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The LHC is too big to fail! November 17, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science, USA.


A friend of mine and I were discussing the bailout. The consensus seems to be that large companies – like GM and Chrysler – are too big to fail.

Can we say the same thing about a science experiment like the LHC? 🙂 Could we apply for extra science funding under the bailout program?


Out of Control? Make up stuff! October 17, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in science.

I listened to a fascinating podcast from NPR Science Friday on the way into work today. The segment, titled “When not in control, people imagine order”, describes how people in (stressful) situations out of their control they will come up with reasons for why things are happening around them – even if they aren’t correct. One example used in the broadcast was stamping your feet before going into a meeting. If you do that, the people in the meeting will be more likely to accept and agree with your ideas. Clearly, there can be no external cause-and-effect, but you could see… we all have these little superstitions. How about a base-ball batter. 🙂 They noted that military personal in battle environments tend to do the same thing. Fun fact: sales of astrology books increased during the great depression (does anyone know how to see sales of astrology books as a function of time on Amazon?).

As you might imagine, recognizing patterns in what is going on around us is part of our survival programming. If we can make order out of what is going on, we can predict it, and thus we can take advantage of it. Leave meat out? Bear comes around. Hey – lets set a trap! Except, it can go too far – stopping your feet can’t possibly have any effect on the people in the meeting; the best it can do is boost your confidence. But if you knew that perhaps you could take a more direct path to boosting your confidence (shot of tequila!?).

What I really liked about this was that this is what my job is supposed to be. I’m supposed to look at data and come up with patterns to describe the data I see. There are lots of effects that might or might not be relevant. All of us in this field think up patterns where they don’t actually exist. Indeed, one is encouraged to come up with patterns no matter how crazy. The key is that the patterns have to be tested. The stomping feet thing might be based on a one-time accident. But here we would have to invent a double-blind study to test that before declaring the correlation was causal.

The program is worth a listen – it is short, about 20 minutes. And you get to hear someone call in and note that this study can’t really be correct because it implies that everyone who thinks the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy must be making up a pattern that doesn’t exist because they are under stress. And we all know that conspiracy theory is correct.

Keeping Perspective September 22, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science, USA.

The bailout proposed by the US government to keep our financial system afloat is going to be about $700 billion (US). I’m guessing that is going to rise to about $1 trillion or so by the time all is said and done. I can’t really fault the government on this – now that we are here something like this has to be done. It looks bad to even myself and I’m sure if I knew more about economics I’d be even more scared for the US financial system.

The LHC cost about $7 billion. So, you could build 100 of those for the price of this bailout. But it doesn’t stop there – this is going to be a hang-over the US budget will be paying off for years to come. Guess what is going to get hit… you got it. I’m sure funding for science in general is going to be down in the future. Ugh. Not only is that 100 LHC’s worth of science (all types of science!!) we could have done, but it will mean less science in the future as well.

How stupid is that!? I don’t know who to get pissed off at either – this seems to be a problem of group think. Like the echo chamber of the blogosphere.

To the Moon and Mars – Is It True? September 3, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science, USA.

I’m still in Ottawa, gently re-integrating myself back into North America. I can actually stay up past 9pm now (jet lag!). Going though old email I stumbled on this:

The Democratic presidential candidate has called for the U.S. to lead the way in terms of space exploration, and wants to put astronauts on the moon yet again.

On top of that, he also wants to pursue the eventual goal of putting astronauts on Mars.

Barack Obama has come out and stated that by 2020, he wants another U.S. trip to the moon, and has also promised full support, with a great deal of funding for NASA.

Is that really Obama’s position? Wait. I guess I can look at his web site now… Under Issues on his site Science isn’t listed. Wait — I was about to get lost in how little Science is mentioned on his web site – which is a whole other post. Just concentrating on NASA… Ok — couldn’t find it under issues. I did find this position paper. I found it via a search engine, so I’m not sure exactly what it was (talking points for a speach, etc.). But it directly addresses space exploration. First of all, it is balanced. It notes that basic research (for climate change, etc.) has all been cut. And that funding would have to be restored.

But it still talks about human space flight – and almost always as a feel-good exercise rather than something scientific. When he gets to the meat of the human space flight component of what he wants to do, he starts with the following:

Human spaceflight is important to America’s political, economic, technological, and scientific leadership.

and then

He supports a funding goal that maintains at least 10 percent of the total exploration systems budget for research and development.

So, 90% is all about feel good and getting back to the moon and mars, and 10% is about doing the actual science. Also, why is he so fixated on the microgravity experiments that were to take place on the International Space Station before funding cuts eliminated them?

I am a bit disappointed in this. I really don’t think it is a good use of our countries resources to send a person to Mars. I’m all for sending more robots there – lots of them. Much cheaper (it doesn’t matter so much if they don’t come back). And the science they can do is better (the rocket fuel you save on not sending a human you can use to send extra equipment).

I’d like to see this country get on with funding real science. And less of this:

“When I was growing up, NASA united Americans to a common purpose and inspired the world with accomplishments we are still proud of. Today, NASA is an organization that impacts many facets of American life. I believe NASA needs an inspirational vision for the 21st Century. My vision will build on the great goals set forth in recent years, to maintain a robust program of human space exploration and ensure the fulfillment of NASA’s mission….”

US ATLAS Construction: Check! July 2, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, science, USA.

Being lifted into placeThis is a by-product of big science – and the resulting management and budget oversight. The last bit of the ALTAS detector was shipped over to CERN a long long time ago. For example, at UW, we spent almost three years running continuous production for the forward muon chambers (the picture is that of one of them being lifted into place). The last one left our lab more than 2 years ago (might even have been 3 now). In fact, an astro-physics experiment has chopped up the large granite block and taken over the space already.

A project like ATLAS evolves. There is no real beginning. And it will be hard to identify an end. People will be working on it long after it has ceased to take data, for example.

But that isn’t true for the bureaucracy. Budgets and oversight demand a definite start and a definite end. And that just happened for the construction phase for the ATLAS project in the USA. The budget was tied off. No more money for construction. All wrapped up.

I originally wasn’t going to write anything about this. From the point of view of science and public interest in how ATLAS is doing this is, basically, a non-event. What do you care as long as ATLAS sees collisions and produces physics? You don’t care so much about the meat grinder aspect, just that the sausage tastes good, right?

It was the fairly continuous stream of emails that came after the announcement that changed my mind. It has slowed to a trickle now, but there is still about one a day congratulating everyone involved. From the point of view of the managers and people working in the funding agencies this is really a very big deal. BTW — most of the people managing this both inside and outside the funding agencies are scientists or ex-scientists themselves. At any rate — many of these folks labor outside the public eye, but they have done a great job keeping ATLAS going in the USA. After all, without funding, there is no way I or anyone else could participate in the physics! Howard Gordon, at Brookhaven, is mostly singled out for keeping the project on track, though many other names are mentioned.

As one of the congratulatory messages said: “On to operations!”… which happens to be what the physics phase of the funding will be called. 😉 Weird to see how the bureaucracy in a project like this maps to the real life.

UPDATE: Fixed Howard Gordon’s affiliation.

Reading Blogs Makes you Stupid? July 1, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in life, science.

Along the lines of things that make us less smart than we might other wise be, is this article in The Atlantic (warning – long article):

His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

The article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, talks about the new way of absorbing information – lots of short sips in the form of web pages we rarely stay for very long. We go about the web and collect links to longer articles, but we never go back and read them. Our consumption of books is dropping. Long investigative articles? Apparently those are down too. We just want the 3 line summary.

Even email — I’ve had people tell me that if I don’t make my point in the first 3 lines of my email they ignore me (and this is from people that work for me). Of course, that may be for other reasons.

I have stopped reading books too. There are three reasons for this — one is definitely the computer. The number of magazines I read has also gone down. The sweet thing about the web is you can always find the summary. If you want to think, or learn – which is hard and takes work – you really have to go against the flow. After all, the point of a search engine isn’t to make you think. It is to get you an answer.

So, how do you get around this? I find I have to schedule time to read articles or otherwise sit down and think. Unfortunately, in a tight schedule, this is the first type of time that gets canceled.

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

This seems to have some similarities to the end of the scientific method post.

The End Of The Scientific Method… Wha….? June 26, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in science.

There is an incredible article over on Wired right now, The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. The article’s premise is that we now have so much data on hand that you don’t need to look at why things happen, just that they do happen. The author, Anderson, uses Google advertising as an example:

Google’s founding philosophy is that we don’t know why this page is better than that one: If the statistics of incoming links say it is, that’s good enough. No semantic or causal analysis is required.

Anderson then wants to extend it to science:

In short, the more we learn about biology, the further we find ourselves from a model that can explain it. There is now a better way. Petabytes [of data] allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

His basic thesis is that when you have so much data you can map out every connection, every correlation, then the  data becomes the model. No need to derive or understand what is actually happening — you have so much data that you can already make all the predictions that a model would let you do in the first place. In short — you no longer need to develop a theory or hypothesis – just map the data!

This definitely works for some things. For example, we have measured that aspirin works by basic data-mining. We know it helps reduce heart risk because of the many trials where that was measured. Imagine if everyone’s detailed medical history was available for data mining. What other hidden gems are there? Probably lots!

In particle physics we use this technique all the time to analyze our data. But I have several basic problems with the thesis that this can replace science.

First, in order for this to work you need to have millions and millions and millions of data points. You need, basically, ever single outcome possible, with all possible other factors. Huge amounts of data. That does not apply to all branches of science. Take medicine — testing a new drug compound means there is no data availible — you definitely don’t want to unleash it on millions of people to see what is going on. It might be much better to use the data mining tools to find something else that sort of does what you want, then isolate the compound. At that point you might know the agent, and the group of people it affects, and now you can study what is actually happening. Given that, you can now create something new and more powerful. Take the retro-virial drugs developed for AIDS. I don’t see how their development could have come out from anything other than understanding how AIDS works.

The second problem with this approach is you will never discover anything new. The problem with new things is there is no data on them!

Third is more subjective. I just can’t imagine living in a world where I’m told “well, that is the way it happens, so we just do it like that.” But WHY!? I couldn’t do it. 🙂

Anderson is right — we are entering a new age where the ability to mine these large amounts of data are going to open up whole new levels of understanding. Discoveries will be made using this technique alone. I predict Woody Allen was right — we will discover that chocolate milkshakes are a health food — and tools like this will discover those sorts of things. This is a new tool, and it will open up all sorts of doors for us. But the end of the scientific method? No — because that implies an end of discovery. And end of new things.

Update: Ars does a better job than I do (of course):

Correlations are a way of catching a scientist’s attention, but the models and mechanisms that explain them are how we make the predictions that not only advance science, but generate practical applications. One only needs to look at a promising field that lacks a strong theoretical foundation—high-temperature superconductivity springs to mind—to see how badly the lack of a theory can impact progress

Follow up on the CERN Black Hole Flap June 25, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in Pop Culture, press, science.

I’ve not said much (or here) about the lawsuit that seeks to halt the turn-on of the LHC because it may produce a mini-blackhole or other object that devours our earth and the universe. In response to the press when the original suit was filed, CERN sponsored a safety review, which was recently released.

Ars has a great summary of the report:

The report’s conclusion is that, if the LHC were capable of destroying the earth, nature would have beaten us to the punch.

Read the report. It takes 96 pages to arrive at that pithy sentence. 🙂 Or read the Ars bit which is a good summary. They end with:

Overall, it’s hard to read this report and not wind up viewing the apocalyptic fears as simply being poorly thought through. It was striking how clearly the worries over the LHC have parallels to the fears over biotechnology, which came up during our recent interview with Carl Zimmer. There too, billions of years of natural experiments and decades’ worth of scientific experiment should be informing our view of safety; for at least some segment of the public, that’s not happening.

The Cost Of Free GRID Access June 13, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in computers, physics, science, university.

I was giving some thought to the health of our department at the University of Washington the other day. Cheap and readily available computing power means new types of physics simulations can be tackled that have never been done before. Think of it like weather forecasting – the more computer power brought to bear the better the models are at predicting reality. Not only are the old style models better, we can try new weather models and make predictions that were never possible with the previous versions. The same thing is happening in Physics. Techniques and levels of detail we never though possible are now tackled on a regular basis. NSF and DOE both have programs specifically designed to fund these sorts of endeavors.

This means there is a growing need for a physics department to have a strong connection to a large computing resource – in house or otherwise – in order for its faculty members to be able to participate in these cutting edge research topics.

Particle physics is no stranger to these sorts of large-scale computing requirements. In ATLAS, our current reconstruction programs take over 15 seconds per event — we expect to collect 200 events per second – we would need a farm of 200*15=3000 CPUs just to keep pace. And that says nothing about the ability to reprocess and the huge number of Monte Carlo events we must simulate (over 2 minutes per event). And then we have to do this over and over again as we refine our analysis strategy. Oh, and lets not forget analyzing the data either!

However, even though may of us are located at universities, we don’t make heavy use of local clusters. I think there are two reasons. First the small one: the jobs we run are different from most simulation tasks run by other physicist. Their research values high bandwidth communication between CPU’s (i.e. Lattice QCD calculations) and requires little memory per-processor. Ours does not need the communication bandwidth but needs a huge amount of memory per processor (2 GB and growing).

The second reason is more important – we HEP folks get access to a large international GRID for “free”. This GRID is tailor made for our needs – we drove much of the design of it actually. We saw a need for this more than a decade ago, and have been working on getting it built and working smoothly ever since. While we still have a way to go towards smooth operation, it does serve almost all of our needs well. And to a university group like ourselves at the University of Washington, cheaply. By function of being a member of the ATLAS or D0 collaboration, I get a security certificate that allows me to submit large batch jobs to the GRID. An example of the power: it took us weeks to simulate 40,000 events locally. When we submitted it to the GRID we had back 100,000 events in less than a week.

Given that us HEP’rs would rather spend money on a modest size local analysis system – which is quite small compared to what the rest of the physics department needs. And so we don’t really participate in these large systems in our local department. I wonder if there is a hidden cost to that. Could we gain something but moving more of our processing back locally?  Could you more easily convince the NSF to fund a physics compute cluster that was doing Lattice QCD, HEP simulation and analysis, and Astro simulations? Or would they get pissed off because we weren’t using the large centers they are already funding instead? Has anyone tried a proposal like that before?

Last Man Standing June 8, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science.

Looks like the primary fight is over — it is Obama (duh – I guess you’d be living under a rock and then some if you’d not heard that). As those of your reading this blog or having talked to me would have guessed – I am a Clinton supporter (I’d been hoping I could write Last Woman Standing). I still think her ideas on science were more carefully thought out than Obama’s, for example. I was, however, an island. Here in France almost everyone was rooting for Obama. And I remember seeing polling data that academics, like myself – almost any age group too – were pretty much universally for Obama. Odd man out.

Adjusting to thinking of Obama as the candidate and the next president isn’t going to be too hard, however. His ideals are very much in line with mine. I’m stuck when it comes to the Iraq war. I hate the idea of it, but now that we’ve made the mess it is our mess and I definitely feel a moral responsibility. So, half of me wants to get out, and the other half thinks walking away will trigger a catastrophy. That is why all the talk of deadlines during the campaign made me nervous – and I was sorry to see that Obama aid fired for talking what I thought was sense (i.e. he will sit down with the army and figure out the best way to extract America and its troops). His approach to science also worries me a bit — it is all global climate change and education – buzz words. We need a much deeper program than that in the USA if we are to remain as one of the scientific beacons of the world. We are about to loose our leadership position to Europe in particle physics – fine – but lets do our best not to loose anything else. Now that this is no longer a left-left race, I’m hoping he will further develop some of these ideas – not that a campaign is any place to do it, unfortunately.

By the way, on Nov 4th, there is no way I won’t be voting. I have trouble with people on both sides of the democratic primary who said they would stay home if their candidate didn’t win the primaries. A quote from the economist this week (which is slightly over the top, but gets the point across):

In any other country, the incredible circus that has marked the past year could not have occurred. The business of choosing the main contenders for the top job would have been done behind closed doors, or with a limited franchise and a few weeks of campaigning. Clinton and Obama… have spent well over a year in the most testing and public circumstances imaginable…

And who I’m voting for is, at least right now, quite clear. Obama and McCain are so far apart on the issues that it isn’t very hard for me figure out how to vote. I’m cheap: neither campaign need spend much money on my to influence my vote – nothing short of a disaster is going to make me change it.

Don’t think sexism still has its grip around America? Watch this youtube short. These guys should be fired.