On the Verge of Obsession

Sometimes I get so close to an objective in my research, I become utterly obsessed with it. I spent most of my life in graduate school in that state, chasing the results that eventually became the work of my thesis. This past week, I’ve been pushing hard to try to wrap up my long-running search for invisible decays of bottomonium. Invisible decays of heavy, b-quark bound-states could provide a gateway to physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, the most successful scientific theory of Nature ever crafted by humans.

This effort required a lot of work from my collaborators on BaBar to set the stage, and I’m trying to wrap this up for presentation to my colleagues this week. The problem is that the unanswered questions from the last round of this work became the gateways to new questions in the current round. I’d process a whole ton of data, dig around in it to answer my questions, and then start processing it all over again, incorporating what I had learned. This bootstrapping has filled my entire weekend, so I can meet my deadline of mid-week.

As a result, I’ve closed my eyes to sleep and awoken early the next morning, my head filled with control samples and sideband extrapolations that nail down my background expectation. I’ve felt perpetually unsettled. Jodi and I frequented wireless-equipped coffee shops all weekend, she to work on her big dark matter talk for the “La Thuile conference”:http://www.pi.infn.it/lathuile/lathuile_2006.html, me to work on my research. Consequently, a holiday weekend turned into a non-stop work-fest for me, and I am fairly drained.

Thankfully, Jodi and I were able to take a walk up by the “Stanford Dish”:http://dish.stanford.edu/, which turned my stress into some helpful physical activity. Tonight, I am trying to wrap up a few last things before heading to bed, hopefully to sleep dreamlessly before my collaboration meeting begins tomorrow morning.

Call it Winter

These entries are going to be more sporadic than they used to, not because my life is super-boring right now, but because my life is super-hectic right now. When I’m not working on my primary or secondary research projects, or my muon veto system simulation, I am working with the SLAC users’ team preparing for the March trip to Washington D.C. That said, this was a thrilling week from all directions.

First, the weather here in California went from “fine” to “fantastic”. This culminated in a weekend of cooking out, and a lovely (but painful) bike ride over the Dumbarton Bridge, which crosses the San Francisco Bay near its most southern point. In contrast, my home state of Connecticut was smashed by a powerful blizzard that has dumped somewhere between 10 and 20 inches of snow in one day on New England. I guess you can call what we’re experiencing here in California “winter”, but it seems a great disservice to my loved ones!

Sunny weather may have been the reward for this week, but cloudy skies are gathering in response to the President’s call for an “American Competativeness Initiative” to begin the restoration of America’s scientific innovation velocity. I say velocity because the United States is a scientific leader on “coast”, its foot off the gas pedal hoping the fumes of its laurels will carry it forward. This is not because scientists have stopped pursuing great questions or digging hard to find buried answers, but because the major science funding agency – the American people – has wavered in its support of the very practice that makes it a great nation. For the last few decades basic research budgets outside the life sciences have stagnated. While the NIH budget doubled in five years from 1998 to 2003, its rapid growth was followed by a nearly flat envelope of growth, with prospects of cuts in the future.

I say velocity because there are people, like Robert Reich and Charles Krauthammer, who don’t see the need to spend more money on research. “Let industry do it if it’s so important,” says Reich, and “Don’t believe the hype. We’re still No. 1” says Krauthammer. They’ve missed the point. Industry can’t be trusted to train the next generation of scientists, because they have shown a willingness not only to sacrifice long-term investments for short-term goals (despite their TV ads), and because they’ve shown a willingness to uproot their factories and offices and move them to other nations where the labor is cheap and the government is supportive. That doesn’t help American students. As for Krauthammer’s pronouncement, he’s missed the simple fact that while a body in motion remains in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force, it says nothing of the other bodies cruising behind us, the force of their growing economies pressed at their backs, propelling their innovation capacity forward. We’ve got our foot off the gas pedal, but India and China and Europe are applying steady pressure, and they can see us glancing in the rearview mirror.

Insuring the future of science in America means doing good science. This week, I think I finally got my wind back and started doing my part for that endeavor. I wrapped up a few loose ends on simulation work and event display development, while pushing some of my work on the study of radiative decays of the B meson forward. Summer isn’t looking like such a terrible goal anymore!

Balancing Research and DC

The winter conferences are nearly upon the BaBar collaboration, and many deadlines are fast approaching. While my own work is far from ready for presentation at a conference, a lot of the physicists who work in my physics working group are getting fired up for them. As a result, I’m balancing my own research against the review needs of my peers on the BaBar experiment. In addition, it’s nearly one month to the SLAC Users’ trip to Washington D.C., and we’re getting ready to make our office appointments. Lots of work abounds in the beginning of 2006.

This is also the shortest gap between any two BaBar collaboration meetings in a given year. There was a meeting in December, and we have one at the end of this month to shore up for the winter and spring conferences, and make plans for summer. With the winter break, it feels like there is only about a month between these two meetings. I have to be very careful to balance my priorities in the coming weeks. Thank goodness I work with an excellent team for the Washington trip, and excellent students and professors from MIT. Whew!

Government Scientists and Academic Freedom

I am a post-doctoral researcher, employed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose research is funded by a grant from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Most of my colleagues who are also university scientists are similarly funded either by the DOE or the National Science Foundation (NSF). I don’t work for the government, I work for MIT, and as a result I have a considerable amount of academic freedom when it comes to offering my scientific and policy positions in public. Incidentally, this blog is hosted on my private home server and is in no way affiliated with MIT.

With full disclosure on the table, I’ve been following the story of the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Dr. James Hansen was allegedly admonished by his superiors for discussing matters of policy in a public scientific talk that he was invited to present. He cried foul loudly in recent newspaper articles, saying that his views on global warming, the science behind it, and how that science should influence U.S. federal policy were being censored.

A lot of my colleagues reacted with disgust at the government, and a lot of my colleagues reacted with a healthy dose of skepticism toward Dr. Hansen. As a chief scientist in a top position, paid directly by the government, he is representing more than his personal policy views when he is invited to give a public talk. If he were acting as a private citizen, on his own dime, he’d of course be free to say or do whatever he wanted (I suppose). But as a representative of a much larger organization, and its complicated policies, he’s definitely got to think ahead about what policy goals he announces in public.

That said, all of us have been quite struck by Representative Sherwood Boehlert’s (R-NY) letter to NASA’s leadership, calling for a culture of openness to encourage serious discussion about the serious issue of global climate change. Boehlert also expresses worry that loud cries of censorship by such a prominent scientist would chill the government’s ability to employ the best scientists. It’s impressive that Boehlert, head of the House Science Committee, got involved so quickly!

You can find Boehlert’s full letter “in a recent AIP FYI bulletin”:http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewsr.html?pid=19479.