Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dept. of Shamelessness, Part II

And before things accelerate again, just wanted to pass along a couple more pieces of good news.  On Thursday, during the RHIC/AGS Users Meeting (yes it ran all week), two things happen that don't normally Happen To Me: a certificate of appreciation for helping bring the BNL Cafe in reality (I'm still blushing -- all I wanted was a cup of coffee), and I survived the election to win a seat (one of several) to the Users Executive Committee.  Growing up, I never really thought of myself as community-minded, but something seems to have changed in the last few years.  Brookhaven is a lovely place, and RHIC a great place to work, and it's been fun to take a more active role in keeping it that way.

Moscow on the Moskva

As bookends to that trip to Dubna I took for work a few weeks ago, I managed to schedule in a couple of days in Moscow to see the sights (which are many) and visit an old friend who's been living there in recent years. Moscow was really spectacular, from Red Square to St. Basil's (pictured), and from the unbelieveable churches of the Kremlin to the futuro-bizarro restaurant atop the Academy of Sciences, with views over the city. I've posted a few photos in the usual place.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Entropy Bound in Physics World

From the department of shamelessness, I submit to you an article in Physics World about this very blog.  Really flattering that it exists at all, but gee it's sobering to hear an outside view of things (i.e. I only saw the piece today, after it had gone live)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thank You (Faputtinme on the NYTimes Website)

Sly Stone is one of my favorites, and this is my favorite period of his career.  And his 1973  expression, surrounded by the ephemera of the modern web, is priceless.

The PHOBOS Glauber Monte Carlo

As a follow up to this post, several colleagues and I just posted a paper to the arxiv today: "The PHOBOS Glauber Monte Carlo."  This is one of those technical-sounding things, but which has had a surprising relevance to understanding actual RHIC data.  Many people treat nuclear collisions by considering the nuclei to be overlapping smooth distribution of protons and neutrons.  However, it is also reasonable to treat nuclei as clumps of protons and neutrons as individual particles, especially since that's, um, what they are.  The interesting part is that the positions jiggle around collision to collision, and those fluctuations seem to have real manifestations in physical phenomena (see, e.g., this paper).  

Anyway, there is an amusing back story here: when we were writing one of the early PHOBOS papers back in 2000, we discovered that we needed our own implementation this kind of thing.  I was on a trip to South Africa at the time, so I cobbled something together on the plane -- and this is the core of what we've now put out for public release almost 8 years later.  That said, it's not rocket science (i.e. every experiment has their own version), but despite a ream of papers and Glauber reviews, there have been relatively few codes available until now.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Physics of Privacy

Fantastic -- an anonymous donor has recently stepped up to contribute $5 million to Fermilab (via the University of Chicago) to help end its furloughs.  

It's incredible that Congress as a whole still does not appreciate the intrinsic interest high energy and nuclear physics generate outside the field.  RHIC already showed that private funding actually makes both sides look good: the donor for supporting something which promotes science and technology, and participating in the process of discovery, and the scientists for attracting the attention of powerful people outside the government.  While it clearly will never be enough to rely on private donors, it bodes well for the future of the field.

RHIC Users Meeting

Gee it's been a longer hiatus than expected.  First was that trip to Russia.  Then it's been madness finishing a proposal (more on that soon).  Then it was memorial day weekend and a trip down to the Chesapeake bay.  And now it's the RHIC Users Meeting at Brookhaven.  We've already had a full day of workshops (I attended one on various correlation measurements used to characterize jets in heavy ion collisions) and now it's an all day symposium on RHIC and its impact on Nuclear Physics.  So far nothing brand new to report, but the day has just begun.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bait and Switch

I've been thinking a bit about Kelly McMaster's book about Shirley, her hometown just a few miles south of BNL, and the air of mystery she tries to generate about the lab where I work, a sense which she passes on to those who listen to and interview her (and who often have never been out there).

The main disconnect I sense with her argument (and full disclosure: I haven't read the book yet, but have only heard interviews and read some of her writing online) is between her sense of wonder about the lab as a child, with her fear and loathing of it as an adult.

The wonder, from her Mother Jones piece:
As a child, I imagined the lab’s buildings were made of an igloo-like substance, and the rooms inside were full of metallic file cabinets, clinking glass test tubes, and notebooks full of secret codes. Men and women in crisp white lab coats and plastic goggles coaxed new species of frogs and lizards out of mottled purple eggs. Others hovered over milky glass globes of light whose kinked antennas sparked blue shots of electricity into the dim, silent air.
And the loathing, in the same paragraph:
My neighbor worked as a maintenance man at the lab, and he often teased that he glowed in the dark. After he died of brain and lung cancer, my imaginary lab became a much darker place—a small, sinister pocket hiding in the pines.
The strange part for me is that I can identify with the disconnect between the childhood fantasy and the adult reality, but mine is a different trajectory than hers (and don't assume I'm unaware of the emotional trauma of a close loved one with cancer).

I gravitated toward a scientific life with fantasies of sci-fi movies running through my head, with large machines emitting lightning at the flip of a huge Frankenstein-type switch, or several people poring over softly-glowing computer screens as an experiment produces fantastic data in real-time, and great discoveries are made. I thought this kind of thing actually happened even as I started grad school (even if I had never seen it in my various research summers...)

Unfortunately, the gap between fantasy and reality is as large as the gap between a scientific experiment and comprehending its implications. Things always take a long time to get started, a long time to happen, and a long time to understand, and often involve false starts, misundertandings, mistakes, retries, etc. This is because we have to constantly test our hypotheses against what we observe in the world around us, either through our own experiments or by scouring the literature (which also takes forever) for similar results. Kind of like a journalist, come to think of it. Bottom line is that the daily work of the scientific life just isn't as colorful -- or ever as sinister -- as McMasters seems to imagine (the conferences and talks etc are another matter -- fun as can be).

That said, maybe I speak as someone who is officially allowed to enter my lab on a daily basis (a privilege I share with 2500 other employees, less than 1000 being scientists, I should add). I suppose if you are put off by the fact that someone at the gate asks who you are, then you might wonder if the lab is hiding something, and develop a sense of mystery to justify one's feeling as an outsider. Then again, you might not have noticed that they have public lectures and musical recitals (always open to the public) almost every week. But it's possible that I only perceive the friendly-and-open side of things -- some bias of this sort is unavoidable, it seems.

So the child in me always wishes someone would take me to the secret parts of the lab --where the lights are flashing, and lightning strikes, and green goo runs out of a vat into the ground, i.e. where the wild things are. But maybe no-one seems to know where they are anymore -- or maybe they aren't there, and were never there. Or maybe I've just grown up a bit and actually taken a look around.

But when you get down to it, it's a bait-and-switch: when you are growing up, no-one ever tells you that things aren't so colorful and mysterious, so by the time you finally realize that it's not, you've found a much more interesting -- albeit prosaic --real world to ponder.