Archive for CERN

The Case for Irish Membership of CERN

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 16, 2019 by telescoper

In the news here in Ireland this week is a new report from a Committee of the Houses of the Oireachtas making the case for Ireland to join CERN. You can download the report here (PDF) and you’ll find this rather striking graphic therein:

You will see that there are only three European countries that don’t have any form of membership or other agreement with CERN: Latvia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ireland. The fact that almost everyone else is in is not in itself necessarily a good argument for Ireland to join, but it does make one wonder why so many other countries have found it to join or have an agreement with CERN while Ireland has not.

As the document explains, if the Irish government  were to decide to take Ireland into CERN then  it would first have to become an Associate Member, which would cost around €1.2 million per year. That’s small potatoes really, and  the financial returns to Irish industry and universities are likely to far exceed that, so the report strongly recommends this step be taken. This Associate member stage would last up to 5 years, and then to acquire full membership a joining fee of around €15.6 million would have to be paid, which is obviously a much greater commitment but in my view still worthwhile.

While I strongly support the idea of Ireland joining CERN I do have a couple of concerns.

One is that I’m very sad that the actual science done at CERN is downplayed in the Oireachtas report. Most of it is about return to industry, training opportunities, etc. These are important, of course, but it must not be forgotten that big science projects like those carried out at CERN are above all else science projects. The quest for knowledge does have collateral benefits, but it a worthy activity in its own right and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.

My other (related) concern is that joining CERN is one thing, but in order to reap the scientific reward the government has to invest in the resources needed to exploit the access to facilities membership would provide. Without a related increase in research grant funding for basic science the opportunity to raise the level of scientific activity in Ireland would be lost.

Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a decision which gave Irish astronomers access to some amazing telescopes. However, there is no sign at all of Irish funding agencies responding to this opportunity by increasing funding for academic time, postdocs and graduate students needed to do the actual science.

Although astronomy is clearly much more interesting than particle physics (😉) in one respect the case of ESO is very like the case of CERN – the facilities do not themselves do the science. We need people to do that.

The Strumia Affair

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 3, 2018 by telescoper

I’m very late to this story as it broke over the weekend when I was preoccupied with many things, but it has triggered quite a reaction in the media (including here in Ireland). The story involves a physicist by the name of Alessandro Strumia who works at the University of Pisa in Italy. This person used the opportunity provided by a Conference on Theory and Gender to deliver a talk that contained highly inflammatory comments about gender and physics ability.

As a service to the community I’ve uploaded the slides for Strumia’s talk to Slideshare so you can read them here if you’re interested in his argument:

There are detailed discussions of Strumia’s talk by fellow bloggers Philip Moriarty here and Jon Butterworth here. Between them they cover most of what I’d say on the topic if I had time so I’ll direct you to them rather than repeat the arguments here. There are a host of other reaction pieces elsewhere, and I won’t attempt to summarize them either. Suffice to say that the old argument that `women are intrinsically not as good at physics as men’ has been refuted many times using solid empirical evidence; see the above post by Philip. It’s no wonder, though, that women get put off doing physics, when there are people like Alessandro Strumia in the field and potentially responsible for evaluating the performance of female staff.

What I will do add is that, for someone who purports to be a scientist, Strumia’s use of evidence is shockingly unscientific. His argument is riddled with non sequitur, unjustified assumptions and formulaic prejudice. Apart from everything else I think this is symptomatic of a malaise that is a widespread affliction in the field theoretical physics nowadays, which is worst among string theorists (which Strumia is not), namely a lack of basic understanding of, or even interest in, the proper application of scientific method.

A Bump at the Large Hadron Collider

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 16, 2015 by telescoper

Very busy, so just a quickie today. Yesterday the good folk at the Large Hadron Collider announced their latest batch of results. You can find the complete set from the CMS experiment here and from ATLAS here.

The result that everyone is talking about is shown in the following graph, which shows the number of diphoton events as a function of energy:

Atlas_Bump

Attention is focussing on the apparent “bump” at around 750 GeV; you can find an expert summary by a proper particle physicist here and another one here.

It is claimed that the “significance level” of this “detection” is 3.6σ. I won’t comment on that precise statement partly because it depends on the background signal being well understood but mainly because I don’t think this is the right language in which to express such a result in the first place. Experimental particle physicists do seem to be averse to doing proper Bayesian analyses of their data.

However if you take the claim in the way such things are usually presented it is roughly equivalent to a statement that the odds against this being a real detection are greater that 6000:1. If any particle physicists out there are willing to wager £6000 for £1 of mine that this result will be confirmed by future measurements then I’d happily take them up on that bet!

P.S. Entirely predictably there are 10 theory papers on today’s ArXiv offering explanations of the alleged bump, none of which says that it’s a noise feature..

 

 

An Open Letter to the Times Higher World University Rankers

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2015 by telescoper

Dear Rankers,

Having perused your latest set of league tables along with the published methodology, a couple of things puzzle me.

First, I note that you have made significant changes to your methodology for combining metrics this year. How, then, can you justify making statements such as

US continues to lose its grip as institutions in Europe up their game

when it appears that any changes could well be explained not by changes in performance, as gauged by the metrics you use,  but in the way they are combined?

I assume, as intelligent and responsible people, that you did the obvious test for this effect, i.e. to construct a parallel set of league tables, with this year’s input data but last year’s methodology, which would make it easy to isolate changes in methodology from changes in the performance indicators.  Your failure to publish such a set, to illustrate how seriously your readers should take statements such as that quoted above, must then simply have been an oversight. Had you deliberately witheld evidence of the unreliability of your conclusions you would have left yourselves open to an accusation of gross dishonesty, which I am sure would be unfair.

Happily, however, there is a very easy way to allay the fears of the global university community that the world rankings are being manipulated: all you need to do is publish a set of league tables using the 2014 methodology and the 2015 data. Any difference between this table and the one you published would then simply be an artefact and the new ranking can be ignored. I’m sure you are as anxious as anyone else to prove that the changes this year are not simply artificially-induced “churn”, and I look forward to seeing the results of this straightforward calculation published in the Times Higher as soon as possible.

Second, I notice that one of the changes to your methodology is explained thus

This year we have removed the very small number of papers (649) with more than 1,000 authors from the citations indicator.

You are presumably aware that this primarily affects papers relating to experimental particle physics, which is mostly conducted through large international collaborations (chiefly, but not exclusively, based at CERN). This change at a stroke renders such fundamental scientific breakthroughs as the discovery of the Higgs Boson completely worthless. This is a strange thing to do because this is exactly the type of research that inspires  prospective students to study physics, as well as being direct measures in themselves of the global standing of a University.

My current institution, the University of Sussex, is heavily involved in experiments at CERN. For example, Dr Iacopo Vivarelli has just been appointed coordinator of all supersymmetry searches using the ATLAS experiment on the Large Hadron Collider. This involvement demonstrates the international standing of our excellent Experimental Particle Physics group, but if evidence of supersymmetry is found at the LHC your methodology will simply ignore it. A similar fate will also befall any experiment that requires large international collaborations: searches for dark matter, dark energy, and gravitational waves to name but three, all exciting and inspiring scientific adventures that you regard as unworthy of any recognition at all but which draw students in large numbers into participating departments.

Your decision to downgrade collaborative research to zero is not only strange but also extremely dangerous, for it tells university managers that participating in world-leading collaborative research will jeopardise their rankings. How can you justify such a deliberate and premeditated attack on collaborative science? Surely it is exactly the sort of thing you should be rewarding? Physics departments not participating in such research are the ones that should be downgraded!

Your answer might be that excluding “superpapers” only damages the rankings of smaller universities because might owe a larger fraction of their total citation count to collaborative work. Well, so what if this is true? It’s not a reason for excluding them. Perhaps small universities are better anyway, especially when they emphasize small group teaching and provide opportunities for students to engage in learning that’s led by cutting-edge research. Or perhaps you have decided otherwise and have changed your methodology to confirm your prejudice…

I look forward to seeing your answers to the above questions through the comments box or elsewhere – though you have ignored my several attempts to raise these questions via social media. I also look forward to seeing you correct your error of omission by demonstrating – by the means described above – what  changes in league table positions are by your design rather than any change in performance. If it turns out that the former is the case, as I think it will, at least your own journal provides you with a platform from which you can apologize to the global academic community for wasting their time.

Yours sincerely,

Telescoper

The Origin of CERN

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 30, 2014 by telescoper

Since  CERN, the Geneva home of the Large Hadron Collider, is currently celebrating its 60th Anniversary, I thought I would use this organ to correct a widespread misapprehension concerning the the true historical origin of that organization. I have to say the general misunderstanding of the background to CERN is not helped by the information produced locally which insists that CERN is an acronym for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire and that it came into being in 1954. This may be the date at which the Geneva operation commenced, but the organization has a far older origin than that.

CERN is in fact named after the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas, most famous for a prehistoric hill figure called the Cerne Abbas Giant. The following aerial photograph of this outstanding local landmark proves that the inhabitants of Dorset had the idea of erecting a large hardon facility hundreds of years ago…

Physics Nobel Betting

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 7, 2013 by telescoper

I’m back in circulation just in time for tomorrow’s announcement of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics. The smart money is going on an award for the discovery of the Higgs Boson, but to whom should it be awarded. Today’s Grauniad summarizes the difficulties thus:

The committee can contrive the wording of the prize to narrow the number downwards and this is likely to happen. The prize could go to François Englert, who published the idea first, and Peter Higgs, who was second, but crucially was first to flag up the new particle. But that would rebuff the trio of Gerald Guralnik, Carl Richard Hagen and Tom Kibble, who developed the theory separately and published just a month after Higgs. The possibility has already caused acrimony among the scientists. Guralnik and Hagen, two US researchers, believe European physicists have conspired to erase their contribution from history.

This doesn’t seem to me to be entirely accurate, though. As far as I understand it, Higgs was the only one of the names above to mention a massive scalar particle, There is, I believe, therefore a strong case that the Nobel Prize should be awarded to Peter Higgs outright. Or if not to him, to some other person called Peter who was born in the North East…

However, I am used to being in a minority of one so there will undoubtedly be many others who feel differently.  Time for a poll! This one is different from my usual ones, in that you are allowed to vote more than once. Please use up to three votes: if you think Peter Higgs should win it outright vote three times for him. If you think it should be a three way split then vote for three different people, etc.

I should say that I don’t think the Nobel Committee for Physics is allowed to make an award to an institution such as CERN, but I’ve left that option in to see whether folks think that tradition should change..

UPDATE: Here are the Thomson-Reuters predictions, including Marcy, Mayor and Queloz for Extra Solar Planets…

 

LHC Lights up NBI

Posted in Art, Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 16, 2012 by telescoper

Well, first things first. Congratulations to Dr Sabir Ramazanov on his successful thesis defence today! I’ll perhaps write a bit more about the process in due course.

After the formalities were concluded, however, the committee took a breath of fresh air outside the Niels Bohr Institute where, in the fading November twilight, we were treated to a peculiar light show; a set of small spotlights on the front wall of the NBI building is hooked up directly to the ATLAS experiment on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN so that every time an event registers in Geneva it is displayed almost immediately in public here in Copenhagen. Quite appropriate for a place so steeped in physics history. The resolution of the particle tracks is of course not marvellous, but it’s actually quite a remarkable thing to see, although not all that easy to catch it on camera, especially if you’ve had a couple of glasses of wine!