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.

Big Family

This semester has been a strange one. This is a teaching leave for both Jodi and me. At SMU, we get such a leave after our third year, to work on the things that need attention ahead of our tenure reviews. I’ve been spending most of my time at CERN (the past month has been an annoying but fruitful exception). Jodi has not. As a result, we’re probably seeing each other for 1 month out of 7 for the first 7 months of this year. That 1 month is spread over the whole 7, sometimes in weekends, sometimes in whole weeks. We also realized early on this year that there would be no time for a August vacation week, which we’ve done for the past few years. Between the summer conferences and workshops, my return from CERN, and the start of teaching, there just isn’t time to have a proper vacation.

In March, I made my first trip back to the States since January. Then, I came back to deliver a Fermilab “Wine and Cheese” seminar, which is a very engaging and exciting series of talks where the audience is notoriously relentless with questions. I had a great time. When I returned to Dallas after the seminar, I stayed for a week to participate in the physics department’s Lighter Symposium, this year dedicated to the involvement of Texas and Oklahoma physicists in the discovery of the Higgs boson.

I return to CERN for 10 days, and then again returned to the U.S. The first week of my time back in the States was spent as 1 day in Dallas (mowed the lawn) and then 7 in California at a U.C. Davis Higgs/SUSY workshop. I was invited to speak on the ATLAS and CMS efforts to identify additional Higgs particles in nature. When I returned to Dallas, Jodi has also just come back from shifted on her experiment in Minnesota. We spent a day in Dallas and then flew to Connecticut for a few days of rest together before heading to New Jersey for my sister’s wedding.

My sister was married closer to her husband’s family, which is large. The wedding was small, but the vast majority of guests were from the groom’s side. Everybody seemed to have a good time, and over night I found my pool of sisters-in-law more than doubled. My family is not a “big family” – we don’t have family gatherings, we don’t tend to congregate in large groups. Things are small and private on my side of the family. Jodi’s family, and now my sister’s husband’s family, are stark contrasts. They are “big families” – lots of siblings, everybody knows the cousins, they gather together for big events. I now have two big families, one through my own marriage and one via my sister’s marriage. I like both of them a LOT, and so I look forward to spending time with them again.

Becoming part of a “big family” is a unique experience. It’s like joining a gang or a club. You start to see all their little secret rituals. For instance, the “toast” delivered by my new brother-in-law’s sisters at the wedding was in the form of a dance and song routine. It was elaborate, with all of the sisters and their husbands (where married) involved, and with props and costumes and a playlist. This, apparently, is totally normal for them.

Don’t get me wrong – I love my family – but I find myself supercharged by “big families.” It’s a contrast to the way I grew up, with just my sister and me as siblings, knowing our grandparents and a few aunts and uncles on my father’s side of the family. Now that I have access to big families through my own marriage and my sister’s marriage, it’s wonderful to see how they differ from smaller, more private families.

While I have spent the last month essentially continuously jet-lagged, the past week has been rejuvenating. Yes, it’s not really a vacation – I was still working in the car using my iPad and its 4G network connection, and attending meetings whenever possible. But I feel a little bit more rested having spent time with Jodi and with family. Now I just have to survive getting back to CERN, so I can get back into the swing of things again. I am very much looking forward to that. I have missed CERN. But I also know that when I return, I will miss home as well.

My Carcinoma

One of my friends insisted I document the process of having a basal cell carcinoma (scary name, 99% treatment success rate) removed from my face. I was hesitant at first, but it seems silly not to write about the process of having this surgically removed. After all, what is the purpose of a personal blog if it doesn’t get personal every now and then? For those of you who think blogs are self-indulgent ego-trips, stop reading and go do something for yourself. The way I look at it, maybe somebody else might want to know about the personal experience of having a carcinoma removed via the Mohs Surgical Procedure, and maybe they will stumble on this. Maybe this will be helpful to someone.

My own little basal cell carcinoma, just below my left eye. Hurray.
My own little basal cell carcinoma, just below my left eye. Hurray.

Here is an image of my face on about May 1. The carcinoma is the red, misshapen dot and the mis-formed skin around it. The whole thing is just below my left eye (mirror-reversed in the image, of course). When this  little guest is not destroying the healthy tissue on my face and generally acting annoying and bleedy, it looks like a chicken pox or acne scar. Such a simple thing, and easy for someone who is not a trained physician to overlook. Thankfully, I have an attentive general practitioner in my corner.

You May Already Be A Winner

Basal_cell_carcinoma_-_2_-_intermed_magPeople talk about getting cancer like they talk about winning the state lottery. Winning the state lottery is, by design, an extremely improbable event. Unlike the state lottery, most of us stand a fair chance of getting cancer at least one time in our lives. And unlike for winners of the state lottery, where past success is totally independent of future chances of winning again, for those who win the cancer lottery the chances of winning a second time go up significantly. I’m not talking about brain cancer, or prostate cancer, or some other specific horrible cancer that makes headlines. I’m talking about any cancer – any alteration of our own genetic code that leads to the successful development of aggressive tissues that cannot be corrected or eliminated by the body’s mechanisms for weeding out mistakes.

It’s, in some ways, remarkable that most of us don’t get cancer more often. Every time our cells divide, unzipping our DNA to prepare for replication, there is a chance that one or more base pairs will be erroneously copied, leading to a flaw in the replication process. It’s also possible for strong chemical reactions to lead to disruptions in copying, initiated by the ionizing of molecules due to effects like exposure to ultra-violet light or the random interaction of a high-energy cosmic ray inside our tissues (something that happens quite a lot). The good news is that most errors in copying lead to genes that cannot function properly, or that result in the production of molecules that fail to support cellular mechanisms. For a variety of reasons, cells tend to die off after such mutations and are simply removed by the body as waste. Most people are blissfully unaware of the sheer numbers of mistakes their own bodies are constantly dealing with in an attempt to perpetuate the life of the host, thus increasing the chances of passing along host’s genes and propagating the species.

The fact that cancer is not the leading cause of death, or a process that affects 100% of all humans all the time, is a testament to the long march of biology over millions of years. Driven by the simple process of environmental pressures, be they physical, chemical, or biological, the process of cellular reproduction has evolved with checks and balances in place to minimize errors in duplication. While errors can be troublesome or useless, they can also be useful – in fact, mutation is the essential agent of biological change while natural selection picks the winners and the losers. But that same process can sometimes result in tissues whose growth is unlike the parent cells. In their own effort to procreate and perpetuate, they invade neighboring tissues or hitch a ride in the bloodstream and land in some other poor organ. Cancer is, quite simply, what happens when mutation results in a new organism that is unable to live symbiotically with the host, or to be destroyed by the host. It’s a sideways march of natural selection, one of those accidents whose chances can be increased by sun exposure or exposure in large doses to certain classes of chemicals. It doesn’t tend to end well for the host.

The consequences for the host can vary, from physical deformation to death. The treatments for cancer can vary; the body can already do a lot to evict troublemakers, but when it fails a person can be faced with a range of choices, from chemical treatments to surgery.

I say all of this because it’s recently been made clear to me that I have won the cancer lottery. My prize is thankfully small – a growth of basal cell carcinoma on my face, just below my left eye. Basal cell carcinoma is probably the most easily treated cancer, with a scary name, a very high success rate, and only in the very rarest of cases leads to complications that can be life-threatening. The growth of the carcinoma is usually very slow, but left unchecked it will eventually do serious damage to surrounding healthy tissues. Treatments vary, but the most successful currently documented treatment is the Mohs Surgical Method. This is what I will receive. I like the Mohs Method because it appeals to me as a scientist.

In the Mohs Method, a minimal section of skin will be removed from my face, going deep enough and wide enough to try to encompass the carcinoma. I’ll be awake for the whole process, with a local anesthetic applied to my face. After the first removal, I’ll be able to sit in a waiting area while the skin section is frozen, stained, and sliced. The tissue will be assessed under a microscope, looking at all the edges to see where basal cells extend beyond the periphery of the surgeon’s cuts. Those locations on my face will then be revisited with the scalpel, removing more tissue for further scrutiny. The cutting stops when the basal cell growth no longer crosses the surgeon’s cut boundaries. This process is expected to take no longer than four hours, which seems like a pretty minor investment for a 98-99% success rate.

The wound will be sutured in such a way as to follow the wrinkles (smile lines) on my face, so that any long-term scarring will blend with natural lines forming with age on my face. I’ll be sent home to rest for about seven days, and I’ve been told to expect significant swelling on the left side of my face. The surgeon said that after a few days it will look like somebody socked me in my left eye, so this will be a new experience for me. I’ve been prescribed total rest for that period, and no lifting of anything over 10 pounds to avoid popping the stitches. After about seven days, assuming the wound is healing well, the sutures will be removed and I’m essentially free to go about my life after that. The scarring will largely vanish over the course of about three weeks.

To be fair, I had this coming. After all, as a physicist I spend my life modeling nature, designing cuts to select interesting phenomena, and then applying those cuts to better isolate and understand the world. Nature just seems to want to return the favor . . . and I can respect that.