Messages from Blois

For the second time, I will be attending the Rencontres de Blois, a yearly conference that represents a convergence (perhaps even a conversation) between cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, and particle physics. Held in the Chateau de Blois, a castle perched above the Loire River in Blois, France, this conference will bring the opportunity to discuss the latest from physics measurements made across the globe.
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My comments at today’s second P5 Town Hall Meeting

I am Stephen Sekula, an Assistant Professor of Physics at SMU conducting research on the ATLAS Experiment. These comments will be my own, and I will try to take a broad view. Let me begin by thanking the members of the Panel for this opportunity to speak, and let me also send my greetings to all of my friends and colleagues who are connected to this town hall. We certainly stand on the threshold of an era in particle physics where the questions are big, and the challenges to answering them are bigger. We have been presented with the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter. We have been granted a gift by the neutrino and its behavior, which lies partially within and partially outside the Standard Model. We have also been granted a new gift – the Higgs boson – which marks just how successful the Standard Model has been in the laboratory and whose properties need to be fully illuminated. But that model has not yet risen to the challenge of explaining mysteries like the nature of dark energy and dark matter. We know that something must lie beyond the Standard Model; what it is, we must discover.

There seems a general consensus in our field about these frontiers and their importance. The problem we are all faced with in the US is the reality of constrained budgets and national priorities that are not perfectly aligned with our own field’s scientific goals. This is our biggest challenge. At the end of this P5 process, while certainly the prioritization and the community consensus will be correlated with one another, they are not necessarily the same thing. We should not think of the P5 process as the end; it is the beginning of a much longer process of program-building, and there will still be left to us the work of convincing our colleagues inside and outside the field about the value of the P5 outcome.

We all know that not every project can go forward, or if they do go forward that there isn’t room for all projects to proceed with the fullest funding desired by its participants. It would seem prudent that the final report emphasize how the prioritization enables a US program that tackles these frontiers. For instance:

  • Explain clearly the measurements that define each area of the US program, and their role in advancing our understanding in that frontier. Articulating this will help students and post-docs see how and where they can advance their skills and leadership in this field.
  • More importantly, explain how the outcomes of those measurements avoid scientific dead ends and point the way to the next stage of the US program. How will continuity be assured by this prioritization? Answering this is how we will continue to attract and retain students and post-docs, and maintain excitement and interest in the field.
  • Explain how each endeavour leaves open the possibility for serendipitous discovery, which has always been an important part of defining new directions in the field. After all, it is the possibility of discovery that ultimately drives us into and forward through the field, even in hard budget times.

The worst thing we can do is assume that the prioritization speaks for itself. It obviously cannot. The report should have a voice that speaks for the scientific value of the prioritizaton, and how it advances US science by advancing US high-energy physics into the great frontiers of our time: dark energy, dark matter, and the nature of what lies within and beyond the Standard Model.

I thank you for your time and consideration.

Travelogue: CERN, Jan 26. – Feb. 1

Jan. 26, 2014 – 03:18 CET

I am on AA50 to Heathrow. We land in about 7 hours, leaving me 2 hours to connect to my flight to Geneva. Right now I am hopimng for two things: dinner and 5 hours of sleep. Dinner is on its way. I cannot predict the sleep.

I will be at CERN this week for a mini-workshop and to collaborate on a paper, face-to-face (for a change), with some colleagues. ATLAS is beginning to pour on the pressure to publish it, though we still have some key physics to understand.

I’ll be presenting at the mini-workshop on Tuesday. I still have to write the talk . . . but what decent high-energy physicist writes their talk 2 days early?

OK . . . time for dinner

Jan. 30, 2014 – 08:00 CET

The first two days of this trip to CERN have been excellent. There was, of course, the usual travel hassle in Heathrow. Transitioning from my flight from the U.S. was a simple as usual: exit the plane, take all the manual stairs and walkways to get ahead of the tired and slow people, and get on the bus to Terminal 5. Then go through passport check and security before emerging next to Huxley’s, a restaurant I will usually eat at if I arrive late enough in the morning.

As a rule, I don’t eat my first meal in Europe until the late morning. Even if I am starving when I get off the place, I tell myself: “It’s only 3 in the morning – you don’t eat a meal at 3 in the morning.” My digestive clock is a tricky one to mess with. For instance, if I get up at 4am for an ATLAS meeting, I won’t eat or drink anything except water until about 6am; if I eat too early, I have an upset stomach for the rest of the day. The same rule seems to apply when I transition from the U.S. to Europe. If I eat anything before about 11am or noon in the UK, I won’t feel well for the rest of the day.

So I waited at Heathrow until just before my gate opened before grabbing a banana and a coffee. The plane from Heathrow to Geneva was delayed by mechanical problems with the front wheel, but that was OK. Arriving LATER on the first day is usually my goal, since I am so tired that all I want to do is sleep anyway.

I’d had about 5 hours of sleep on the flight from the US, but I was still feeling spacey and loopy during my morning in the UK. By the time I arrived at CERN, around 4:00pm CET, I was feeling very run down. So I did what I usually like to do now when I arrive back at CERN: I went for a run.

It was just fading into the evening when I hit the roads on CERN, jogging a loop around the Meyrin site. By the time I got back to my hostel room, I felt alert and refreshed. It’s been in the 30s here at CERN – not freezing, but hovering above it. However, bundled up in a hood with a mask to cover my mouth (and trap warm air near my face), a hat, a pair of thermal running pants, a pair of normal running pants over those, a long-sleeved running shirt, and a bright yellow running jacket, I stay rather warm when I run here.

After running, I went for dinner and worked on my talk for the ATLAS mini-workshop on Tuesday. I headed to sleep around 8:30 pm, and I was out like a light.

My second day – the day of the workshop – was my usual “space day.” I awoke after about 10 hours of sleep feeling completely displaced. Breakfast and coffee helped. The leader of the ATLAS Beyond-the-Standard Model group met with me for breakfast to work on my talk, and he had a lot of important things to discuss with me about the material so that was great. The workshop took iup most of Tuesday, and was one of the most productive of my time on ATLAS. I learned a LOT from the people presenting and attending at the workshop. In particular, I learned some important tricks about matching the underlying quarks and hadrons to the “jets” of reconstructed particles we see in the detector; this will aid greatly in a development project that I am working on. In addition, there are so many bits of tools, software, and methodology now developed for working on the “high-luiminosity” LHC upgrade scenario that there were few other places I could have learned this material in one shot.

After a great workshop, I grabbed dinner and got some work done. I’ve been dealing with tendonitis in my left arm for a few weeks, so when the pain got unbearable last night I went to sleep. Normally, my second night is my worst night of sleep – something to do with the jet lag kicking in hard when you get that first sleepy night out of the way – but I slept all night without incident.

So here’s to Wednesday! :-)

I am not a psychic

I am not a psychics. The dead spirit of Carl Sagan does not speak to me. But it's fun to convince my class that it does. Meme origin unknown.

I am not a psychic. The dead spirit of Carl Sagan does not speak to me. But it’s fun to convince my class that it does. Meme origin unknown.

For the first day of class yesterday, I tried a new trick. We usually poll the class about issues that have a real science component, like vaccination or alternative medicine. It helps us to understand what they think they know. We added a new component yesterday, something we’ve talked about doing to a few years – we added a “psychic medium” trick to the first lecture. The names of the students, and their details, are changed to protect their identities.

The trick goes as follows. I tell the audience that the dead spirit of Carl Sagan speaks to me. I tell them he tells me things about the students. I get quiet, and I put a hand in the air and the other on my forehead. I say something like, “Yes . . . he’s here. He’s speaking to me now.” Some folks in the audience chuckle or smile; most are just quiet.

“It’s coming from over here,” I say, and gesture to the entire right half of the class. More chuckling erupts from the audience.

“I’m getting . . . something about a flower. Maybe . . . yes . . . maybe it’s a rose. A rose? Maybe it’s the name, Rosie?”

I miss. Rosie is not in the audience today, on the first day of class. No problem . . . Carl is still talking to me, feeding me information, so I move on.

“I’m getting something else. I’m seeing . . . maybe . . . Star Trek? Yes. I’m seeing . . . Captain Jean Luc Picard? Is there a Jean Luc in the audience?”

A student looks a little startled, and raised his hand. He is Jean Luc. “Ah, good. You’re the person Carl was telling me about. I see . . . yes  . . . he’s telling me that you have a keen mind. You’re . . . you’re an engineering major?”

The student reluctantly nods, and his eyes are wider now. The room is eerily quiet. Nobody is chuckling anymore. “Carl is also telling me . . . yes, I see it now. He is telling me that you like sports, too? You like sports . . . you like going to sporting events, but not alone. You like going with your friends. I see . . . I see you and a bunch of friends, arms around one another, at the United Airlines Center? Yes, it’s the United Airlines Center. It’s . . . Thanksgiving, or around Thanksgiving?”

The student doesn’t seem to know what Carl is talking about. But I know that I’m right, not only because of Carl’s insistent voice, but because the student sitting next to Jean Luc is freaking out. She’s trying to tell him by whispering that I am right. Jean Luc isn’t sure . . . he doesn’t recall this event clearly . . . but she does. And she is wide-eyed and excited and, perhaps, a little alarmed.

“I am getting November 22? I see that clearly.”

He’s still not sure, but she’s even more sure. I go for the finish. “Well, I see a photo of you and your friends in front of the United Center on November 22. You should check your Facebook page.”

The room erupts with laughter. I explain the trick, thank Jean Luc for being such a good sport, and toss him a door prize (one of those rubber wristbands, this one in support of a fake disease).

The Trick

Let me start by saying: I am not psychic. The dead spirit of Carl Sagan does not talk to me. However, I’m also not stupid. I know how to use the internet  and the web to learn public things about people that they forget are public. I am also a faculty member at SMU – I know the roster of my class before I even set foot in the room. I can know their names, their majors, etc. Facebook tells me things I shouldn’t know, but the students make public. I can find their home towns, their birthdays, and I can see photos they forget are public. Those photos tell stories and reveal details. Armed with this information, I can execute a very convincing “hot read” of an audience member. Here is how I did it.

  1. Before class, I memorize the names and faces of about 6 students. Not all students show up on the first day of class, so this gives me a safe pool of students to draw from.
  2. I also memorize their majors or, if they are a “pre-major,” their possible area of study. If they are a pre-major, and they are Juniors, then I can also assume they have “commitment issues” or that they have not yet “found their passion” – that is information I can bank for the hot read. It can seem like psychic powers, but it is a simple inference drawn from their major status.
  3. I then look them up on Facebook. That gives me recent photos (their student photos are old and bad). They also often post their birth day, home town, and other personal info as “public.” So I gather than and memorize a single, specific fact about them (like the details of a photo). For instance, I found a photo Jean Luc posted on his Facebook page, with the United Airlines Center in Chicago in the background; he and his friends were arm-in-arm in the foreground. The photo was posted on Nov. 22, so that was easy. It is a specific thing I can’t possibly know . . . unless I looked it up on Facebook!
  4. You need some showmanship to draw it out and pull it off, convincing the audience that you are “getting messages from the dead.” You need to add dramatic pauses, you need a physical tick or some other gimmick to convince them that this is difficult or exhausting. Do whatever you like, but do something. I close my eyes, hold my forehead, and put the other hand in the air. I look like an antenna with a migraine. It’s awesome and convincing.
  5. You need to embellish, and put in some weird starts and semi-fails to convince the audience that the line of communication to the dead is imperfect – not like speaking, but like looking at a semi-abstract painting. That is more convincing than just repeating facts. That’s why I threw in weird things like “Star Trek” before getting to the student’s name.

You also have to be ready to fail. If you bomb, move on. Don’t admit the mistake, just go to the next part of the schtick. People tend to forget the misses if your hits become spectacular.  It’s basic human psychology – specifically, it’s neuroscience, because our brains are not hard drives and they decide within a few seconds what to keep and what to toss. Misses are useless, and tend to be discarded by the brain. You can use that against people.

You can try it too! At your next conference talk, if you want to incorporate a couple of minutes that mess with your audience, try adding a cold + hot read. I like the hot read. It’s safe and easy to do – you just need a name and two basic facts about the mark. One of those facts should seem “impossible” for you to know (how could I possibly have known that Jean Luc was at the United Center on November 22?). Save that for last. They will forget all your mistakes if you make an unlikely but spectacular hit at the end.

Final Comments

This trick is how “psychics” fleece thousands of dollars out of people who want to believe in psychics. There is no credible and reliable evidence for the existence of psychics, and until all psychics submit to randomized, double-blind, deception-controlled scientific testing of their claims, you should not give them a single dollar of your money. TV psychics are often no better than flipping a coin, and they are ONLY that good because of editing. Think critically before accepting the claim that people speak to the dead. You might be about to be parted from your money.