just handwriting organized line-by-line
  3. Class lectures and class lecture note preparation.
  4. Note taking during a meeting. This is not mostly something that could be done by typewriter – I tend to cut/paste in clips of slides that are being presented and then scribble notes to myself over them.
  5. Working through some problem involving mostly thinking. Say, an analysis problem. I’d say this follows the same 50% rule.
  6. Working through some problem involving a plot(s). What I mean here is if I’m trying to think through some issue that is driven by a plot. Essentially, as soon as I paste a picture into my logbook I draw on it and my reasoning flows from there. So for me this is very much a handwriting thing.

So, I guess #1 and #3 aren’t strictly log-book functions. For #2 and #4-6 I find having pen input invaluable. If you eliminate #1 and #3 I think my logbook is about 20% handwriting content. If you keep those in it is closer to 50%.


So… what did I miss?

Ok – next time I’ll go through some of the ideas people had. Some were very cool – I’d never thought of them; now that I have I could see how they would make a good alternative to what I’m doing. I hope that the gap between this post and that won’t be as long!

Where is your logbook? January 24, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in logbooks, physics life.

This is old school:


What is new-school?

Some friends and I had a fairly heated discussion concerning logbooks the other day. As anyone who has been through a college (or high school) level lab-based science course knows, the importance of a logbook has been… well, drilled into your head. Use it to keep track of your experiments. It might be important in a patent dispute (this came up a lot during my high school lab courses for some reason), etc.

But now, in the modern age of computers and smart phones everywhere… I’m curious: where do you keep your logbook? In paper? An e-log? Do you keep plots in it? Do you even need a log book any longer? Just text files on a computer? What is the point of a log book now (as far as you are concerned)? Or any other log-book related thoughs. Please – dump them here.

Then I’ll collate them and tell you my opinion. And I’m sure you can guess that I have an opinion… 🙂

Tevatron Saw the Haiti Earthquake January 19, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in D0, Fermilab, physics, physics life.

The Haiti earthquake registered was a 7.0, and devistating, as everyone knows. Illinois and the Tevatron are about 2500 miles away from Haiti – but the Tevatron did see the earthquake:

haiti_quake2[1]What you are looking at there is an ACNET plot. I stare at plots similar to this when I’m on shift all the time. The top two plots – the green and red, are position monitors on the quadruple magnets just outside CDF and D0. They are quite stable until the earthquake. The Tevatron was running when this happened, and you can see in that lower red plot that some protons were knocked out of the ring by the ground shaking.

Note these movements are so small you never would have been able to detect them unaided. However, as my wife put it, “that is one expensive seismograph!” 🙂

I Came This Close… January 9, 2010

Posted by gordonwatts in eReader, physics life.

With the release of Barnes & Noble’s e-reader, the nook, I came very very close to getting one for myself this Christmas. When it finally arrived in stores I went to look… it is tiny. Really tiny.

I have no idea how I’d really use one of these eReaders until I get it, but I’ve been wanting them to fix one big problem in my life: the shear number and weight of magazines I carry back and forth every time I go to Europe. I get the New Yorker and the Economist – both weeklies – and often I have a stack of 10 or 15 of them that I try to read while on the plane or while drifting off to sleep in a hotel room. Storing them on a eReader would really help quite a bit.

The good news is that both the New Yorker and the Economist are available in eReader format. But… !!! Most pictures are not in the Economist version and most cartoons aren’t in the New Yorker eReader version! Sorry – I’ll have to stick with paper. I wonder what it is about the eReader format that makes it so unfriendly to this sort of thing.

A third thing I’d like to be able to do is read my physics papers on them. These are usually stored as PDF’s and can be downloaded from just about everywhere. The main problem here is that PDF files do not reflow the text – so that full 8.5×11 image will be on the screen all at once, or a portion of it will be on the screen and I would have to constantly scroll. On a slow eReader that would be very painful. I would really need to have something like the Kindle DX or one of these new ones that is coming out soon (maybe at the CES shows that are going on right now?).

The other thing holding me back is the general dissatisfaction I hear when these devices are used for text books or other scholarly journals. It sounds to me like the current design has really nailed reading a simple book of text (novel, etc.). But almost nothing else.

Yet. 🙂

Did you see that pink elephant!? No? Good! December 31, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life.
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Picture this (this was really done). Hire a clown. Put him on a unicycle. Have him play around some busy college campus square. Next, stand off to the edge of the square and intercept people who are walking away from the square. Ask them: “did you see that clown!?”

You can find a subset of the people who will, 3 out of 4, answer no. It is those who are talking on cell phones, or texting, or whatever-electronic-gadget-thing, as they were walking.

This phenomena is called inattentional blindness. The above study was done by some researchers at Western Washington University.* The context for this study, of course, is talking on the cell phone while driving. We all know how bad it is. I’m currently here in Ottawa, in the Ontario province of Canada, where, I’m told, playing with any electronic gadget while driving is illegal (iPods, phones, etc.).

But thinking about this… There is a flip side to this study. This is exactly the state I want to achieve when I’m working. When I sit down to prepare a lecture on field theory, or try to come up with a better way to calibrate an ATLAS b-tagging algorithm, or figure out how to help my student out on his ZH analysis, I want exactly this inattentional blindness.

Email? Ignored! Facebook? Ignored! People wandering by my office? Ignored! That book at the side of my bed? Ignored! That TV show I’ve recorded? Ignored! That gadget blog begging me to read it? Ignored!

Sadly, following this study, I’d have to be on the cell phone constantly in order to make that happen. Perhaps if I write my lectures by twitter? Or I could send my physics ideas out by facebook updates?

I’ve not gotten to nirvana yet. Some things are easy to do – shutting off email, for example. But, when it comes write down to it, there are times when my mind would rather spend in places other than where I’d like it. Too bad…

P.S. During the writing of this blog post I checked my email once, sent two emails out, and read the engadget website.

* Sorry about the link to the blog posting at the NYTimes. I can’t link directly to the article because, I think, there isn’t public access provided. For those that have it, the blog posting contains a direct link if you want to read it.

See CERN History December 1, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in CERN, Fermilab, physics life.

This is a quick note to draw your attention to a small retrospective program that CERN has put together – “From the Proton Synchroton to the Large Hadron Collider – 50 Years of Nobel Memories in High-Energy Physics” – yeah, yeah, it is like a Microsoft product name, but check out the list of speakers – 13 of them are Nobel prize winners. And these are all “memory” talks – so they should be quite entertaining. The event will be video-broadcast over the internet – a link should appear in that agenda page where you can watch. The time is European central – which is 9 hours ahead of Pacific time in the USA.

The context for this event is the turn-on of the LHC, of course. The accelerator recently took the title of “most powerful accelerator in the world” away from Fermilab – and is on its way to a turn-on and real data. Ironically, I was on shift at Fermilab a few hours before this event happened – my plan was to call up the ATLAS control room if it did happen and congratulate them… but I was asleep by the time it actually happened.

I’m at CERN now – and the atmosphere is electric. This review talk is a perfect stepping stone for the future.

George & Remi November 11, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in Marseille, physics life.
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I’ve been pretty bad at posting this – I keep meaning to, but I keep not having time! But I have to send congratulations out to George and Remi for getting their Ph.D.’s:


They entered graduate school on the same day and the only reason they didn’t graduate on the same day was no one wanted to schedule a defense in the morning. I’ve had the pleasure of working with both of them and they are both excellent (sorry, they already have jobs – if you are around CERN they should be there pretty regularly). They graduated just before I left Marseille earlier this year, in September.

Congratulations to both! And best of luck – and enjoy the LHC startup! 🙂

Dark Matter Discovered – Loosing Control Of Your Data October 26, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in GLAST, physics, physics life, science.

Ok, so it is a sensationalist title. But it was triggered by archive submission with the following title: Possible Evidence For Dark Matter Annihilation In The Inner Milky Way From The Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope. Wow! That is quite a title!

First, a bit of background on this paper. This is authored by two theorists who analyzed publically released FermiLAT/GLAST data. Fermi is a NASA funded project and one of its stipulations is that all data it collects must be made publically available 6 months after it has been collected. The authors of the paper downloaded the data, used a simple background model, added in their dark matter theory, and did a fit. And pow:

image The red points are the data from Fermi, the dash-dot line and the dotted line are backgrounds (galactic diffuse, and a single TeV source), and the dashed line is their model. Nice fit, eh? Yep – looking at this my first reaction is “Wow – is this right? This is big – how did Fermi miss this?” and then I run across the hall to find someone that actually knows this data well.

It turns out the basic problem with this analysis is that not all sources of background are included. This is the galactic center, and, as one would imagine, there are lots of sources there. Not just one TeV source modeled above. My impression from hallway conversations is that when you take into account all of these sources there is much less (if any) room left for the dark matter model. I don’t think that Fermi has published a paper on this yet, but I suspect they will try a some point soon.

Ok, so all’s well. Fermi will publish the paper and everyone will know the right way to do this non-trivial analysis. Except that things got away from them. Nature news has picked it up and wrote a short update. This is pretty widely read. Now Fermi has a PR problem on its hands – people are running around talking about their data and they’ve not really had a voice yet (the science coordinator for Fermi was interviewed for this bit, but her comments were relegated to the end of the post). Fermi is a big collaboration (yes, not the size of the LHC), even if their paper is close to publication it would probably be at least a month or more before the collaboration could agree on a response. So what to do?

There are a lot of issues surrounding making data public. To first order, it is the tax payers that are paying for these experiments, so the data should be public. On the other hand, you can already see that besides the work and infrastructure of making the data public (which costs real $$ – especially for a big experiment like Fermi or one of the LHC experiments), you have to respond to other folks that analyze your data – basically pointing out their mistakes and trying to help them along, even when they might be in competition with some of your internal analyses. In NASA’s case all the data has to be made public – it is written into every grant submission and NASA even provides money for it. This is not currently the case for particle physics. In many of these advanced experiments the data is quite complex – and someone that can’t depend on the large infrastructure of the experiment to help interpret it is bound to have some difficulties.

One only wishes that the authors had gotten in contact with some Fermi folks before submitting their note to the archive…

Units, Units, Units October 23, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in physics, physics life.

Undergraduates know that Physics Professors get all wound up about units. We can’t help ourselves.

But in reading a nytimes article this morning I couldn’t help myself:

In addition, Mr. Holder said, the authorities have seized more than $32 million in American currency, 2,700 pounds of methamphetamine, 4,400 pounds of cocaine, 16,000 pounds of marijuana and 29 pounds of heroin. More arrests are expected.

Well… this is what happens when you wait until the evening to write a blog post you spotted in the morning – they change the article. That 2700 pounds? It was 2700 kilograms (which is significantly more). In short – they had mixed kilograms and pounds. I was going to get on my high horse and… well, seems someone at the times is as sensitive about this as us physicists are.

But it also occured to me that the notion of units is rather flexible. For example, when we do particle physics calculations we often set the speed of light to 1. Normally it is 300000000 meters/second (really fast!). Seriously. We just set it to 1. We are so annoyed by having to carry around that number in our calculations that we just up and set it to one. We do that with an other constant as well (called h-bar). Your unit system ends up being very weird when you do that:

Normal Every Day Units Units in h-bar = c = 1
Energy Energy
Time 1/Energy
Mass Energy
Length 1/Energy

I know this seems weird – but you see it all the time. This is just like making the following unit conversion in the list of drugs: instead of telling us the number of pounds or kilograms, tell us how much pot they got in terms of its street value. And to tell the truth, that would have been a very useful number to have in that article.

Heck, in the old days, the unit of measure in the market was the length of the king’s forearm. When the king changed, the whole country would change its unit system…

Un physics professors getting wound up with units is ironic – we don’t really use them that heavily when we get to more advanced calculations. On the other hand, we can only drop them because we have already learned how to use them. At least, that is what we tell ourselves and everyone else! 😉