Blogging ICHEP 2010

A collective forum about the 35th edition of
the International Conference on High Energy Physics (Paris, July 2010)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

How do you know ICHEP's just around the corner?

Two ways you know that ICHEP is imminent:
  1. The blogosphere, Twitterverse and science media are abuzz with rumors regarding possible new results;
  2. The families of particle physicists worldwide bemoan the temporary disappearance of their loved ones.
Here at CERN, activity among scientists involved with the LHC experiment has reached fever pitch. Students, postdocs and senior physicists alike are consuming even more coffee than usual, as they work to put the final touches on data analyses, results, posters and PowerPoint presentations.

With the size of today's particle physics collaborations - peaking at more than 3,000 people each for the ATLAS and CMS collaborations - getting a result approved for presentation at a major conference like ICHEP is no simple task. With so many people involved, the collaborations put in place rules and procedures governing approval processes for results and publications, with the goal of ensuring that all results have passed rigorous review and that every collaboration member has the opportunity to review and comment on every result. For the LHC experiments, the rules that have been painstakingly assembled over a decade or more have been getting their first real workout this summer, first for the PLHC conference in Hamburg, and now for ICHEP.

To give you an idea of the work behind each plot presented in an LHC talk at ICHEP, here's a quick overview of the steps involved (symmetry Magazine has a more in-depth look at this data-to-discovery process).

A small group of a few to a few dozen physicists spends weeks, months, or years analyzing data and preparing a result. Depending on the nature of the result, it may or may not be combined with result(s) from other group(s) within the same collaboration. It's then unveiled to the entire collaboration for review, and after a certain period where any collaboration member can comment (remember: 3,000 people!), receives final approval for presentation in public. Or not, in which case the process starts all over again.

And that's all just the first step. Once the result is approved, be it in the form of a plot, chart or paper for publication, then the work begins for the people who have been selected to present it and other results in public at a conference like ICHEP. They select from the approved results, prepare their poster or PowerPoint, go through a similar approval process, and practice in front of their colleagues in the collaboration.

And in cases like the current Higgs limits from the Tevatron, results could be combined from two different experiments, which doubles the complexity of the entire process. It's no wonder that, around the time of major conferences, sleep is a rare commodity.

(But even with ICHEP just around the corner, I bet some of those same hard-working scientists will take a few hours off to attend CERN's annual music extravaganza, the Hardronic Festival.)

I'll end with a quick introduction, since I'm the new girl on the blog - I'm a nuclear physicist turned science communicator, working for Fermilab Office of Communication but based at CERN for the past three years. I spend most of my time telling the story of the LHC project and U.S. scientists' involvement to journalists and the public, and the rest of my time trying to keep up with developments in the larger world of particle physics. So I can't wait to see and hear what's presented at ICHEP, and to write about it here and at the other blog I contribute to, symmetry breaking.

1 comment:

  1. Good stories, Katie. It must be pretty hard and somewhat frustrating to work in a team of 3,000 people. We have written one paper with 7 authors - which was viewed as an infinite number - but chances are that 3,000 is even greater than 7. :-)

    The personal responsibility, the amount of effort needed to get approval for anything etc. goes down as 1/N^2 or something like that, so that the speed of progress goes like 1/N instead of N as naive people might expect. 1/3000 is a pretty big suppression then. ;-)

    If you have access to ICHEP now, don't you want to post some exciting stories directly to the Reference Frame which, according to Alexa, seems to have exactly 100 times higher traffic? ;-)

    Thanks, Lubos


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