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The say of the week March 30, 2009

Posted by dorigo in games, humor.
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“I read in the newspapers they are going to have 30 minutes of intellectual stuff on television every Monday from 7:30 to 8. to educate America. They couldn’t educate America if they started at 6:30.”


The say of the week March 19, 2009

Posted by dorigo in games, humor, internet, italian blogs, physics, science.
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Questi c’hanno sistematici che fanno provincia

[These fellas have got county-wide systematics]

(Xisy, from a comment in M.Dal Mastro’s blog)

The say of the week March 3, 2009

Posted by dorigo in games, humor, literature.
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A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”


Think as an experimental particle physicist: results! February 27, 2009

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I know you are impatient, and the weekend is coming, so while I still hope more of you will leave their results in the comments thread, I give below the key to compute the score of the two-part test I offered in the two previous posts. Each answer has from zero to three of the following symbols: E,T,S,C,D. Just sum each category for now:


Think like an experimental particle physicist – second (and last) part February 27, 2009

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While putting together the scores to evaluate the answers to the 11 questions of the previous post, I realized that they are not enough for a fair classification. So here are a few more quizzes for those of you who found my effort worth paying back with five more minutes of your time.

  • K) You are found in the library of your Department. Why was that ?
  1. Why, I had an hour to kill…
  2. I am just checking out the new librarian (he/she’s cute).
  3. They told me there are coupons to cut away for free radioactive samples on this month’s issue of Physics Today.
  4. They threatened to expel me if I did not bring back the overdue copy of DH. Perkins’ book.
  • L) How much is 87 times 945 ?
  1. About 80 thousand.
  2. About 82 thousand.
  3. I left my pocket calculator in the office upstairs.
  4. (after a minute)  82,215  (ignore my fast breathing).
  5. 82 215 (mind the space -I take pride in following AIP style rules!).
  6. More or less 10^5.
  • M) The mean-looking airport cop finds an electronic board wrapped in a sweater in your carry-on.
  1. You go back to the check-in counter: you came early on purpose.
  2. You try to explain it is innocuous HEP hardware.
  3. You manage to power it up by fiddling with the laptop power cord to show the two-digit LCD mounted on it does come alive.
  4. You start arguing that the sign with red crosses on lighters, firearms and batteries mentions nothing even vaguely resembling a CAMAC module.
  5. You let them dump it, too bad for science -and whoever uses CAMAC nowadays, after all.
  • N) Your paper draft receives really nasty comments from your collaborators
  1. You write down the names of the bad guys on your small red booklet in the bottom drawer – their time in front of the muzzle will come one day!
  2. You answer in kinds on a rage, with carbon-copy to the spokespersons, making a fool of yourself.
  3. You answer as politely as you can in a very detailed manner, cursing yourself softly while you feel like you’ve bent over.
  4. You decide the paper really is not worth that much and forget about it for a month or two.
  • O) After your presentation is over,  the session convener asks a tough question and you do not even know what he or she is talking about.
  1. You say you do not know the answer and display your best smile, hiding the sweating.
  2. You repeatedly pretend you did not understand the sentence until he or she decides it’s time to move on.
  3. You think it wasn’t such a good idea to grab that last-minute chance for a plenary talk.
  4. You go to a random back-up slide and discuss it in detail for five minutes, trying to look meaningful.
  • P) A science reporter calls and asks you information on the  hunt for supersymmetry.
  1. You feel flattered, get carried away, and end up disclosing reserved information from your experiment.
  2. You direct him or her to the experiment spokespersons.
  3. You pretend you’re the switchboard operator.
  4. You ask what magazine is that for, and after hearing it’s “New Scientist” you hang up.
  • Q) They sent you a paper to be reviewed. It sucks big time.
  1. Feeling true to your duties, you implacably point out each and every imperfection with rigor and an occasional bit of sadism.
  2. You reckon nobody’s going to read the paper anyway, so you send back two lines saying the paper looks ok but would they please use AIP style rules ?
  3. You are fought between your duties and your compassion for the poor post-doc who did most of the work  to get the paper to your desk, and try to balance the two things, ending up screwing both -the author feels raped and the paper does not get any better from your review.
  4. You would never accept to get into an editorial board, it’s just such a waste of research time.
  • R) You are on owl shift and your colleagues are out of the room for coffee and cookies, when every screen turns red, alarms sound, and an ominous-looking warning sign start flashing on the silicon cooling contol panel.
  1. You run to the silicon crash button and press it.
  2. You silence all alarms and fetch the emergency procedures folder, then start reading it
  3. You rush to call your colleagues.
  4. You sneak out, join your colleagues and serve yourself a coffee, then look over the glass door and mention there appears to be  something flashing inside as if you just noticed it.
  • S) You feel you think like an experimental particle physicist because…
  1. You do not work in HEP, but at least one answer in each of the 19 questions above made a lot of sense to you
  2. You read this blog and you think it really does not take much to be a HEP physicist.
  3. You are a theorist and although you have trouble with practicalities you think experimentalists have similar thinking processes.
  4. You are a scientist from another field and you know how to tie your shoes.
  5. You are a scientist from another field and you wear sandals.
  6. You are sure you do not think like an experimental particle physicist in the least.

Think like an experimental particle physicist! February 26, 2009

Posted by dorigo in games, humor, physics, science.
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In my ongoing effort to convince my readers that experimental high-energy physics is easy and fun, and to make it more appealing to everybody, I am presenting you with a small test, which should measure your ability to think as an experimental particle physicist. These questions  should be enough to sketch your profile as a HEP worker. You are invited to use five minutes of your time to give your answers in the comments thread below. I will provide results in a couple of days.

  • A) You need to insert in your analysis code the width of the Z boson. What do you do ?
  1. you google “Z boson width”
  2. you go to pdg.lbl.gov and download the Z boson table
  3. you dig under a pile of preprints for your copy of the PDG booklet
  4. you write “=1.0; // REVISE: Z boson width!!! ” and leave it to a better day
  • B) What is the muon mass ?
  1. 0.105658367 GeV
  2. 0.105658367 GeV/c^2, silly you
  3. 105.658367 MeV/c^2
  4. 0.1134289256 u
  5. “sqrt(0.01116369);” which is a number you retrieved from an old piece of code
  6. about 100 MeV, give or take a few
  • C) How does the Higgs boson decay to a pair of photons ?
  1. by first splitting into a pair of top quarks
  2. by first splitting into a fermion loop
  3. by first splitting into a pair of W bosons
  4. it cannot, the Higgs is not electrically charged
  • D) A primary cosmic ray with an energy of 10^17 eV hits the atmosphere. It is determined to be a neutron.
  1. it must come from inside our galaxy
  2. it is a Nobel prize winning discovery
  3. it produces a shower like a proton would
  4. all of the above
  5. all of the above except 1.
  6. all of the above except 2.
  • E) A detector is being decommissioned and is being taken apart at a facility near your office.
  1. you wear a surgical mask when you walk by -activated powder might be dangerous
  2. you drop by and try to scavenge a gadget or two
  3. you mail the ex-spokesperson to ask for those yellowed scintillator planes
  • F) The code won’t compile…
  1. you check the error messages carefully
  2. you try it on a different account
  3. you hit the “save” button on your editor again and retry
  4. you go to the coffee machine and ponder
  • G) You are scheduled to talk at a conference, on a topic that is not your own
  1. you start reading material one month before
  2. you start looking for slides on the same topic a week before
  3. you email the authors of the relevant analyses for help four days before
  • H) You are on day shift at your experiment next October. What is your main worry right now ?
  1. Get on par with the latest safety procedures and make sure your training has not expired
  2. Find a substitute for that week for your course of the first semester
  3. Find the cheapest flight early on
  4. Look for entertainment options for all those evenings
  • I) You walk by a colleague’s desk in the evening and find out he’s not logged off his account.
  1. you use his email to send himself a reminder
  2. you log him off
  3. you notify the sys admin
  4. you open his mozilla browser to a porn web page
  5. you go back to your own desk, remembering you did not log off either
  • J) A histogram of the invariant mass of jet pairs  in events containing just two energetic jets shows a compelling peak at 120 GeV.
  1. It’s the higgs!
  2. It is a statistical fluctuation
  3. It is a bug in your code
  4. This was a sample of Z boson decays to electron-positron pairs, and those are electrons corrected as if they were jets
  • K) What does a significance of three sigma mean ? Four sigma ? Five sigma ?
  1. something not so rare; something quite rare; something exceptionally rare.
  2. evidence of some new phenomenon; strong evidence of same; observation of new physics!
  3. evidence of something fishy;  a bug in the code; a horrible bug in the code.

Not a normal country – but maybe an amusing one February 18, 2009

Posted by dorigo in humor, news, politics.
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In the news today: the british lawyer David Mills has been found guilty yesterday of accepting at least 600,000 dollars in 1998 to produce false testimony, in order to help Silvio Berlusconi get acquitted in two separate trials where he was charged for corruption and other frauds -business as usual, for him.

The news is rather curious for two reasons. The first one is technical: in the trial, Mills and Berlusconi were being judged together, but the latter was excluded by virtue of a law, the infamous “lodo Alfano“, which the italian government passed a few months ago, and which prevents the Prime Minister (along with the President of the Republic, and the heads of the two parliament chambers) from being tried during his or her mandate.

Thanks to that ad hoc law, produced by a member of Berlusconi’s party-company, Forza Italia, and passed with urgency through the legislative iter, Silvio Berlusconi evaded a sure embarassment and the probable sentence of guilt for corruption in Mills’ favor. The aftermath of all this is that we now have a person who received money to produce false testimony and save Berlusconi in his two processes, but we cannot try who gave him the money. Note, the sentence says who Mills received money from -Silvio Berlusconi- but the corruptor is left out of the whole business. I find this peculiar.

The other detail is more hilarious -I would say Jonescan. David Mills, besides a 54-month imprisonment, faces the unpleasant charge of having to give 250,000 euros to the italian Premier’s office. That is because the italian State’s Bar, which represented the Premier’s office at the trial, obtained the sum as a reparation. So Mills received money by Berlusconi. He was condemned, Berlusconi got away with it, and now Mills has to go to the italian premier and
say, “Dear italian premier, here is the reparation money -but wait a second, haven’t we met already ?“.

Italy is not a normal country: in a normal country, a prime minister would have resigned from office, having been proven a corruptor. Not in Italy: here, if you get away with your sins, you are considered kind of cool.

But Italy is also a definitely entertaining country: for its politics, and for some of its politicians.

Nobody reads contracts -not you, not them. February 7, 2009

Posted by dorigo in humor, personal.
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While trying to figure out whether I have the right to quit my contract with Vodafone, my phone company, I discovered today a small but hilarious fact.

The contract packs in five letter-format pages enough information to make you sick, with over eighty lines per page, written in tiny fonts. It is physically straining to read it, but I did. The lawyers who edited it for Vodafone did a very careful job: the text drips formulas that disclaim liability, deny responsibility for interruption of service or other damage of all possible kinds, cover the company from attacks of the most improbable kinds.

But they, too, are human beings. I imagine the poor soul who was responsible for the text agonizing over it to make it foulproof. At a certain point, he writes a note for one of his collaborators, in brackets, next to article 5.3:

“Il cliente ha la facoltà di recedere dal Contratto in ogni momento, dandone comunicazione a Vodafone mediante lettera raccomandata con avviso di ricevimento. Il recesso sarà efficace entro 30 (trenta) giorni dalla data di ricezione della lettera raccomandata. (Eviterei di scriverlo. In caso di presenza di corrispettivi infatti il cliente firma condizioni e moduli ad hoc che vanno ad integrare proprio queste previsioni).”

Allow  me to translate only the relevant part:

“… The recess will be effective within 30 (thirty) days from the date of reception of the letter. (I would avoid writing this. In case of presence of fees in fact the client signs conditions and ad-hoc modules that integrate these very predictions).”

I find this amusing. I can only wonder whether the collaborator got away with the mistake of not deleting the note, or whether the mistake was noticed, too late to stop it from reaching my hands or those of the many other clients of Vodafone.

The Say of the Week February 4, 2009

Posted by dorigo in games, humor.
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“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”


Black holes hype does not decay February 3, 2009

Posted by dorigo in astronomy, Blogroll, cosmology, humor, news, physics, politics, religion, science.
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While the creation of black holes in the high-energy proton-proton collisions that LHC will hopefully start providing this fall is not granted, and while the scientific establishment is basically unanimous in claiming that those microscopical entities would anyway decay in a time so short that even top quarks look longevous in comparison, the hype about doomsday being unwittingly delivered by the hands of psychotic, megalomaniac CERN scientists continues unhindered.

Here are a few recent links on the matter (thanks to M.M. for pointing them out):

The source of the renewed fire appears to be a paper published on the arxiv a couple of weeks ago. In it, the authors (R. Casadio, S. Fabi, and B. Harms) discuss a very specific model (a warped brane-world scenario), in whose context microscopic black holes might have a chance to survive for a few seconds.

Never mind the fact that the authors say from the very abstract, as if feeling the impending danger of being strumentalized, “we argue against the possibility of catastrophic black hole growth at the LHC“. This is not the way it should be done: you cannot assume a very specific model, and then draw general conclusions, because others opposing your view may always use the same crooked logic and reverse the conclusions. However, I understand that the authors made a genuine effort to try and figure out what could be the phenomenology of microscopic black holes created in the scenario they considered.

The accretion of a black hole may occur via direct collision with matter and via gravitational interactions with it. For microscopic black holes, however, the latter (called Bondi accretion) is basically negligible. The authors compute the evolution of the mass of the BH as a function of time for different values of a critical mass parameter M_c, which depends on the model and is connected to the characteristic thickness of the brane. They explicitly make two examples: in the first, when M_c=100 kg,  a 10 TeV black hole, created with 5 TeV/c momentum, is shown to decay with a roughly exponential law, but with lifetime much longer -of the order of a picosecond- than that usually assumed for a micro-BH evaporating through Hawking radiation. In the second case, where M_c=10^6 kg, the maximum BH mass is reached at 3.5 \times 10^{21} kg after about one second. Even in this scenario, the capture radius of the object is very small, and the object decays with a lifetime of about 100 seconds. The authors also show that “there is a rather narrow range of parameters […] for which RS black holes produced at the LHC would grow before evaporating“.

In the figure on the right, the 10-base logarithm of the maximum distance traveled by the black hole (expressed in meters) is computed as a function of the 10-base logarithm of the critical mass (expressed in kilograms), for a black hole of 10 TeV mass produced by the LHC with a momentum of 5 TeV/c. As you can see, if the critical mass parameter is large enough, these things would be able to reach you in your bedroom. Scared ? Let’s read their conclusions then.

“[…] Indeed, in order for the black holes created at the LHC to grow at all, the critical mass should be M_c>10^5 kg. This value is rather close to the maximum compatible with experimental test of Newton’s law, that is M_c=10^6 kg (which we further relaxed to M_c=10^8 kg in our analysis). For smaller values of M_c, the black holes cannot accrete fast enough to overcome the decay rate. Furthermore , the larger M_c is taken to be, the longer a black hole takes to reach its maximum value and the less time it remains near its maximum value before exiting the Earth.

We conclude that, for the RS scenario and black holes decribed by the metric [6], the growth of black holes to catastrophic size does not seem possible. Nonetheless, it remains true that the expected decay times are much longer (and possibly >>1 sec) than is typically predicted by other models, as was first shown in [4]”.

Here are some random reactions I collected from the physics arxiv blog -no mention of the author’s names, since they do not deserve it:

  • This is starting to get me nervous.
  • Isn’t the LHC in Europe? As long as it doesn’t suck up the USA, I’m fine with it.
  • It is entirely possible that the obvious steps in scientific discovery may cause intelligent societies to destroy themselves. It would provide a clear resolution to the Fermi paradox.
  • I’m pro science and research, but I’m also pro caution when necessary.
  • That’s what I asked and CERN never replied. My question was: “Is it possible that some of these black might coalesce and form larger black holes? larger black holes would be more powerful than their predecessors and possibly aquire more mass and grow still larger.”
  • The questions is, whether these scientists are competent at all, if they haven’t made such analysis a WELL BEFORE the LHC project ever started.
  • I think this is bad. American officials should do something about this because if scientists do end up destroying the earth with a black hole it won’t matter that they were in Europe, America will get the blame. On the other hand, if we act now to be seen dealing as a responsible member of the international community, then, if the worst happens, we have a good chance of pinning it on the Jews.
  • The more disturbing fact about all this is the billions and billions being spent to satisfy the curiosity of a select group of scientists and philosophers. Whatever the results will yield little real-world benefit outside some incestuous lecture circuit.
  • “If events at the LHC swallow Switzerland, what are we going to do without wrist watches and chocolate?” Don’t worry, we’ll still have Russian watches. they’re much better, faster even.

It goes on, and on, and on. Boy, it is highly entertaining, but unfortunately, I fear this is taking a bad turn for Science. I tend to believe that on this particular issue, no discussion would be better than any discussion -it is like trying to argue with a fanatic about the reality of a statue of the Virgin weeping blood.

… So, why don’t we just shut up on this particular matter ?

Hmm, if I post this, I would be going against my own suggestion. Damned either way.