Our Learned Energy Secretary

Energy Secretary ChuAfter some false starts trying to write this post yesterday, here we go. SLAC was treated to a visit by Secretary Chu, the U.S. Energy Secretary. Unlike previous people in his position, who showered the crowd with dumbed-down bureacro-babble and errant platitudes cobbled together from a patchwork misunderstanding of SLAC’s history, Chu engaged the audience in a 1.5 hour discussion of climate change and the challenge ahead of U.S. science. He showed data, models, discussed technologies, even talked about the history of basic research in places like Bell Labs. While the chairs were spine-killers for a talk that long, I was floored . . . ABSOLUTELY FLOORED . . . that the Secretary talked to us like we were working at a scientific institution. He skipped the crap and went straight for the substance.

This is just another one of those positive signs about how science is regarded by this administration. To put a pure scientist in this position, a man clearly able to speak to his audience and who seems to write his own material (or at least know it by heart), is an honor to the U.S. scientific effort. Having such an intelligent and creative man at the helm of DOE is better than a Nobel prize for the U.S. scientific community. Why? A Secretary in the business of developing and promoting pure but directed scientific inquiry is a Secretary who is setting the stage for a dozen Nobel Prizes.

Disclosed Location

I’ve spent the last three days of this week in an “undisclosed location”, and now that I’m returning home in preparation for my trip to Spain I’m happy to disclose my little vacation spot. I’ve been at Caltech with Jodi, who has been commuting here for a month now for CDMS “analysis fests”. These are gatherings of members of the far-flung collaboration who are all intensely involved in physics analysis. These gatherings have been centered on a rented house near the edge of Caltech’s campus. I’ve been spending my days holed up here, escaping for walks; to get coffee or groceries; to meet Jodi and her colleagues for lunch. I’ve been doing some goofing off, some proposal writing, and some resting.

I could use more time, but I’m not going to get it. Tomorrow, I leave for Spain. While it will be BEAUTIFUL and a relaxed environment in which to have a BaBar collaboration meeting, I have two talks to write and give and recovering from jet lag to do. I’ll be back later in the week, in time to say goodbye to Jodi a few days later as she heads to Italy and then to CERN. It’s going to get busier before it gets better.

Breiman Grapevines

A natural representation of a binary-split decision treeI took a break this afternoon, met up with Jodi and her colleagues, and went out for coffee. While sitting outside, sipping our drinks, one of the students pulled out his mobile phone and showed a picture to Jodi. He said that he was reminded to show the photo since we were sitting right by the site where he took it. And what was in the picture? The carefully sculpted grapevines in the photo looked EXACTLY like a mathematical object known as a “binary-split decision tree”. I took some pictures of this as well; the one at the left shows you how the trunk (representing the data) comes in from the bottom, splits in two directions (a binary split), and then each of those branches splits into to more. The leaves at the end of the last branch are the terminal nodes of the decision tree. In physics, these structures are used to combine many variables into a complex algorithm for deciding what data to keep, and what to throw away. Terminal nodes of the tree contain either signal-like data (keep) or background-like data (throw away).

This one grapevine was part of a sequence of carefully scuplted vines, each resembling a binary-split decision tree. The result? A Random Forest [1].

[1] L. Breiman, Machine Learning 45, 5 (2001)

Undisclosed Location

It occurred to me several months ago that my plans for a quiet summer, leading up to the move to Dallas, were in terrible danger. A number of things have been delayed or added to the pile. As a result, my vision of a whole week off (or even a whole weekend off) started to vanish. This week, I am taking a few days away from SLAC, away from travel to a conference or to another lab, and spending some quiet time in an “undisclosed location” (pictured left).

Of course, by “few days off” I mean that in the physicist sense. I am using the quiet, out of my office and away from interruptions, to work on things that need focus. Proposal writing is my primary goal, but a number of other small things are also on the schedule. I intend to break up the writing with walks in the sun, coffee, and lunch breaks with my wife and her friends. I’ll return to home on Friday, just in time to go to sleep and wake up for my flight to Valencia on Saturday.