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Earning authorship in a HEP experiment January 18, 2007

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

Most particle physics experiments nowadays are run by large collaborations of people from all over the world: typically hundreds of physicists – about 2000 in CMS, which is one of the largest – join their efforts and moneys for common goals that would otherwise be unreachable for individual universities or research groups.

It goes without saying that the organization of manpower in these experiments is a complex issue.  In fact, with respect to similar environments – large companies in the world of business – there is the additional complication of dealing with small groups of physicists from each of the participating universities or institutions, who besides common goals and personal ambitions  add to the equation other, intermediate-scale objectives: publishing before other groups, getting funding from the financing institutions, obtaining leading positions in the experiments for their members.

The lack of true leadership -and the external source of paychecks- means that every individual above the level of graduate student can more or less choose freely how to invest his or her time, once the funding institution has paid the required share of money. 

Of course, institution group leaders and the experiment management will try to steer the work force towards the most pressing and critical issues. In order to capture the manpower required for the hundreds of tasks needed to run the experiment, the concept of “service work” is usually invented: you can only belong to the collaboration, and enjoy the resulting benefits, if you lend some of your time to the common cause one way or another.

There are different versions of the mechanism at work in present-day experiments, but the bottomline is largely the same: if you want to belong to the clan, and earn the privilege of analyzing the data and researching your favorite particle with them, you need to first agree to spend some time doing work everybody will benefit from. 

Typically the service work you choose -or the one your boss chooses for you- is suited to your established skills, such that you can perform it more efficiently, devote less time to it than others think, and earn the esteem of your peer. But at times you have to take on something that involves an extended learning curve…

Learning new tricks is not the forte of old dogs such as myself. However, since I have switched the bulk of my research activities from the CDF to the CMS experiment at the beginning of this year, I am going to have to do some service work for the latter myself. And for that I will need to learn quite a few technicalities about the software of the experiment, which has changed last year from the old framework (of which I had some experience) to a new one to which I am totally unfamiliar.

This week at CERN I started doing just that. It is always good to go back to learning new things, and I intend to do it humbly, just like a fresh graduate student. I will soon see how steep and wide is the learning curve… 



1. Markk - January 18, 2007

Speaking as one of the producers of these experiments (that is, a taxpayer) I am always of two minds with how research money should be spent. On the one hand I sometimes think that the small grants are more productive in that a lot of institutions and people can do useful work, with a lot of ideas, and there will be a better base of qualified people in that scientific and technological area for society as a whole. On the other hand the big projects like say, Fermilab, LHC, or say the Human Genome project kind of have an overall goal that you can succeed or fail at so there is a sense of accomplishment – ok we did that – found the Higgs, sequenced the Human genome, we have new techniques, on to the next thing.

That large scale is much more industrial to me which means that the people that do the grunt work should get more credit, and the managers should have their toes held to fire more. What I wonder is how much ancillary stuff is being discovered – when you are spending billions on something you probably aren’t out there trying fly by night ideas so I hope there are a lot of, say spin-ups (not spin offs) where we are learning things as a consequence of having a massive project aimed at a big goal.

2. dorigo - January 19, 2007

Hi Markk,

indeed, spending huge moneys on giant experiments may not be the most bang for the buck, but it is the only way to go for science. We do the experiments our technology allows (although as of late we have started to shape the technological advances a little bit based on the needs of basic research), and search what we can search. Of course, in our choices of what to ask for funding we have to be reasonable and justify our requests with expected payoffs, but we cannot really avoid constructing a LHC or exploring the genoma, if we can do it. That would be going back to the middle ages.

For sure, the LHC will increase our understanding in particle physics by an order of magnitude – that means not just finding the Higgs, but measuring rare processes and studying effects we had not a chance to see before. It is by no means clear, instead, whether fundamental new discoveries will be made – and I tend to believe they won’t.


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