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An agorà of education and scientific communication ? September 23, 2008

Posted by dorigo in internet, news, personal, physics, politics, science.
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These are strange days. Information runs around the world so fast, one can be at the center of the action and still learn details of what is really going on from the other side of an ocean. In fact, CERN appears a bit up-tight about the latest events in sector 34 of the LHC tunnel. People ask me questions in the comments thread of posts here, but I have less information to provide than others; and I am happy it is so, since my blog is targeted as a possible source of leaks, and I decided I want this to be a place where people get educated about science, and not about scientific rows. And if I play fair, maybe I am allowed to survive here, and maybe one day I will stop being threatened every other day, in the name of protecting internal information of the experiments I am part of.

Of course, I still assert my complete disagreement at a way to conduct scientific experiments paid with your tax money which resembles the management of the Pentagon rather than an agorà of education, research, and scientific communication.

So, by all means, if you have information you want to share, anonymously or not, you are welcome to comment, but please, do not ask me for any.


1. Tom O'Bulls - September 24, 2008

The fact that you are being threatened is a scandal. I hope that some reporter investigates this and that whoever is issuing such threats gets exposed.

I don’t know what these clowns hope to achieve in this way, but it is obvious that they have something to hide. For example, I have heard it said that some senior management believe that there is a non-trivial probability that the LHC will *never* function anywhere near intended energy levels. I didn’t believe this at first. Now, I am not so sure….

2. carlbrannen - September 24, 2008

On the spooky late night radio show I commonly listen to (while typing LaTeX), the host suggested that the recent failures at the LHC were troubling and indicated that the whole thing was not well thought out.

It was all I could do to stop myself from shouting out, “what would you know, you’re just a spooky radio talk-show host. You’ve never built a complicated technical machine in your life. Your supreme ambition is to scare the carp out of your listeners.”

3. dorigo - September 24, 2008

Hmm Tom,

you should learn to not always take me literally. Let’s say I feel that way, but it is not anything I get directly from anybody.

Of course the LHC is a giant project with a considerable probability of failure – in the percent level IMHO. However, we ticked off a good chunk of that as we completed the commissioning without getting our funds cut, and another good chunk by demonstrating that beams can circulate painlessly last Sept. 10th. There still remains some additional chance that some other big incident, or a large succession of smaller ones, keeps us from running smoothly for at least a couple of years (what I would consider enough to not call the endeavour a total failure).

Please realize that space experiments cost more money than the LHC, and their failure rates are an order of magnitude higher.


Carl, I share your frustration, but there is little we can do to stop this. It is unfortunate, but there are worst things said and shown on TV.


4. goffredo - September 24, 2008

Difficulties in startup happen everytime a novel enterprise is started or a unique machine is contructed. They do not happen to enterprises that are repetitions of a previous successful one just as they don’t happen to machines that are massed produced in series from some successful prototype (well we all know that is not entirely true, especially if the car is a FIAT).

I fell that all those that sarcastically say “Ha! LHC is not working!” are those people that never did anything with their hands, that never built something novel like a hideout with branches and sticks or a bow-and-arrow, let alone a scientific experiment.

There are always difficulties on unbeaten paths to novel goals. And even innovative theoretical ideas have startup problems. Only those people that are hostile or are idiots (clogioni in italian) will quickly stand up and say “Ha! LHC is not working!”.

5. goffredo - September 24, 2008

Sorry mistype. Coglioni not clogioni

6. anomalous cowherd - September 24, 2008

dorigo wrote:
“Of course, I still assert my complete disagreement at a way to conduct scientific experiments paid with your tax money which resembles the management of the Pentagon rather than an agorà of education, research, and scientific communication.”

I assume that this refers to the CDF management style?

With regard to the incident in Sector 3-4 of the LHC, I have to say that I like the way that CERN has handled it [I’m presently visiting CERN and have had a real-time close-up of their response]:
[1] First they took every precaution to ensure safety. They had the pompiers go into the tunnel [in full safety and breathing apparatus], to ensure that there was no further, preventable, risk; as soon as they were assured of that they got the pompiers out of the tunnel, and they aren’t sending people back in until they’re certain that it’s safe. In fact they’re closing other activities and areas because they do not want the pompiers to be in a circumstance where they might have to respond to a call elswehere; they want as much as possible for them to be available for Sector 3-4 “just in case” [according to my ATLAS colleagues the ATLAS cavern was closed yesterday for exactly that reason].
[2] As soon as they could take a carefully considered decision on the scheduling going forward they did so, and informed the experiments so that they could take their own scheduling decisions on how to use the shutdown time to repair and commision their detectors.
[3] From the beginning they kept the entire laboratory informed. The 3-4 quench occurred at lunchtime Friday; by late afternoon the same day there was an announcement on the CERN homepage informing people of the quench. Since then we’ve got two further announcements on the status, including yesterday’s from Aymar about the schedule. They are making a real effort to get reliable information to the laboratory, its users, and the general public; I can understand their concern that the information being made available publicly should come from the experts in the accelerator division who are piecing together the events that occurred, rather than from random members of their user community who might enjoy spectulating to the press.

7. dorigo - September 24, 2008

Anomalous, I concur about the safety handling, much less so about the distribution of information. Treating the personnel working on the experiments at the same level of the general public (ie. not giving them any more informaiton than the sparse, incorrect one that was released in the press releases) shows a lack of trust, and a generalized paranoia.


8. anomalous cowherd - September 24, 2008

Prof. Dorigo

Clearly you have access to more information than members of the theory division. In PH-TH we’ve been following the LHC commissioning website and the e-mail/web announcements as our primary sources of information. This is also true of my colleagues in ATLAS [none of whom are in senior management]. So it’s possible that the Accelerator Division has more understanding of the quench than it has yet circulated [or perhaps it has circulated to senior management of the experiments such as yourself].

But from discussions with my ATLAS colleagues, I get no sense that they feel that they are deprived of information that they need; the one thing that they all wanted was a definite announcement concerning the schedule, so that they could get on with planning their activities during the shutdown. Now that they have that, their work seems to be effectively decoupled from whatever the Accelerator Division has to do to understand and repair the effects of the 3-4 quench. So I’m curious to know what information it is that you feel is being withheld, that is essential to your CMS activities?

9. dorigo - September 24, 2008

Hi Anomalous,

I am not a “senior manager of the experiment”. But regardless of my function here: I find it rather disappointing that there is no channel of information between the CERN management and the experimentalists working on Atlas or CMS. Maybe this is a fault of the Atlas and CMS managers, or maybe it is due to a CERN policy. But the fact remains, you theorists -which are more than general public, but less than experimentalists as far as the need for information on details of the running of LHC are concerned- have had the same information as we did, and as the rest of the world did.

Now you ask why should we care about the details, such as the extent of the damage, the plan for recovery, the activities planned. Of course we do – if only because these things affect the planning of the works of my group: when I will send students to fill in with shifts at the detector, when I can plan to have data to feed to undergraduates, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It also affects the distribution of funds to the various institutions within INFN. I am surprised you do not see that…


10. a - September 24, 2008

The big problem will start when 3000 experimentalists will know if the world is supersymmetric and will try to keep it secret and the news will spread privately as “don’t tell that I told”

11. Fred - September 24, 2008

Hello Tommaso,

I sympathize with you for the communication issues you raise between CERN management and the experimentalists working on Atlas or CMS, specifically the ones involving the needs of your groups. Realistically, how many scheduling and budgetary proposals would have been approved if emergency clauses were written into the contracts guaranteeing the full-term stability of the designated groups within the participating organizations? As you pointed out, there are other projects that enjoy greater support. Given the current world financial and political climate, it appears that the CERN management is acting prudently to increase the odds of its eventual success and perhaps reassuring related campaigns in the future of receiving solid considerations. Your 2 statements say it in a nutshell:

“Information runs around the world so fast…”

“CERN appears a bit up-tight about the latest events…”

I don’t blame them. We, on the outside, know very little about LHC and much less about the intricacies of the endeavor. i.e. “The black holes are coming!” A few misunderstood or misstated comments could undermine the public’s confidence. Unfortunately, somebody has to play it close to the vest and the only one capable at this point in time is the very management that ideally should be more transparent to its immediate family. The bad: participating groups like yours will suffer immediately. The good: 1. Management is projecting an intense focus on resolving the current situation in a logical fashion while still maintaining a peripheral vision towards accomplishing the mission. 2. Your management skills are also being put to the test. Thanks, once again, for making me realize that I live a life of relative ease compared to those involved in serious scientific matters.

12. dorigo - September 24, 2008

Hi Fred,

sure, I think you do have a point. But it still feels like the CERN management feels the experiments are “their own”. Instead, a very different attitude exists at Fermilab, which was originally thought as a facility providing tools for users, and it has maintained that spirit. At Fermilab, a beam incident or a magnet quench are reported promptly, and no bloody mystery is made of the thing, at least not with the people working for the experiments.

But I do understand the rationale behind all this. Only, I hope this way of handling difficulties will change gradually as we stop being in the spotlights. CERN wanted those spotlights badly, now they have them, so part of the fault is there.


13. dorigo - September 24, 2008

Ciao A,

well, of course if we find Susy it will be impossible to keep it secret. And the world must know, if you care for my opinion. I could not care less for the rights of the lucky son of a bitch who gets there a minute before all the rest of us. He or she would not be the one disclosing to the world the news: it would be public well before. And not because of me, who have a blog and do things in public, and sometimes am accused for what I do en plain air, but because of the many who talk at dinners and parties and get togethers and coffees.


14. Roberto - September 24, 2008

Tommaso, this time I partly disagree with you.

As others have pointed out, with all the media hype that had been raised and still continues about LHC, CERN management have to play it carefully. Up to now I have the impression they had made public pretty rapidly the maximum amount of information they could (without risking to contradict it later). I can share your frustration at not knowing much more than any outsider. Maybe more so, since I am a member of the accelerator sector (even if I’m not directly involved in LHC activity). Yet, this can be seen the other way round (the general public being for once treated on an equal footing as the “experts”). I had a few discussions with colleagues involved, and I had the impression there was nothing relevant being hidden. You would like to know more about “the extent of the damage, the plan for recovery, the activities planned”. From what I know these evaluations are being worked out, and some time will be needed to know with certainty the reasons of what happened and expecially what will be the consequences. Until then, I expect that the CERN management will release only the information they’re sure about. As I expect them to be fully open once the plan for recovery is finalized. I’ll be extremely disappointed otherwise.

Another consideration: when you mention “not running smoothly for a couple of years” as a failure, either you’re making a strong understatement, and really mean “basically not running at all”, or you’re defining as failures practically every particle accelerator built until now. A couple of years are a very reasonable time to reach routine running conditions at the nominal parameters. And stops are frequent during the first period.

Finally, for once I agree completely with what Goffredo wrote. With every single word, in fact (including the misspelt one). Should I start to worry? 🙂

15. Tony Smith - September 24, 2008

Tom O’Bulls said, about physics collaboration secrecy:
“… it is obvious that they have something to hide … I didn’t believe this at first. Now, I am not so sure …”.

The abuse of secrecy (proprietary trade secrets and other intellectual property, Non-Disclosure Agreements, sealed legal proceedings, etc) in the world as a whole leads people to have the kind of doubts expressed by Tom O’Bulls.

For example,
one of the clearest explanations of the subprime mortgage/derivative mess is a pdf slide show/cartoon floating around on the web since February 2008 entitled “The Subprime Primer”.
On slide 26, a Really Smart Guy Banker says:
“… it is vitally important to the health of the U.S. financial system that investors not know about these complex transactions and what is behind them …”.
Of course,
had the investors been informed, the mess might not have happened,
and the element of secrecy was key to creating the mess (and also huge profits and bonuses for the Really Smart Guy Bankers).

Therefore, if collaborations are interested in having a positive public image (for funding etc) they should realize,
now that USA taxpayers are being asked to pay trillions of dollars in bailout proposals,
that the public will be very sensitive to claims of secrecy based on “Trust Us, we are the Really Smart Experts”,
in my opinion the quicker the collaborations adopt a policy of totally open information,
the better their ultimate fate will be.

Tony Smith

PS – If you want to see “The Subprime Primer” pdf file (with an updated/modified ending by me), it is on the web at

16. goffredo - September 25, 2008

don’t worry, be happy!

17. chimpanzee - September 25, 2008

“In order to Push the Limits, sometimes you have to EXCEED THE LIMITS”
— commentator, Formula 1 Australian GP (2003)

CERN/LHC is like a Formula 1 car, the most state-of-the-art in Technology. Everything is pushed to the limits (edge of performance envelope), F1 cars are termed “knife edge cars”..very unstable & twitchy. Incredible acceleration & braking ability, the chance for fatal crashes exists. Offroad version here.

CERN/LHC will work it out.

Tesla Motors had a similar engineering snafu with their Roadster EV/Electric Vehicle last year (Durability/Reliability issue with the 2-speed transmission), neither Xtrac or Magna could come up with a tranny that lasted beyond 2K miles. Turns out the new frontier of EV (AC Induction motors come on instantly, instantaneous torque-curve), thus putting huge stressloads on the transmission. The lack of a R&D program, contributed to this. The US Govt/Industry didn’t have Cooperative/Collaborative R&D Infrastructure to deal with these engineering challenges. Germany & Japan DO have such infrastructures in place. Germany started the Fraunhofer Inst (after WWII to jumpstart German Industry), which is designed to pro-actively search/solve challenging engineering probs before they are encountered in Industry. Maybe, this could be an underlying problem with CERN/LHC: an infrastructure problem in not fully executing a validation/engineering prototype for the magnets.

So, the lack of Perspective (cutting/bleeding edge research) allows ignoramuses (armchair amateur layman scientists & science-challenged journalists) to concoct all sorts of off-base articles.

“You can’t fix STUPID!”

18. anomalous cowherd - September 25, 2008

Prof. Dorigo
From what I learned over pizza with ATLAS colleagues last nignt, one of whom had attended the LHCC open meeting yesterday morning, Lynn Evans spent a third of his talk discussing what (little) is presently known about the 3-4 quench, and what they might have to do to recover. He also said that the plans for commissioning, and scheduling the turn-on next spring, were the subject of ongoing discussion with the experimental collaborations. For details you should see if you can get notes of Evans’ remarks from one of your CMS colleagues who attended the LHCC meeting [the transparencies on the web were clearly prepared last week before the quench]; I am only reporting what I heard second hand and after some decent Chianti….
I think that it’s notable that first, discussions of the recovery plan are already taking place between the accelerator division and management of the experiments involved, and second that Evans was willing to discuss what is known about the quench, and its effects, at the open LHCC meeting in front of 400 CERN scientific users.

19. dorigo - September 25, 2008

Hi Roberto,

I do understand your points, however if I compare the situation to that of the Tevatron Run II startup I cannot avoid noticing that CERN is much less inclined to discuss the present status of things with the experimentalists running the detectors -at least at a global level- than Fermilab was. Sure, the media pressure is a factor. Less so, I think, funding issues, which are much more safe at CERN than at Fermilab. All in all, since the media pressure was something CERN called upon itself, I think there is something not going in the right direction here.

As for smooth running, of course it means different things for the public and for an insider. What I meant was two years of solid data taking, which in turn implies maybe 60% of live time, which allows for beam studies, small incidents, and the like. Of course, the cryogenics of LHC are a concern wrt other machines, given the long temperature cycles.


20. dorigo - September 25, 2008

… and just to clarify – the two years are not meant as 24 straight months – they of course depend on the general scheduling, i.e. in 2009 we had 6 months of running scheduled. That is understood and not in question. I mean to say, that if LHC is unable to exploit the CMS and Atlas detectors by providing at the very least two years of data taking, it is unavoidably going to be deemed a failure -unless, but I do not believe that, SUSY is found early on.


21. dorigo - September 25, 2008

Hi Tony,

good point. Of course, when secrecy is employed, there is something to hide. What is worse, when secrecy is in plain view, people grow suspicious. That is why in the financial market secrecy is itself hidden. Here I think we run the risk that by showing up-tightness, we leave the ground open to speculations. Now, Aymar appears well aware of that, since he is making one press release after another. However, if the general public is happy with press releases, not so much can be said of the users of the lhc – the CMS and Atlas collaborations, plus the others. If we experimentalists are left with the chance to speculate, it is no use telling us we shouldn’t. And the situation is not nice, since we need to make predictions if we want to best organize the work of our groups. So, in a sense, we _have_ to speculate. That is bad.


22. dorigo - September 25, 2008

Hi Chimpanzee,

sure, LHC will be fixed, and it will provide unprecedented results. I have few doubts about that. How we achieve that, that’s a matter of style, though. I do not like the style currently employed – but I am still confident things will change as we grow less paranoid about the success of this endeavour.


23. dorigo - September 25, 2008

Hi anomalous,

I also heard a report about the open presentation at LHCC. The figure you quote about the fraction of time spent discussing the quenches must be an overestimate, since I got a totally different view. However, I acknowledge that the LHCC presentation was a step in the right direction. Still, no slides about the incident – and please don’t give me the crap that they were prepared beforehand. Nobody these days prepares slides more than a day before any meeting, especially ones discussing the present status of things.


24. mot from around - December 12, 2008

The bottom line is that your simplistic earth science has no freaking clue what could possibly happen. haha….I can’t wait to see the fun potential here

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