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A new outreach project: the “Higgs Challenge”! January 8, 2007

Posted by dorigo in games, personal, physics, science.

Some of my most affectionate readers will probably remember an idea I had two years ago about how to promote particle physics and do some excellent outreach, while obtaining funds for the running of our experiments sidestepping our funding agencies, all in one stroke. In one line, it consists in converting our giant particle detector into a perfect quantum lottery. I wrote about it in my Quantum Diaries blog, and you might like reading about it there: http://qd.typepad.com/6/2005/01/the_buried_lott.html .

That idea is a bit hard to realize – not too far from social science fiction. However, I am now seriously thinking about how to implement it at a less ambitious level. 

I tentatively call the project “Higgs Challenge 2008” (“SUSY Challenge 2008” would work too). It consists in offering to high schools geographically close to universities participating in the CMS experiment a couple of simple introductory lectures, and a set of real events collected by the experiment through some of the most interesting, “discovery” triggers. Say 1,000 or 10,000 to each school. 

The event sets could be offered to the participating schools in the form of a ticket at the time of the first lecture (“you will be delivered event #123,456,001 to #123,457,000 as soon as they are collected”), and then for real, in a small display package including the ability of dumping quadrimomenta of high-level objects such as electrons, muons, or jets, and simple routines to compute multi-body invariant masses. The participating high school class that collected most golden Higgs boson decay candidates, or something alike, could win a tour of the CERN laboratory.

Sketched as above, the project appears a bit complicated to realize, but I have roughly worked out a few of the details and I believe it would be not too hard to make it a successful worldwide outreach venture. We have the bases (institutions throughout the world), the manpower (not hard to find a few graduate students or post-docs per institution, volunteering to give lectures and provide some technical help with the event sets), and we will hopefully also have the events one day!

Advertising could be easily provided by the CMS management through their outreach office, and other funds needed to run the whole thing would be ridiculously small for the payback we -the particle physics community- would get. Say US$500 per school – each university could be asked to fund one to three – for the expenses of lecturers, plus maybe US$10,000 to develop a simple software interface, and US$20,000 more for the prize (a trip to the lab for the winning class). With 40 of the participating universities contributing with a couple thousand dollars each, the thing would fund itself.

Next week I am at CERN, and I intend to discuss the matter with some tall mushrooms in the CMS management. Wish me good luck.



1. marco - January 8, 2007

Good luck 🙂

2. Guess Who - January 8, 2007

It probably says more about my dark sense of humor (if that’s what it is) than about your proposal, but the first thing to cross my mind after reading it was the immortal Pink Floyd lyrics:

Teachers, leave those kids alone. Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!

3. Andrea Giammanco - January 9, 2007

> not hard to find a few graduate students or post-docs per institution,
> volunteering to give lectures and provide some technical help with the
> event sets

I’m skeptical about the “not hard”.
At least in 2008, with all the manpower frenzily working on doing the analysis themselves…
But of course the cause is noble, and it would be a better world if it will succeed.

4. dorigo - January 9, 2007

Hi GW, I also like the Pink Floyd, but from my experience with students their feelings are not in line with the song in this particular kind of teaching.

Andrea, in Padova we already run a thing called “Master Classes”, providing lectures to high schools in Veneto. The thing is working smoothly with several volunteers, at the level of researcher and professor, who travel on their own funds to give a seminar. If postdocs are busy in 2008, professors will still like to pay a visit to high schools IMO, knowing their students one day could be those he goes to lecture.


5. Andrea Giammanco - January 9, 2007

Right, I forgot the professors: they usually don’t do “real work” so they can easily find the time;)

6. fliptomato - January 11, 2007

Tommaso–this sounds like an excellent idea. It’s exactly the kind of program that can inspire secondary school students. Especially those in large, underfunded public school districts with few resources for science outreach. However, what would the students actually be doing with the data once it’s been given to them? It sounds like you’re propsing something like SETI@home (ATLAS@school?)… with high school students instead of PCs. Is there any room for students to do anything nontrivial? It’ll mean a lot for most students to look at pretty plots of ‘real’ data and be in the running for a trip to CERN, but the students who one would really like to engage are those who would like to try to do more with the data.

7. Dave Barney - January 24, 2007


You should have a look at a project in ATLAS called “Amelia” – essentially a bit like you propose on a fairly grand scale. There are also European “Masterclasses” (run throughout Europe in March of 2007, 2006 and 2005, and in many countries individually during the past ten years) that are one-day courses held at universities. High-school kids come along to have lectures, tours and then work on analysing some LEP data (yes, it is a bit out of date!), work out some Z branching ratios and then have a video conference with CERN to discuss. Works very well. Plans are afoot to update this for the LHC era.
In addition, there is (and has been for many years) a plan to “siphon-off” a set of events from CMS for schools. Not necessarily “golden” events though!
The biggest hurdle will be time though: the masterclasses look at 1000 LEP events (groups of 2 kids look at 100 events) and this takes quite a while – and remember that LEP events are trivial compared with LHC events. So looking at a set of events from ATLAS/CMS will need a LOT of preparatory work and a lot of time for the analysis.

Maybe you should come and talk to me some time!

Dave Barney
CMS Outreach Coordinator

8. dorigo - January 24, 2007

Hi Dave,

great thing that you read my post… Yes, I know the masterclasses, indeed I am one of the lecturers in Padova. I was thinking we could improve that by doing CMS physics with real events… Well you already saw the post above.

Can I call you on the phone some time ?


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