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The pains of representing a collaboration May 16, 2007

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

Yesterday I was in Rome, at a meeting of the National Scientific Commission I of the INFN – the funding agency of particle physics experiments in Italy. I had been charged by the coordinator of the italian members of the CDF experiment, Luciano Ristori, to give a seminar on the status of our experiment and its prospects for the next few years. I had felt honored by his request, and had accepted with enthusiasm.

The task of my talk was twofold: to show our funding agents that CDF has produced excellent output so far, and to demonstrate that it has a real chance of achieving the coveted goal of finding the Higgs boson -or, at least, to gain more information about it- given a chance to run until at least the end of year 2009.

Giving the talk was a big responsibility, since the Commission decides on the funding of the italian institutions, and in these years of painful shortage of money for research every bit counts. So I wanted to do the best job I could.

I worked at the talk for over two weeks, by collecting information about the charges of italian members of the collaboration, the students recently graduated and those presently working at their theses, and the recent contributions of each of the participating italian institutions (Pisa/Siena, Rome, Udine, Trieste, Trento, Padova, Pavia, Bologna, Frascati) to the hottest physics analyses being produced. And I had to study quite a few physics papers I had not had a chance to read in the past, about many of the measurements that CDF has so far produced.

The resulting picture of an experiment in great health, producing exquisite physics in a ample spectrum, was easy to draw. CDF has world-best results in so many measurements, it is embarassing to list them: best measurements of the top quark mass in the dilepton, single lepton, and all-hadronic final state, and best combined top mass measurement; best W mass; best W width; first observation of WZ production; first observation of Bs oscillations; first observation of Sigma_b baryons; first observation of exclusive diphoton production; first observation of several charmless B decays; and so on, and on, and on.

Less easy was to explain why, despite the fact that our searches for the Higgs boson are still far from the sensitivity needed to find hints of Higgs production, we are confident that we will reach that goal by 2009. I had to explain the details of all the ingredients that enter the complicated searches at low and high mass, and compare our present status to 2003 projections, to clarify -or so I hoped- that the discovery reach was still the one we had foreseen back then.

But much harder than the two tasks described above was to converge on slides that could satisfy all my 85 italian colleagues. Of course, given the importance of the talk, I had circulated an early version of the presentation among them last week. With few exceptions, my collaborators were very useful in providing feedback, corrections, suggesting different phrasing, addition of material and reorganization of slides. With few exceptions, that’s the point.

CDF-Italy is a collaboration within a collaboration (CDF). And it is made of nine groups. Each group has its own specific interests, performs different physics analyses, and gives different weight to the diverse physics that we produce as a collaboration. Each group wanted their own piece of physics well visible and represented in my talk. But that was simply not possible, given that I had a huge amount of material to discuss, in 40 minutes of seminar. So, many had accepted that their favorite physics result were relegated to a back-up slide -one which could get shown only in case of a question from the audience. A few of my collaborators gave strong feedback about the need of including this or that result, but in the end they accepted my choices.

One group, however, disagreed. Their claimed that their analysis had to be given emphasis, and I was not willing to grant it, because it did not fit in the picture I wanted to give of the experiment. The slide they had provided was left in back-up.

And then, yesterday, I finally gave my presentation, in a large room with frescoes on the ceiling in palazzo Landi, a beautiful venue and the headquarters of INFN – a hundred meters away from the Pantheon, in the center of Rome. I think I delivered the message. I stayed within the allotted time, gave emphasis to the Higgs searches and to the wealth of physics CDF has produced, and received congratulations from the colleagues present at the meeting.

Today, though, I got bad feedback from the head of the group who had most been most stubborn in insisting for their analysis to be shown. The guy is a friend of mine, and I even fought battles with him in the past, but he is objectively a person that will give you a hard time if you disagree with his views. Here is a translated and amended version of the e-mail I got from him, actually a carbon-copy of a message he sent to a collaborator about my talk:

Dear x,

I had realized myself that Tommaso had dropped the slide you sent him. Then I looked at his talk. Since it is ugly – in the sense that there is a lot of smoke, little meat, and wholesale ignorance – I thought it was better that way. Moreover, he had received compliments from Y [a colleague who is notoriously not highly esteemed by him – TD].

I excuse Tommaso since it is plain to see that he is working in another experiment. I excuse him less to have accepted to give the talk while being out of touch. It is obvious that he did not understand why we are re-measuring […].

As for the strong and important message that “CDF believes in the Higgs boson”:

1) I think it is b******t

2) the talk suggests the opposite – maybe it believes it but it is not capable, and for sure one does not understand where italians are contributing critically (besides on hardware).

The only thing that appears to backfire  is to be represented by a space cadet. But I think it does not matter given the niveau (low) of the commission.


Post-scriptum: Tommaso, sorry, but a “f*** **f” at the right moment cannot but do you good.

Alas, the guy has a huge ego and has never been able to give credit to his colleagues. To him, everybody is an idiot. He may be right sometimes, and he is an outstanding physicist – but unfortunately, his skills are wasted in the desert he creates around himself with his bad mood… But he is still a friend.



1. jeff - May 16, 2007

Ciao Tommaso
I looked at your slides a few days ago and indeed there was a lot of meat. I do have nostalgia of CDF and high energy physics. Knowing you, I am sure you did a very fine job! Mr. G (did I guess right?) is indeed hyper in every thing he does, including criticizing. Be cool.


p.s. Question: Is “f*** **f” = “vai a farti ******” ?

2. dorigo - May 16, 2007

Ciao Jeff,

no, it is “vaff******” 🙂

I’ll tell you in private who we are talking about…


3. Andrea Giammanco - May 16, 2007

It’s always unpleasant to give “political” talks like this.
As you probably know, I had to give a talk in the previous meeting of Gruppo I (but on a much more limited topic, only the top physics activities in CMS), and the suggestions that were given to me, and that I accepted (essentially: stress this piece of hardware because it was done in Italy, stress this analysis because it is italian) made me feel a bit dirty 🙂
I have quite a strong opinion on the existence of “collaborations inside collaborations”: they should not exist; and since unavoidably they will always exist, at least they should be discouraged.
I can understand that INFN puts the money and wants to be credited (and so it is legitimate that it asks the questions: are the italians well represented in the collaboration?), but too often I have the feeling that CMS, for example, is composed of several collaborations, in competition much more than they are in cooperation.
Is competition good or bad? It is good when it provides mutual control and cross checks, but it is bad when at the end of an internal meeting you still feel that you don’t know what is the status of the works, since each speaker was mainly eager to convince the audience the his group has done a really great job.

4. Andrea Giammanco - May 16, 2007

By the way, what does he mean with “space cadet”?

5. dorigo - May 16, 2007

Andrea, I haven’t a clue – but it does not sound like a compliment to me.

As for competition being bad among different experiments and groups – well, I think that when a funding agent has to decide who is the worthiest recipient of money for research, (s)he needs to be informed of what is going on in the experiments. And if (s)he is smart enough, you cannot really tell a lot of lies, because (s)he will find out, and you will be screwed. These meetings force you to be bold but you cannot afford to be dishonest.

Competition is not bad per se, if the rules of the game are clear. Those are my two pence.


6. franco - May 17, 2007


7. jeff - May 17, 2007

Competition is good, except when resources are too scarse and/or when there is too little control from neutral referees. There are thresholds. Has INFN crossed a threshold? The University has!

8. Fred - May 17, 2007

The mention of the words ‘Higgs boson’ seem to exite the neurons in your lot. From the outside looking in, the letter from X is an indictment of the whole presentation. In the U.S., the term ‘space cadet’, unless used in a disarming way, has implications of eternal damnation attached with it. It is a label that seeks to permanantly stain the intellectual reputation and mental stability to whom it is directed toward. It is not a seemingly innocent touche. In days of yore, X would expect you to respond with a slap in his face with your glove. Anything less than the subsequent steps of choosing seconds would be considered an acknowledgement to the truth of his statements. (Should this ever go to swords, a tinge of poison on the tip is not unheard of but be careful when dipping.) Ironically, those who use the term with serious intent have stooped to the level of being: intellectually lazy, addicted to one’s self-esteem, and embrasive of fascist methods when confronted with their own perceived realities, thus, a frustrated child. The fact that X seeks the direct attention of x to engage with T is a strange way to exhibit strong paternal characteristics. I would disregard his current advances as he has only made your skin a bit thicker. A good thing to possess if you ever have to become a rhino. I like the last line of your post.

p.s. One regret, the swearing would have been a lot more colorful had he had been from Naples. Kind of like prosciutto e melone on a summer’s night a Bagnoli.

9. alvin - May 18, 2007


enaugh pontificating, start doing some serious work

10. dorigo - May 18, 2007

Jeff, in what sense the University has crossed a threshold ? Your post above is somewhat obscure. In principle, if resources were unlimited, there would be no need for competition, IMO.

Fred, you are right about the paternal characteristics – sending me a message in cc was showing some. Thanks for the explanation of the term “space cadet”…


11. dorigo - May 18, 2007

Hi Alvin,

my name is Tommaso ! Two m’s, one s. 🙂

Well, I had to pontificate for the good of our collaboration! It took me two weeks to prepare the talk. Now yes, I am back to work – an owl SciCo shift, which as you know is not the best way to use one’s time but is still useful to the collaboration, pretty much as the talk.


12. jeff - May 18, 2007

Ciao Tommaso. IMO competition is with us even if there were unlimited resources (food, money, women/men,…). IMO people will always compete. IMO they need to, and if they don’t have a reason they will invent one.

13. dorigo - May 18, 2007

But Jeff, aren’t you then negating one of the main objections to the socialist system of USSR ? There, the lack of any reward had quite the opposite effect: people stopped competing, since everybody had little but chances of improving one’s life were absent.

I personally think people get lazy and stop fighting if they can have what they need. Of course, the TV will always remind them they still need something else…


14. jeff - May 18, 2007

No I am not negating objections to the USSR. I said competition would occur even with unlimited resources. In USSR there were no resources. People stopped competing because, as you too said, they had no hopes. In my mind “rewards” and “hopes” do not coincide.

I negate the USSR by default. You, instead, seem to be negating it by saying “people stop fighting if they can have what they need”. I imagine that by “fighting” you mean the srtive to better oneself, strive for something,….. SO, if that is what you mean by “fighting” then you seem to be saying that if the STATE takes care of everything then the STATE is actually ruining its citizens. And Thank God there is television.

cheers. By the way it is CHERRY season!!!!!!

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