Earning authorship in a HEP experiment January 18, 2007Posted 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…