Reflections on detectors

My “day off” in the mine has been anything but. Well, to be fair, I volunteered. I had planned to spend the day catching up on news, listening to some statistics lectures from SLAC [SLUOStats], and generally take photos of all the cool stuff down here in the Soudan Mine (and blog about it afterward). However, when somebody offers you the chance to suit up, step into a clean room antechamber, and polish gas hoses, you just can’t say “no”.

Well, I didn’t say “no”, so I found myself suiting up (booties, then walk into the clean room, then more booties, then the hat, then gloves, then the suit – don’t let the arms touch the floor – then a second pair of gloves). We cleaned off the work surfaces and then proceeded to unwind and clean a series of gas hoses needed inside the detector (which is an even higher-level clean room, through the big door). This was careful work. Three of us did it, the first (me) cleaning the big gunk off, the second (Xinjie) scrubbing the intermediate gunk, and the third (Jodi) doing to final wipe-down. The hose had to be carefully coiled to avoid kinks and then stacked on a clean surface. It took about 15 minutes per hose, four hoses.

Hey, this was only supposed to be a vacation from BaBar.

Later, after lunch and some lecture-listening, I wandered into the MINOS cave next door and started snapping pictures of all the great detector stuff they have in there (not to mention the artwork). Jodi took me down the to back end of the detector to see a smaller experiment that is studying low-rate backgrounds, useful for experiments like CDMS. It occurred to be, as I stood in front of the MINOS far detector, that my body was subject to the NUMI neutrino beam. This intense beam of neutrinos starts at the main injector at Fermilab, passes through the near MINOS detector and travels under Wisconsin right into the MINOS cave. The beam is thousands of feet wide when it reaches Soudan, and its center passes right through the MINOS far detector.

It was humbling to stand there, knowing that quite a few more than the normal number of neutrinos were passing (still harmlessly) through my body. I could not feel the tickle of the weak force any more than the Earth notices the errant sting of a mosquito, yet MINOS sees them. With its dense, multi-story metal plates interwoven with scintillating material, the MINOS detector provides a much more acceptable target for the neutrino. As was presented at ICHEP 06, their measurement of the mass difference between the second and third neutrino mass eigenstates rivals that of Super Kamiokande, and with more neutrinos collected every day will soon surpass Super-K in precision. Other parameters require more data to rival Super-K, but they’ll get there.

Near the entrance to the MINOS cave sits the public lecture area for the CDMS experiment. The science tours of the mine use this, and a corresponding MINOS area, to explain the science to audiences. In a small case on the demo bench was a typical CDMS detector, one of many that enter into the “towers” inside the full experiment. I couldn’t help reflecting on the detectors, and catching the moment with my camera phone.

.. [SLUOStats] “”:

Writing slides in Ely

I’m scheduled to give the “wine and cheese” seminar at “Fermilab”: on August 25, so part of my vacation has to be spent writing slides for the talk. I’m planning to give the audience a promenade through recent results using searches for leptonic decays of heavy mesons. BaBar is what I like to call a “five quark” experiment – saying that is akin to giving you enough information to figure out what kinds of physics we can do. It’s also fairly unambiguous – if we can produce five quarks, we can also produce all six known leptons. Experiments like CLEO-c are “four quark” experiments, also capable of producing all six known leptons, while the Tevatron detectors are “six quark” experiments.

So I have to work a little on my vacation. At first, I was really having a rough time writing this seminar. I’ve never given one this long (50 minutes), and to me the key to writing has always been the theme. Without a guiding thread for the entire effort, it’s just a random and pointless collection of results. A theme offers a chance to unify the results, give meaning and purpose to the presentation, and carry the audience rather than lecture them. I found my theme, largely in part thanks to my exposure to Russia and the memory of a theme I once used for a presentation in my graduate field theory class. I’ll save the final choice as a surprise, just in case any of my loyal readers (who ARE you people?) are Fermilabradors… or, whatever you call yourselves.

Needless to say, all that time wasted producing crappy novels and shitty poems as a teenager and early twenty-something’er is coming in handy in the real world of science. Some of those writing skills are actually useful, and not just for editing papers. Talks like this one are a chance to break the mold of scientific presentation, offering the added dimension of creativity often stifled during the publication process. You can’t be witty and amusing in PRL, but you damn sure have to be witty and amusing to carry an audience for 50 minutes.

Having to do all this writing, I chose a very pleasant place to do it. I learned during the writing of my thesis that the white noise of coffee shops, coupled with the music and the smells, makes for a perfect place to write anonymously. Witness the fact that both my presentation, and this blog entry, are being composed at a two-person table near the south-facing door of the Front Porch Coffee House in Ely, Minnesota, 20 minutes from Soudan. The other benefit of coming to the coffee house is the finding of a roadsign which, when reworked slightly, will make a perfect ending to my talk. I just hope my photos came out OK.

Fan Film Wrap Up

I am a huge fan of the Star Wars series. Even despite the rather poor quality of the prequels, I was engaged by the political and mythological exposition in the three movies. I delight in the mythology of the series, drawn from major world mythologies in human history. A lot of people give me flak for buying the prequels, but it’s the threads that I like (even if the scripts themselves were bad).

One of the things that has made up for the bad, professionally done prequels are fan films. These are not-for-profit movies written, produced, and directed by devout fans. The films are available from the internet. Some of them have scripts and acting just as bad as the prequels, but even at their worse they are as good as Episode II. That’s saying a lot.

I say all of this because I am excited about “Secrets of the Rebellion”, a coming fan film [SOTR]. This movie will deal with the days just before “A New Hope”, and it sounds pretty cool. This inspired me to dig through the archives and list my top favorite fan films. In order, from favorite to least (but still watchable), they are:

* “Reign of the Fallen”: Set a long time before the Lucas series, this film explores one of the explosive starts to a Sith/Jedi war. Set on the last days of the planet Prias, the story follows two young Jedi as they face their fates and learn the secrets of their destinies. One will rise, and one will fall. Good writing, good filming, and a nice expansion on the thread of the Skywalkers.

* “Art of the Saber”: This is just a wild exploration of the light saber duel genre. These two brothers are amazing, and with just a single digital camera and their own skills they produce an amazing fight scene.

* “TROOPS”: This is one of the damn funniest spoofs in fan film history. This spinoff of “COPS” explores life in the ranks of the Storm Troopers, especially in those pesky days leading up to the first Death Star battle…

* “Revelations”: Of the bad films, this was my favorite. It’s a lot better done than some of the really poorly written ones, and I like the exploration of the “Emperor’s Hand” mythology, a second lord of the Sith employed by the Emperor, who really did not trust Vader. The Emperor’s Hand was introduced, to my knowledge, in the books by Timothy Zahn. This movie also explores the inner mistrust amongst the Jedi, especially in the last days before the Empire.

.. [SOTR] “”:

ICHEP Journal – VII

The next day was worse. Here we go!

August 4, 2006 – 7 am, Moscow Time

I couldn’t sleep past 7, a disease I acquired in Moscow. International travel always does that to me. I got up, showered and repacked, and then had a delicious breakfast downstairs in the hotel. Afterward, I caught up with Derenik, who’d suggested we get a car together to the airport to make sure we arrived early enough to sort out the 12:30/2:30 confusion. Derenik had a private driver, Dennis, who picked us up. Dennis was incredible – he was so intolerant of ANY traffic that at one point, coming over a rise on the highway and confronted with a wall of stand-still cars, he put the car in reverse, backed up about 100 meters to the last exit, and left the highway. He avoided traffic skillfully, getting us to the airport in about 30-40 minutes DESPITE Moscow morning rush hour.

We started by going to the Delta ticket window, outside security. The woman working there insisted that the flight was at 2:30. Derenik confronted her with the information that Delta headquarters in Atlanta said that this was NOT true – that the flight was at 12:30 and we were on it. Confronted with the suggestion that she was wrong, the woman hurled a nationalist slur at Derenik (a naturalized U.S. citizen, I might add), commenting that she wouldn’t trust such information coming from an Armenian. Thus the day started.

We got through security and got our boarding passes. As I waited in line for mine, I read the info board above the counter: 12:30 Atlanta, 1:15 New York, 1:15 New York. Suddenly, my JFK flight was at 1:15! I got my boarding pass, and headed through passport control. The agent there asked for passport and ticket, which I gave her. She looked at my ticket, then started yelling at me in Russian. “Panglisky?” I asked. “NYET,” she responded coldly.

She demanded my ticket. I gave her my connecting flight ticket. She demanded the sleeve they both came in (now empty), which I handed over. She got more angry. She started yelling at me again, then turned to her colleague in the next window. I thought I was SCREWED, but didn’t understand why. A conversation ensued, and I was waved to the other window. The agent there took my passport and tickets, stamped my passport, and I was free. I then closely inspected the ticket, and saw the problem: “12:30, New York”, “it read”: But there was NO flight at 12:30 to JFK, only to Atlanta. No wonder the passport agent was pissed: her roster said Atlanta, and the Delta people were completely f’ing with her. I would be pissed, too, if an airline was screwing with stuff like that. In fact, I WAS angry . . . and confused.

The truth was that my flight, listed on my ticket as DL9888 leaving at 12:30, was really DL31A leaving at 14:30. Derenik got himself on the 1:15 flight to JFK – the regular flight – so he would make his connection in New York. However, that flight was delayed. It was delayed so long, they eventually gave our repaired plane to that flight (which only left about 20 minutes before us, in the end) and we got the plane coming from JFK that was supposed to be outbound at 1:15.

JFK, two hours later than scheduled

I am told by the Delta ticket desk in baggage claim that I am on the 9:00 pm flight to SFO and that my ticket from the 5:30 flight is my ticket. I just have to go to gate 27 and board. This turns out to be a LIE. I have a nice dinner of buffalo wings and Sam Adams lager, unwind a little, and then head to the gate where I meet my fellow physics travelers. 40 minutes before the flight leave, Fanny L. (our gate agent of doom) arrives. A huge queue has already formed, and we’re at the back of it. By the time any of us gets to the front, it’s nearly time for the flight to leave. We are told we don’t have seats because we didn’t check in 30 minutes before the flight.

Now, chaos begins in earnest. We are all tired, some of us late from Moscow and some late from Turkey. We were all told we had seats on the flight, but now that we make it through the queue the standby passengers have been given our seats and we’re in deep shit. Fanny tells us we didn’t check in early enough, and now one of our group loses it. “You weren’t here until 40 minutes before the flight left!” he yells, and we are all filling with anger. She responds that she was busy, keeps typing and typing and typing on her little terminal. Her supervisor is also at the desk, trying to help. Fanny runs out of ticket blanks, and cannot print boarding passes. The gate security agents, 10 feet away, aren’t letting people without passes board. Confusion grows.

The mob is growing dense at the desk. There are maybe 10 of us: three physicists, three Italians from Turkey, one American also fresh from Turkey, a mother and her baby, and a son-of-a-bitch Russian in a gray a suit with a ‘tude that would make spit feel unclean. The third time Fanny says we were late, the third time she’d confronted with the fact that we were told by OTHER Delta agents to come to the gate and board, her supervisor finally listens and says, “Is that true?” (meaning, “were you only here 40 minutes before the flight left?”). “I was busy!” she protests again, and the supervisor goes silent. Clearly, he’s in a rough position. If he loses it, the mob grows more unruly, so he buttons it and tries to help. They’re both typing, typing, typing but nothing is happening. Empty seats cannot be allocated by the computer, the Russian guy is arguing that I shouldn’t get a seat because he has checked luggage but I don’t.

I remain silent, as silent as possible, throughout. My two physics colleagues have families, and I insist that they should get seats before me and get home to their kids. It comes down to me and the Russian – the three Italians want to stay together, and the mother and child require two seats. With only one seat left, the Russian again argues that I don’t get it because I have only carry-on luggage. I’m quiet, thinking that maybe I can just get a rental car and stay with my parents. I do mutter something about wanting to see my wife.

A burly, surly, balding security guy with a thick New York accent is now in charge of the gate. He’s barking at Fanny, Fanny is typing, typing, typing. At some point, the security guy just calls out, “You! With the glasses!” “Me?” I say, grabbing my bags. “Come here!” he calls. I walk to the gate. “You’re getting on this plane. Seat 41A. You don’t need a boarding pass, just get on.” I walk down the jetway, stow my bags, sit down, and try to sleep through the next, endless 6 hours of the nightmare. I was glad to be on the plane, but I couldn’t stay awake anymore. I slept for most of the flight, despite the endlessly screaming baby two rows up.

August 5, 2:30 am (PST)

Jodi makes soup and we eat some crackers and spinach dip. I am just relieved to be home, ready to sleep and awake in my own bed, away from the bedlam of Delta airlines. I have resolved to never fly Delta again. If it had just been the Moscow crew, I could understand it. But the lack of control the Moscow crew had, coupled with the misinformation and misdirection of the flight times, added together with the misdirections and mismanagement at JFK, adds up to one, giant boycott. I would encourage my physics colleagues to not fly Delta for at least five years. Let’s see them lose all that HEP international travel and see how they like it.