Tag Archives: DoingScience

Breaking a Little New Ground at the Large Hadron Collider

Today, a small but intrepid band of theoretical particle physicists (professor Jesse Thaler of MIT, postdocs Yotam Soreq and Wei Xue of CERN, Harvard Ph.D. student Cari Cesarotti, and myself) put out a paper that is unconventional in two senses. First, we looked for new particles at the Large Hadron Collider in a way that hasn’t been done before, at least in public. And second, we looked for new particles at the Large Hadron Collider in a way that hasn’t been done before, at least in public.

And no, there’s no error in the previous paragraph.

1) We used a small amount of actual data from the CMS experiment, even though we’re not ourselves members of the CMS experiment, to do a search for a new particle. Both ATLAS and CMS, the two large multipurpose experimental detectors at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], have made a small fraction of their proton-proton collision data public, through a website called the CERN Open Data Portal. Some experts, including my co-authors Thaler, Xue and their colleagues, have used this data (and the simulations that accompany it) to do a variety of important studies involving known particles and their properties. [Here’s a blog post by Thaler concerning Open Data and its importance from his perspective.] But our new study is the first to look for signs of a new particle in this public data. While our chances of finding anything were low, we had a larger goal: to see whether Open Data could be used for such searches. We hope our paper provides some evidence that Open Data offers a reasonable path for preserving priceless LHC data, allowing it to be used as an archive by physicists of the post-LHC era.

2) Since only had a tiny fraction of CMS’s data was available to us, about 1% by some count, how could we have done anything useful compared to what the LHC experts have already done? Well, that’s why we examined the data in a slightly unconventional way (one of several methods that I’ve advocated for many years, but has not been used in any public study). Consequently it allowed us to explore some ground that no one had yet swept clean, and even have a tiny chance of an actual discovery! But the larger scientific goal, absent a discovery, was to prove the value of this unconventional strategy, in hopes that the experts at CMS and ATLAS will use it (and others like it) in future. Their chance of discovering something new, using their full data set, is vastly greater than ours ever was.

Now don’t all go rushing off to download and analyze terabytes of CMS Open Data; you’d better know what you’re getting into first. It’s worthwhile, but it’s not easy going. LHC data is extremely complicated, and until this project I’ve always been skeptical that it could be released in a form that anyone outside the experimental collaborations could use. Downloading the data and turning it into a manageable form is itself a major task. Then, while studying it, there are an enormous number of mistakes that you can make (and we made quite a few of them) and you’d better know how to make lots of cross-checks to find your mistakes (which, fortunately, we did know; we hope we found all of them!) The CMS personnel in charge of the Open Data project were enormously helpful to us, and we’re very grateful to them; but since the project is new, there were inevitable wrinkles which had to be worked around. And you’d better have some friends among the experimentalists who can give you advice when you get stuck, or point out aspects of your results that don’t look quite right. [Our thanks to them!]

All in all, this project took us two years! Well, honestly, it should have taken half that time — but it couldn’t have taken much less than that, with all we had to learn. So trying to use Open Data from an LHC experiment is not something you do in your idle free time.

Nevertheless, I feel it was worth it. At a personal level, I learned a great deal more about how experimental analyses are carried out at CMS, and by extension, at the LHC more generally. And more importantly, we were able to show what we’d hoped to show: that there are still tremendous opportunities for discovery at the LHC, through the use of (even slightly) unconventional model-independent analyses. It’s a big world to explore, and we took only a small step in the easiest direction, but perhaps our efforts will encourage others to take bigger and more challenging ones.

For those readers with greater interest in our work, I’ll put out more details in two blog posts over the next few days: one about what we looked for and how, and one about our views regarding the value of open data from the LHC, not only for our project but for the field of particle physics as a whole.

How Evidence for Cosmic Inflation Was Reduced to Dust

Many of you will have read in the last week that unfortunately (though to no one’s surprise after seeing the data from the Planck satellite in the last few months) the BICEP2 experiment’s claim of a discovery of gravitational waves from cosmic inflation has blown away in the interstellar wind. [For my previous posts on BICEP2, including a great deal of background information, click here.] The BICEP2 scientists and the Planck satellite scientists have worked together to come to this conclusion, and written a joint paper on the subject.  Their conclusion is that the potentially exciting effect that BICEP2 observed (“B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background on large scales”; these terms are explained here) was due, completely or in large part, to polarized dust in our galaxy (the Milky Way). The story of how they came to this conclusion is interesting, and my goal today is to explain it to non-experts.  Click here to read more.

The BICEP2 Dust-Up Continues

The controversy continues to develop over the interpretation of the results from BICEP2, the experiment that detected “B-mode” polarization in the sky, and was hailed as potential evidence of gravitational waves from the early universe, presumably generated during cosmic inflation. [Here’s some background info about the measurement].

Two papers this week (here and here) gave more detailed voice to the opinion that the BICEP2 team may have systematically underestimated the possible impact of polarized dust on their measurement.  These papers raise (but cannot settle) the question as to whether the B-mode polarization seen by BICEP2 might be entirely due to this dust — dust which is found throughout our galaxy, but is rather tenuous in the direction of the sky in which BICEP2 was looking.

I’m not going to drag my readers into the mud of the current discussion, both because it’s very technical and because it’s rather vague and highly speculative. Even the authors of the two papers admit they leave the situation completely unsettled.  But to summarize, the main purpose and effect of these papers seems to be this:

Continue reading

Will BICEP2 Lose Some of Its Muscle?

A scientific controversy has been brewing concerning the results of BICEP2, the experiment that measured polarized microwaves coming from a patch of the sky, and whose measurement has been widely interpreted as a discovery of gravitational waves, probably from cosmic inflation. (Here’s my post about the discovery, here’s some background so you can understand it more easily. Here are some of my articles about the early universe.)  On the day of the announcement, some elements of the media hailed it as a great discovery without reminding readers of something very important: it’s provisional!

From the very beginning of the BICEP2 story, I’ve been reminding you (here and here) that it is very common for claims of great scientific discoveries to disappear after further scrutiny, and that a declaration of victory by the scientific community comes much more slowly and deliberately than it often does in the press. Every scientist knows that while science, as a collective process viewed over time, very rarely makes mistakes, individual experiments and experimenters are often wrong.  (To its credit, the New York Times article contained some cautionary statements in its prose, and also quoted scientists making cautionary statements.  Other media outlets forgot.)

Doing forefront science is extremely difficult, because it requires near-perfection. A single unfortunate mistake in a very complex experiment can create an effect that appears similar to what the experimenters were looking for, but is a fake. Scientists are all well-aware of this; we’ve all seen examples, some of which took years to diagnose. And so, as with any claim of a big discovery, you should view the BICEP2 result as provisional, until checked thoroughly by outside experts, and until confirmed by other experiments.

What could go wrong with BICEP2?  On purely logical grounds, the BICEP2 result, interpreted as evidence for cosmic inflation, could be problematic if any one of the following four things is true:

1) The experiment itself has a technical problem, and the polarized microwaves they observe actually don’t exist.

2) The polarized microwaves are real, but they aren’t coming from ancient gravitational waves; they are instead coming from dust (very small grains of material) that is distributed around the galaxy between the stars, and that can radiate polarized microwaves.

3) The polarization really is coming from the cosmic microwave background (the leftover glow from the Big Bang), but it is not coming from gravitational waves; instead it comes from some other unknown source.

4) The polarization is really coming from gravitational waves, but these waves are not due to cosmic inflation but to some other source in the early universe.

The current controversy concerns point 2. Continue reading

In Memoriam: Gerry Guralnik

For those who haven’t heard: Professor Gerry Guralnik died. Here’s the New York Times obituary, which contains a few physics imperfections (though the most serious mistake in an earlier version was corrected, thankfully), but hopefully avoids any errors about Guralnik’s life.  Here’s another press release, from Brown University.

Guralnik, with Tom Kibble and Carl Hagen, wrote one of the four 1964 papers which represent the birth of the idea of the “Higgs” field, now understood as the source of mass for the known elementary particles — an idea that was confirmed by the discovery of a type of “Higgs” particle in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider.  (I find it sad that the obituary is sullied with a headline that contains the words “God Particle” — a term that no physicist involved in the relevant research ever used, and which was invented in the 1990s, not as science or even as religion, but for $$$… by someone who was trying to sell his book.) The other three papers — the first by Robert Brout and Francois Englert, and the second and third by Peter Higgs, were rewarded with a Nobel Prize in 2013; it was given just to Englert and Higgs, Brout having died too early, in 2011.  Though Guralnik, Hagen and Kibble won many other prizes, they were not awarded a Nobel for their work, a decision that will remain forever controversial.

But at least Guralnik lived long enough to learn, as Brout sadly did not, that his ideas were realized in nature, and to see the consequences of these ideas in real data. In the end, that’s the real prize, and one that no human can award.

Brane Waves

The first day of the conference celebrating theoretical physicist Joe Polchinski (see also yesterday’s post) emphasized the broad impact of his research career.  Thursday’s talks, some on quantum gravity and others on quantum field theory, were given by

  • Juan Maldacena, on his latest thinking on the relation between gravity, geometry and the entropy of quantum entanglement;
  • Igor Klebanov, on some fascinating work in which new relations have been found between some simple quantum field theories and a very poorly understood and exotic theory, known as Vassiliev theory (a theory that has more fields than a field theory but fewer than a string theory);
  • Raphael Bousso, on his recent attempts to prove the so-called “covariant entropy bound”, another relation between entropy and geometry, that Bousso conjectured over a decade ago;
  • Henrietta Elvang, on the resolution of a puzzle involving the relation between a supersymmetric field theory and a gravitational description of that same theory;
  • Nima Arkani-Hamed, about his work on the amplituhedron, a set of geometric objects that allow for the computation of particle scattering in various quantum field theories (and who related how one of Polchinski’s papers on quantum field theory was crucial in convincing him to stay in the field of high-energy physics);
  • Yours truly, in which I quickly reviewed my papers with Polchinski relating string theory and quantum field theory, emphasizing what an amazing experience it is to work with him; then I spoke briefly about my most recent Large Hadron Collider [LHC] research (#1,#2), and concluded with some provocative remarks about what it would mean if the LHC, having found the last missing particle of the Standard Model (i.e. the Higgs particle), finds nothing more.

The lectures have been recorded, so you will soon be able to find them at the KITP site and listen to any that interest you.

There were also two panel discussions. One was about the tremendous impact of Polchinski’s 1995 work on D-branes on quantum field theory (including particle physics, nuclear physics and condensed matter physics), on quantum gravity (especially through black hole physics), on several branches of mathematics, and on string theory. It’s worth noting that every talk listed above was directly or indirectly affected by D-branes, a trend which will continue in most of Friday’s talks.  There was also a rather hilarious panel involving his former graduate students, who spoke about what it was like to have Polchinski as an advisor. (Sorry, but the very funny stories told at the evening banquet were not recorded. [And don’t ask me about them, because I’m not telling.])

Let me relate one thing that Eric Gimon, one of Polchinski’s former students, had to say during the student panel. Gimon, a former collaborator of mine, left academia some time ago and now works in the private sector. When it was his turn to speak, he asked, rhetorically, “So, how does calculating partition functions in K3 orientifolds” (which is part of what Gimon did as a graduate student) “prepare you for the real world?” How indeed, you may wonder. His answer: “A sense of pertinence.” In other words, an ability to recognize which aspects of a puzzle or problem are nothing but distracting details, and which ones really matter and deserve your attention. It struck me as an elegant expression of what it means to be a physicist.

Wednesday: Sean Carroll & I Interviewed Again by Alan Boyle

Today, Wednesday December 4th, at 8 pm Eastern/5 pm Pacific time, Sean Carroll and I will be interviewed again by Alan Boyle on “Virtually Speaking Science”.   The link where you can listen in (in real time or at your leisure) is

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/virtually-speaking-science/2013/12/05/alan-boyle-matt-strassler-sean-carroll

What is “Virtually Speaking Science“?  It is an online radio program that presents, according to its website:

  • Informal conversations hosted by science writers Alan Boyle, Tom Levenson and Jennifer Ouellette, who explore the explore the often-volatile landscape of science, politics and policy, the history and economics of science, science deniers and its relationship to democracy, and the role of women in the sciences.

Sean Carroll is a Caltech physicist, astrophysicist, writer and speaker, blogger at Preposterous Universe, who recently completed an excellent and now prize-winning popular book (which I highly recommend) on the Higgs particle, entitled “The Particle at the End of the Universe“.  Our interviewer Alan Boyle is a noted science writer, author of the book “The Case for Pluto“, winner of many awards, and currently NBC News Digital’s science editor [at the blog  “Cosmic Log“].

Sean and I were interviewed in February by Alan on this program; here’s the link.  I was interviewed on Virtually Speaking Science once before, by Tom Levenson, about the Large Hadron Collider (here’s the link).  Also, my public talk “The Quest for the Higgs Particle” is posted in their website (here’s the link to the audio and to the slides).

The Fast and Glamorous Life of a Theoretical Physicist

Ah, the fast-paced life of a theoretical physicist!  I just got done giving a one-hour talk in Rome, given at a workshop for experts on the ATLAS experiment, one of the two general purpose experiments at the Large Hadron Collider [LHC]. Tomorrow morning I’ll be talking with a colleague at the Rutherford Appleton Lab in the U.K., an expert from CMS (the other general purpose experiment at the LHC). Then it’s off to San Francisco, where tomorrow (Wednesday, 5 p.m. Pacific Time, 8 p.m. Eastern), at the Exploratorium, I’ll be joined by Caltech’s Sean Carroll, who is an expert on cosmology and particle physics and whose book on the Higgs boson discovery just won a nice prize, and we’ll be discussing science with science writer Alan Boyle, as we did back in February. [You can click here to listen in to Wednesday’s event.]  Next, on Thursday I’ll be at a meeting hosted in Stony Brook, on Long Island in New York State, discussing a Higgs-particle-related scientific project with theoretical physics colleagues as far flung as Hong Kong.  On Friday I shall rest.

“How does he do it?”, you ask. Hey, a private jet is a wonderful thing! Simple, convenient, no waiting at the gate; I highly recommend it! However — I don’t own one. All I have is Skype, and other Skype-like software.  My words will cross the globe, but my body won’t be going anywhere this week.

We should not take this kind of communication for granted! If the speed of light were 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) per hour, instead of 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) per second, ordinary life wouldn’t obviously change that much, but we simply couldn’t communicate internationally the way we do. It’s 4100 miles (6500 kilometers) across the earth’s surface to Rome; light takes about 0.02 seconds to travel that distance, so that’s the fastest anything can travel to make the trip. But if light traveled 186,000 miles per hour, then it would take over a minute for my words to reach Rome, making conversation completely impossible. A back-and-forth conversation would be difficult even between New York and Boston — for any signal to travel the 200 miles (300 kilometers) would require four seconds, so you’d be waiting for 8 seconds to hear the other person answer your questions. We’d have similar problems — slightly less severe — if the earth were as large as the sun.  And someday, as we populate the solar system, we’ll actually have this problem.

So think about that next time you call or Skype or otherwise contact a distant friend or colleague, and you have a conversation just as though you were next door, despite your being separated half-way round the planet. It’s a small world (and a fast one) after all.