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Where the heart beats October 16, 2008

Posted by dorigo in personal, physics, science.
Tags: , , , , ,

The picture above made the headlines today in repubblica.it, one of the news sites I read most often. It shows a little mouse, originally intended as a meal supplied to a viper, managing to invert the food chain, killing the monster. I am stating the obvious when I say we usually rejoice when we see something like that happening: we always root for the weak against the strong, especially if we feel weak ourselves -and don’t we all, in some respect ?

The picture had me thinking about the competition between the Tevatron and LHC particle accelerators. Since the LHC has not produced a single proton-proton collision in the core of the CMS and Atlas detectors yet, while the Tevatron has supplied CDF and D0 with an enormous amount of collisions which are fruiting scores of groundbreaking physical results, the two machines might be argued to not be competing yet. But that would be a myopic assessment, on several levels.

  • There is competition for the funding of experiments. Lab directors, experiment heads, and faculty members are very sensitive to this issue of course, since it affects their chances of leadership and power. Funds to particle physics experiments are getting cut these days, and the many experiments have to fight against each other to keep their budget plans intact. The LHC has been competing for funding with the rest of the HEP facilities since the start of its construction, or arguably even before then.
  • Then there is of course the fight for a place under the media spotlights. It is a level of competition tightly connected with the funding one, but it has some additional branches, since the media attention can be an important fuel to boost the career of scientists. The recent media hype for the startup of LHC on September 10 was a masterful organization by CERN general director Aymar, and the following incident with the magnets in sector 34 was troublesome to CERN as much for its media impact as it was for the lab schedule. Of course, at the Tevatron and elsewhere many met the global interest for LHC in the former occasion with ill-concealed jealousy, and the latter with more evident satisfaction.
  • A third level of competition, in turn somewhat connected to the second, has its ground on the scientific conferences around the world which are now scheduled every second week. Presenting scientific results at conferences is a very important item in the construction of a strong curriculum, and some talks increase the prestige of the speakers. The Tevatron has had a large share of talks allotted at all the major conferences in the recent past, due to the mass of new results it produced; but Atlas and CMS have started being allotted several talks already, which will be used to discuss “Monte Carlo analyses” rather than results on real data. Still, this causes a compression of the benefits of the Fermilab scientists.
  • And then there is the fight for the Higgs. The Tevatron experiments are still caressing hopes to find the Higgs boson before LHC does, and are thus squeezing their brains to improve the already excellent analyses they have been producing. This year, for the first time, a direct limit on the Higgs boson mass has been set by CDF and D0 in a joint effort. Although the limit is not stringent yet (a single mass value has been excluded, 170 GeV), the two experiments are working to wipe off the board the whole high-mass region, where the LHC would have no trouble in finding a significant signal with one year worth of data. If the Higgs is proven to be lighter than 130 GeV or so, the fight between the two sides of the Atlantic is promised to become red-hot in the next two-three years, depending on whether the Tevatron gets funded to run for the fiscal year 2010.
  • Finally, there might be new physics out there, and it might still be at reach of the Tevatron. The six-months delay of the LHC data taking is making this race even more interesting, especially since CDF and D0 are reaching a level of sensitivity in the SUSY parameter space that might enable them to discover new physics before LHC.

So, as you see, there is competition in HEP between LHC and the Tevatron even if the former has not begun taking data yet. The mouse of the picture above, in my mind, is the Tevatron biting the LHC’s throat, turning the tables when everybody expects the latter to entertain itself with a quiet meal. This is still possible. If CDF or D0 discovered SUSY, such an event would be a defeat of incredible proportions for CERN, echoing the disasters of the sixties and the seventies, when the US were banqueting lavishly with new discoveries, barely leaving bread crumbs for Europe.

And where do you stand“, you might well ask, since I am working for both CMS at CERN and CDF at the Tevatron ? Well, I am slightly embarassed to answer, but I must say that until CDF closes down, my heart beats for it. The first love is the one you never forget, and to that piece of rethorics today I can add the image of the little mouse. Curious feeling: I am spending 80% of my research time doing my best to help make CMS a success, but I still caress some hope that it will, at least to some extent, fail to the hands of my former love. If you think that is despicable, please consider: what is important is not who gets a Nobel prize here. It is a win-win situation for whom, like me and most of you, only cares for the advancement of science. CMS, Atlas, CDF, D0: who cares ? All I care is to find out the truth!


1. DB - October 16, 2008

I think the writing is on the wall for the Tevatron and Fermilab. Conversion to a “user facility” post 2010, effectively marking the US exit from frontier HEP research. It’s a real shame, but if there was any chance of a rescue before now, I think the disastrous outlook for the US economy will put an end to that.

2. goffredo - October 16, 2008

The US exiting frontier HEP? Yes and no. I fear the problem is bigger.

HEP US physicists are still alive and kicking and are involved in many ways in LHC experiments. Regards having a machine on US soil, it would take a decade to build a new machine anyway. And lets face it: accelerator based HEP is doomed unless some major breakthru happens in accelerator technology. And even in economically sound times it is dubious that a wise government would finance a national machine that would take a decade if not more to build.

I do hope the next president of the US keeps money trickling into into research for new accelerator technology. But I especially hope for funds for new satellite-based astrophysics research. A new generation of graduate students, post-docs and sorts can grow by designing, building and reaping wonderful discoveries. Accelerator technology research should be funded too and it is great stuff for the knowledgable but it is, none the less, instrumental; i.e. it serves a greater purpose, that of allowing HEP physicists to do high energy high luminosity esperiments to probe rare states of matter. But, as I mentioned, this quest is harder to justify even in an economically healthy society because of the time scale involved. Indeed I do think the LHC is for the last of its type as times have changed. I am not refering to this economic disaster. I am refering to the fact that we live in a pluralistic society and there is no longer a consensus on science. Once upon a time large funding were made available because big science like HEP was percieved by politicians as a prestigous thing to do and they could boast. Now politicians are rightfully worried about what their voters think not only in terms of how they sort priorities but also on how they percieve science (ethics). There simply is no consensus and there never will be unless there is a return to authoritarian politics. I personally do not want an return to authoitarian politics that autonomously decides what is prestigous and what isn’t. The only hope in a pluralistic society is to hope for a constant flow of scientific discoveries to keep people and politicians interested and not alienate them to inevitable hostility. A long very term project can justified if there are alive other interesting sources of science too. And lets also keep in mind that HEP science, be it accelerator based or satellite based, does not exhaust interesting science.

McCain wants to freeze all funding to new projects. Obama wants to save the world and will have his hands full funding other more urgent matters. In any case we all have to keep our fingers crossed. But if there is a major economic halt for a few years then we will all have to keep food on the table and people basically employed while interesting science and especially large scale HEP will be put on the back burner until better times. But the europeans are not that better off. Lets all keep in mind that it is not only irrational but unethical to think that the LHC army of physicist, engineers, technicians, managers, administration personel are untouchable simply because they are after the God particle.

3. Luboš Motl - October 16, 2008

See a whole video of a bunny vs. snake fight. Amazing.

I don’t know which one is CERN and which one is Fermilab, though. 😉

4. changcho - October 16, 2008

Well, the Tevatron has a few-months window of opportunity before LHC starts again. Let’s see what it can do!

5. DB - October 16, 2008


I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. When big science gets too big, that in itself is an argument for pursuing new paths. By US exiting frontier HEP research I meant in the context of terrestrial facilities on US soil. I agree that the US is ideally placed to pursue non-terrestrial HEP research. And frankly, the most interesting results in recent years have come from the terrestrial neutrino observatories of Sudbury and Kamiokande, pace CDF and the Tevatron. And the new Antartic muon observatory, ICECUBE, a collaboration led by the US holds considerable promise.

In any event, the recent award of three Nobel prizes to physicists of Japanese ethnicity has led the Japanese government to declare its intention to build the ILC on its soil. I’m sceptical, but you never know.

6. goffredo - October 17, 2008

Japan is a great place. If I were younger I would go with my family.

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