This is Not a Drill

See also Chapter 3.2 of Smashing Physics.

I haven’t been paying as much attention as I should to science policy in the election. Guilty, will re-engage. I have a good excuse, of course. Even after STFC cuts we’re still members of CERN, the LHC is running, and (volcanoes permitting) I am traveling, working and basically doing physics. And it’s exciting and absorbing.

The wires of the ZEUS tracking chamber (credit T.J.Fraser)

Typical scientist. We just get the data and get happy. In STFC related politicking, I’ve heard our big mistake was that in economic good times, when science was getting roughly its share of the growth (and particle physics was getting somewhat less, but not being cut), we just shut up and got on with science.

It’s fair to say we should have said thanks (Thanks!), but this argument was that we should have been aggressively pushing for more & more cash, just so there was more fat to cut when bad times came. This shows a gulf in understanding between the worlds of science and politics, sadly.

Research is about finding good questions to ask, then answering them. Good questions which can actually be addressed don’t come along often, and the capacity to identify and answer them is grown slowly – you can’t just go out and double the size of a good research group overnight. There are some big, expensive things we could do if we had the money, but it would not take us long to run out of the skilled people to deliver them. This is something politicians often fail to grasp.

Scientists, on the other hand, mostly want to do science, and many of us only get noisy and politicised when our capacity to do science is threatened. As well as being a huge tactical mistake, this is an insult to the interested and intelligent lay public who foot the bill and deserve to hear what we are up to. It is also a recipe for political and social disaster – public life needs science, and scientists who engage consistently. (See for example the application of evidence-based thought to libel and quacks.)

Oh, the temptation of real data though! We drill on simulations for so long, and it helps, but it can’t fully prepare you.

Part of my PhD was writing an emulation (in FORTRAN 77) of code running on a network of transputers. This was part of the “trigger” system built to select data from electron-proton collisions in ZEUS. I had two years checking that code to death. Transputers were stupid little processors on a real-time network – massively parallel computing, very cutting edge for 1990 and very hard to debug. The idea was to feed simulated data into both the real transputer network and my FORTRAN, and check we got identical results. It worked great.

Join the dots. Charged particle tracks from an electron-proton collision in ZEUS. (Dots which are not on tracks are “mirrors” of real hits because we measure distance from the wires but not direction.)

Then we got our first real data. And the transputers and the FORTRAN produced nonsense. It was not a good moment. All that careful preparation, and we couldn’t make head or tail of the real data. The only glimmer of hope was that the FORTRAN and the transputers were producing identical nonsense, so I could use the FORTRAN to investigate. A few stressful hours later, I had it. The detector had hundreds of little cells, each with 8 wires (numbered 1-8), and each wire received an electrical pulse if a charged particle passed nearby. In the simulated data, the pulse came out in order of wire number. In the real data they (facepalm!) came out in order of arrival time, which depended on where the particle was! Once we took this into account, all the crazy numbers lined up again. It was a minor epiphany – order out of chaos by thinking about it!

A good example of why simulation is good preparation, and why it is never enough. I ranted this story to my PhD student (hello!) over a beer in the CERN canteen last week. At the LHC we already had some of these little surprises, we need to watch for more. And for the big surprises too.

And perhaps in the election as well. Mmmm. This also is not a drill. I wonder if we can join the dots?

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About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics Prof working on LHC, dad, dodgy guitarist, Man City fan in exile.
This entry was posted in Particle Physics, Physics, Politics, Science, Science Policy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to This is Not a Drill

  1. Paul Wolborsky says:

    Good debugging under high stress. There seems a fundamental disconnect between the orderly process of creating the code and the chaos of the environment it goes live in. But what else can you do? The best tool for capturing complexity is with a modular infrastructure of simple components that fire and trigger in complex ways.

    You did that, and that’s why it took you only a few hours to fix it and not… gulp, shut down the entire system for a month. ;>

  2. Paul Wolborsky says:

    Another comment, I forgot about the Politics. You need to write more about it, and people need to appear on stage who can counter the Politicians and deniers. Scientists who can build political support and influence in favor of science, and Scientists who can enroll the public in the noble, awesome, even heroic grapples with the big questions.

    The public is very largely ignorant of science, what it means, what it entails, and worse, hold a stereotypical view of what scientists are. It’s unbelievably powerful to see scientists donning wetsuits and diving 200′ below the surface; or to see incredibly fit scientists scaling rock walls to take samples. And Prof. Brian Cox youthful face and enthusiasm goes a long way to inspiring wonder and excitement. Potent antidote to the poisons Deniers spread.

    In this country, Koch industries, a conglomerate of Power companies (coal, oil) created numerous supposed Non-profit organizations filled with authoritative sounding and appearing people spreading Climate propaganda to a public that should but does not know better. It’s very effective, and protected Koch Industry’s profit. A company worth billions. That’s what Science has to fight against.

  3. Bewildered says:

    Yeah I agree. I think the problem is most of us are interested in science and not in communication, which we find difficult and distracting. The public and politicians certainly do deserve thanks when the funding is given though.

    Regarding scienctists involving themselves in politics, I thought about this after the election and wrote a bit about the scivote stuff: http://ill-conceived-rant.blogspot.com/2010/05/science-voting.html.
    Shameless plug but interested to hear thoughts.

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