Research High

I’ve been a bit glum these last few weeks. At first I wasn’t able to exactly pinpoint the problem, but given how well I’ve felt this week I think I’ve figured it out. I needed research, and I needed it **bad**.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed my time at MIT, working on simulations for the neutrino experiment I work on in my “spare time”. But that’s simulation, not data. With the “BaBar”:http://www.slac.stanford.edu/BFROOT experiment, I get my data fix. Oh yeah, I am a serious data-junkie, and this week I’ve started getting my steady I.V. drip once again.

I’ve got a pretty cool little project that I’m working on in conjunction with a “theory colleague”:http://bob.mcelrath.org of mine at UC Davis. I’m hoping to wrap it up for the summer, but I haven’t had a chance to work on it until this week. And boy, does it feel good. I’ve even got a plan all laid out for understanding the efficiencies of my analysis, a key ingredient in the extraction of the final result from the data.

What is that data? Well, that’s a good question. BaBar is a three-story-tall, multi-ton particle detector built around the collision point of the PEP-II electron-positron collider. PEP delivers high-intensity (*luminosity*) beams of bunched electrons and their anti-matter counterparts, positrons, and tries to smash each bunch together once every 4 nanoseconds. Electrons and positrons are so small that even with billions of them per bunch, we’re fortunate to get even one matter/anti-matter annihilation per crossing.

Each annihilation yields pure energy, energy whose value is roughly equivalent to that present in our universe when it was but a millionth of a second old. That’s right, I get data from the closest thing to a time machine we have on this planet. Well, let’s be fair – it’s really more like going to a theme park that recreates some ancient time. You do it in the lab and study what it was like, then report you findings.

I have a curiosity for the invisible. I had a chance to meet with a film maker a few months back who spoke of his fascination for physics and its pursuit of the innately unseeable. My current research is an attempt to look for the signature of an unseeable particle recoiling against things which are visible to BaBar.

So I’m back in the swing of my research. I hope it lasts!

Toss Up

When I was in high school, I participated in only one sport: quiz bowl. I know what you’re thinking: quiz bowl isn’t a sport. Only a stupid jock who’s never played would say that.

You stupid jock.

Anyway, this weekend is my chance to give back to the bowl. SLAC is hosting regional competition in the DOE Science Bowl, and I’m volunteering as a moderator. I get to read questions and oversee the students’ answers. I’ll be working with a scorekeeper and timekeeper for each round.

So here’s my chance to give back to the teachers who managed our quiz bowl team in high school.

Jack Sprat Could Eat Iraq

It’s been a busy week on many fronts, and this is the first opportunity I have found to add some thoughts to this page. Besides the fact that this is high-energy physics conference time (one of two spikes in conference activity for my field each year), this is also the time of year when the executive branch of the U.S. government makes public its budget proposal for the coming fiscal year.

This is going to be a tough year. With the cost of our military actions overseas still a firm and increasing part of the budget, domestic programs are taking a licking. I’m a firm believer in fiscal responsibility, at home and in the capitol. However, I am also a firm believer that the Federal Government serves a greater good that transcends the abilities of its individual citizens, and that good must serve the citizens.

That said, it looks so far like education is taking a big hit in the budget. It’s tough to see past the FUD that both sides of this issue put into the media, but I suspect a survey of teachers and students who benefit from particular programs in the education system would show there is growing fear about what will happen come October, 2005, when the FY2006 fiscal year begins.

Education is dear to my heart – I see it as a critical part of the mission of science, and I see it starting from age 3 and 4 and continuing all the way until death. One of my colleagues at MIT has two very young children, and even though they are only a handful of years old I find it amazing how much they soak up. I see in them the simple clay that can be easily molded in our modern world to be the stereotypes of the last generations, and yet I also see the ambition and the self-confidence needed to overcome those images and forge their own educational destinies.

Closer to my heart is the practice of science itself, and here I am getting jittery. The “American Institute of Physics”:http://www.aip.org has released an FYI on the proposed budget, and there are tough times ahead. For my own branch of physics, high-energy (also called “particle”) physics, the summary goes as follows:

“HIGH ENERGY PHYSICS: Down 3.1%, or $22.5 million, from $736.4
million to $713.9 million. Run times would be increased over FY
2005 levels at the Fermilab Tevatron (6% more operating hours) and
SLAC (54% more hours). Construction funding is continued for the
Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Europe, which Orbach expects to
begin operations in 2008. The BTeV project at Fermilab would be
cancelled. An amount of $30 million would be transferred to BES for
operation of the SLAC linac.”

Source: AIP FYI #16 (2005)

The lab where I conduct the majority of my research, SLAC, has had a tough past 6 months. After an electrical accident, the laboratory took corrective action procudures while waiting for the Department of Energy to determine whether normal operations were possible. This incurred a six month delay in the resumption of operations by my experiment, a significant amount of time when the name of the game is “take data, take data, take data”. We’re almost ready to go again, and the change in schedule means that we have to run for a larger fraction of FY06 than originally planned (thus the 54% increase in operations mentioned above). It looks like the budget allowed for this, but I worry now what will happen to other programs, or down the road for our own program.

As for other labs, programs are being cancelled. The core missions are moving forward, but to my eyes it looks like much else must be sacrificed – investments that are meant to bear fruit in the future – in order to simply support the status quo. Any scientists will tell you that maintaining the status quo has rarely led to scientific breakthroughs. And one then has to ask, how many of those breakthroughs shaped our modern world? How many are so indispensable that we don’t even think about them? How many of them, if not pioneered by unchecked scientific enthusiam – enthusiasm that wasn’t curbed by the budgets of patrons, kings, or governments – would have stalled and lain in wait for the next unchecked mind?

So in the midst of all this fear, uncertainty, and doubt, I see terrible things in store for my homeland. I see a nation fooled into thinking it is safe, where those who might help to insure security are shut from the process or budgeted out of existence. I see a nation accepting military action without the force of question required to cease it. I see a nation woefully committed to cleaning up its own mess in Iraq. I see a nation bleeding its educational and scientific base dry to accomplish its clean up, and I see it looking away from the mess it will have to deal with when students and teachers and scientists go elsewhere.

I see a government prepared to spend all it can to eat the cost of Iraq, while leaving the rest with lean.

Sodom and Gomorrah

**Written in Chicago, Midway airport on Feb. 4, 2005**

As my favorite comedian, Lewis Black, once said – and here I paraphrase – “for
only the second time in history, Sodom and Gomorrah have been
rebuilt”. He was referring to Las Vegas, and for a long time I think I
was almost convinced that Las Vegas might be someplace fun I’d visit
someday. Well, two things have happened today – two seemingly
dichotomous things. The first is that I’ve decided that, in fact, Las
Vegas is where stupid people go to throw away their money. The second
is that I got my wish.

Today is the day I return from Boston to home, in California. After a
long and arduous couple of weeks, I am finally heading home. Don’t
misunderstand me; it was productive and rewarding on about a dozen
levels, and I am excited to have another chance to come back to MIT very
soon and focus. However, as these things often are, the reward
is draining. To add to this, when I arrived at Chicago’s Midway
Airport (where I am writing this), I discovered that the second leg of
my return journey will add an extra stop: Las Vegas.

So that explains the second thing that happened. What about the
first, you wonder? I’m getting to it. On the first leg of my flight,
the people sitting behind me were going to Vegas. They weren’t just
going there, they were **excited** about going there. You could smell
last night’s bender on their skin. It was a reek that I can only liken
to the soliloquy by Agent Smith from “The Matrix”. “I can taste your
stink,” he said, wiping his hands across Morpheus’ glistening head.

The first thing that convinced me that stupid people go to Las Vegas
was the modern irony that their journey presented. They are, in many
ways, the quintessential American that I as a scientist abhor (but
also so deeply wish to educate). Our founding fathers spoke of the
need for an educated voting populace – ergo, public education. My fellow travellers, however,
were excited about getting to Vegas, excited about having every
picture be a picture of them drunk. One guy was excited about staying
at the Las Vegas airport the whole time, gambling on one machine, and
asking the others about Vegas when they got back for their return
flight. To be fair, some of this was said in jest. But its essence was
repeated so many times clothed in jest that I suspect the kernel was
100% accurate.

That said, they expressed repeatedly fear about being on the
plane. I’m not talking about post-9/11 fear; I’m talking about good
old fashioned human ignorance. We live now in a society powered by
electricity whose origin is a mystery; we cook food in microwaves
which we think are “nuking” our food; we take unproven dietary
supplements because of an advertising-fed belief system with no basis
in medical research; and we fly, though we fear flying because we
don’t understand how those little engines can get that big plane off
the ground.

Yes – that’s right: it’s the little engines that do the lifting (but
they only point sideways…).

The fear alone expresses the ignorance. What I find ironic is that
they had to look **past** the wing to comment on the engine, and so I
believe it utterly disturbing that they entirely missed the point of
the wing. Michael Crichton wrote in “Airframe” that the wing is
the heart of the plane, the technological miracle that makes the whole
thing possible. And yet we worry about those little engines.

But it wasn’t just the complete ignorance of flight that bothered
me. As with most things, I need more evidence to really start to trust
an observation. The clincher, the one that really bugged me, was the
last discussion they had as we landed.

Our wheels hit the tarmac 10 minutes before our scheduled arrival
time. As we started to roll to the gate, the woman behind me said,
“You know, I was sitting behind a stewardess on a Southwest flight
when she was announcing that seat belts had to be kept on. She remarked
to the person next to her that ‘seat belts are important because we’re
more likely to be hit on the ground than fall out of the sky’.” The
gentleman with her then remarked that he didn’t want to know that, and
he was even more unsettled now.

What boggled me was the following: here were two people, TERRIFIED of
something which has a specific probability of happening. However, they
were unable to contain themselves when talking (at length) about how
they were going to win a million dollars, then buy their workplace and
fire their friends. Here’s the scary part: **the probability of
hitting it big in Las Vegas is VANISHINGLY small, almost ZERO, by
design**. If they were scared of being hit on the ground in an
airplane under controlled and structured conditions, they ought to be
shivering and shitless with fear about the prospect of spending money
on gambling in Las Vegas.

So here’s my final thought: it’s a good thing that we have an educated
populace that can debate about the value of taxation, that can make
the occasional sacrifice in the name of a balanced budget and the
social programs critical to supporting the hard-working lower class
of our nation. As for these people on my flight, they forgot to check
the box on their 1040EZ that says, “If you don’t understand simple
math, check this box and reduce your deductions by a multiple of 5.”
That’s okay. They’re gonna pay the man in Vegas, and come back poor
and still scared of planes.