Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

From Rilke: Enough

April 19, 2013

I read Sonnets to Orpheus in the way one listens to ambient music. It is largely passive. I listen to sounds without trying to pick out tones, entreat images without trying to string them together or decode some meaning. I read it absentmindedly,  occasionally imagining the interior environment of the small Swiss hut Rilke wrote Sonnets in over the course of a few days in a dreary white February some time ago.

Until he grabbed me: In three lines, removed from context by pure distraction, the poet Rilke in his casual way, accidentally explained to me the nature of human endeavor in science.

Even the starry union is deceptive.

But let us now be glad a while

to believe the figure. That’s enough.

From Sonnets to Orpheus, Part 1, Sonnet 11.

Here is the outer limit of what we can see, the edge of our universe: the Cosmic Microwave Background. What it expresses are temperature variations among the photons that are streaming at our satellite eyes from the Beginning of Time, i.e. the Big Bang. It looks almost like noise, but really, this data speaks to how fast the universe is expanding, the universe’s age, and dark matter and dark energy. Planck is instrument that took the data that made this map, which was released last month. It is the third generation of data collecting satellites that has set out to make this map, each improving on the one before, giving us better accuracy, finer resolution, and more reason to believe our own guesses about the origin of everything in the so far observed universe. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful images in science.

As cosmology pieces together knowledge, maybe some solace can be wrung from “believing the figure,” for now. But don’t forget that observation “is deceptive”: If you can’t convince yourself and your peers to believe the figure, you can’t move forward, you’re stuck. And even if at some point it is comforting or interesting or thrilling to accept a perceived truth–the decontextualized Rilke warns us–we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the itching feeling that this new truth may only be a truth for “a while.” Our knowledge is in constant evolution.

Of course, dear Rilke, on longer timescales, it is never “enough.”

…………

Is my reading of Rilke as such, incorrect? Probably. Yes. Who cares? I’m not a literature student.

On a somewhat unrelated note, Re: Previous post, the daily saga will be reporting in the very near future from the University of California, Berkeley, once again. Let the fun times begin.

Drama, Drama: Grad School Whining

April 13, 2013

Content warning: Usage of the first person to relate a tale of First World Problems, self absorbed rambling. You don’t have to read it.

IMG_0409

Photo Courtesy of the first week of my freshman year

I just finished up with my final and arguably most important graduate school visit.

On Tuesday I dove up to Berkeley, stayed at a friend’s place, and biked to Leconte in the morning. Just as I did for nearly four years as an undergraduate, I locked my bike in the racks between Leconte and Birge Halls and walked up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. It all felt extremely familiar.

As an undergradute I had in general a fantastic but also somewhat difficult time in the Physics department at Berkeley. Largely this was my fault: I didn’t know what I wanted, and at Berkeley, in order to get what you want, you have to ask for it. Fight for it even. I didn’t officially join the Physics department until my third year (think: post the birth of this blog), around the same time I realized how much I enjoyed working in a lab. At that point, a randomly assigned faculty adviser sat me down in his office and told me point blank that I could not go to grad school with the experience I had. He was probably right. It was in that moment I that I knew finally what I wanted, and that I had to work doubly hard to get it. I wanted to be an experimental physicist, or at least give it a try.

Flash forward a few years, to this Wednesday, when I found myself  in the same building where I once sat down with that adviser. Except this time, I was in the company of 50 or so admitted prospective graduate students, I myself among them. As much as the setting was familiar, the context was surreal.

I am fully aware that I have been offered the opportunity of a lifetime to return to Berkeley for graduate school. I am in a position where I get to study and do physics for at least the next five to six years at one of the best institutions in the world. I am ecstatic, grateful, and humbled all at once.

………

I have been fortunate enough to receive offers* from other schools (see: Real America) and I’ve put a lot of thought into each of them, even visited most of them. At the moment there are two places left for me in this process of choosing: Berkeley of course, and University of British Columbia.

As a budding theorist in the Berkeley hallway asked me somewhat condescendingly the other day: What the heck is at British Columbia? Well, for one thing, the Canadian national laboratory for particle physics. Add to that students and professors who I got along with surprisingly well, who were friendly and welcoming instead of intimidating or pedantic, a diverse, strong research program, and at least one experiment and adviser I am very much interested in. On top of that add the awesome city of Vancouver and all the mountains and islands and bald eagles and totem poles that Beautiful British Columbia has to offer, and UBC becomes quite an enticing ticket. Just typing those last two sentences makes my indecisive brain do backflips.

Why am I hung up on Berkeley, then? Is it just because Berkeley was always what I had hoped for? Because I want a sort of ‘second chance’ in Berkeley Physics? Because I know that “Berkeley” is practically a brand name on my future resumé? Because it is a place I love and know? Or, is it because I know I would have a rigorous and quality education, the opportunities at Berkeley are practically limitless, there are projects I am interested in within the department, and I know it would be the challenge of a lifetime? I am not sure which of these reasons are valid.

I’ve gotten a lot of advice from a lot of people. I’ve spoken to professors, current students, former students, students in different departments, friends, family, the dogs, and to myself, aloud, in the car. Advice helps, but what I do know that this is a choice only I can make.

I’m certainly being meticulous about it: Choosing the school you do your PhD at is essentially selecting not only your pool of potential advisers and where you will spend a decent chunk of your life, but also the word you will have next to your name for the rest of your career. Maybe that is why this so daunting and difficult for me. I’ve come to the melodramatic yet inescapable maxim that this choice effects the trajectory of my life in ways that I cannot know or understand.

So, even though I know there is no wrong decision at this point, I can’t simulate the outcome of either option. I can’t make an educated guess. My situation now (on the brink of Physics grad school) is so vastly different from where I was at the end of high school (intended English Major) and as such I don’t entirely trust my own intuitions about my future. My interests and goals evolve constantly. In this sense, does my decision even matter? I know this is not supposed to be philosophical, but in typical fashion, it seems to be getting there. I think I would be happy in either place. I can’t make a wrong decision. Or can I?

What I know is this: Berkeley, as an academic and social community, is probably the place I have felt most at home. It is a thriving international research environment, and a politically active campus where I find myself constantly in impressive company. What I also know is that it by living different in places, mostly outside of the US for the last three years, I have gone through so much personal and academic growth which I would not have experienced in the same way had I stayed in Berkeley. I know that sounds a lot like feelgood hippie bullshit, but it’s the true kind of feelgood hippie bullshit. At least I believe it. Vancouver would be yet a new experience, yet a new world to found, explore, and never quite conquer.

I have two more days to decide. I feel filled with a strange kind of energy. It is time for this to be settled. Oj, what do I do?

…………

*For the record, I also had a lot of rejections. But, who cares?

nästa station: Real America

January 24, 2013

In the hallowed and surely God-sent words of an email in my inbox:  I ” have been selected for admission to the Physics Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” Getting my first acceptance so early in the game nearly made me choke a bit in disbelief, and the fact that is from such a good school (especially for Physics) nearly gave me a heart attack. Once the initial shock faded I found myself doing three things at once: Sighing in relief, finding a second wind, and regretting I didn’t try for more difficult schools.

Wisconsin. Sounds lovely, but, sheepishly: I still can’t quite stomach the idea of living in Real America. Real America, to me, is what visits my city every year for a few weeks in the form of the county fair. My conception of Real America is certainly borderline cartoonish and probably even offensive.

Madison, Wisconsin, as I have heard, is Real America Lite for Fake Americans, like myself, the “Berkeley of the Midwest.” Good for me.

“But you are a real American!” the astute observer may protest. Am I? I hardly feel like a Fake American anymore. But then I reconsider, and subsequently refuse to believe there is such a thing as a Real or a Fake America. Or if there is, they are not two separate things but a confluence of a million swirling, indiscernible things. But, I have a blue passport. So I suppose, like so many others, I am.

……………………..

I promised posts on the final months, or ‘the Dark Ages of the Blog’ in Switzerland, and I will. I managed to squeeze three last adventures:  First, I went to Paris to visit my flatmate from the summer, who turned out to be not only a gracious host but an excellent tour guide. Second, I went to Milan for exactly 16 hours (plus eight hours of transit) to watch an opera in the birthplace of opera with dirt cheap tickets of somewhat miraculous origin. Finally, on my last day in Switzerland, I made a solo trek through the Swiss German snowdrifts to Zürich to see a rather exciting lab in a basement. I’ll write posts between writing job applications, which is, quite grudgingly, my current occupation.

that goddamn particle

July 6, 2012

Whisperings of the announcement floated in my direction two weeks prior.  And I mean literally, it was a whisper in my ear: “We found it.” Now that the world knows that we know, I’m writing just so I can say, and I can hardly believe this…”I was there”

……………………………………………………

I spent the night before battling poor particle lifetimes on nightshift with Club Italia; At seven we surrendered the beam and wandered down towards the auditorium. The foyer was already crawling with people and even if the queue was orderly (it’s CERN after all) it stretched out the back door of the restaurant. We did what we could. Oh, how we played all the good Italian tricks. First, we tried going in the back door. When we were turned away, we flirted with the security people. When we were turned away again, we looked for friends already in line.  None of this worked, predictably.

“Brrreakfast?” said the Italian on my right, rolling the ‘r’, of course.

“Brrreakfast?” said the Italian on my left.

“Brrrrrrrrreakfast.” I replied, as we all nodded in agreement.

At brrreakfast we learned from other unfortunate souls that even at four AM, there were already over a hundred people sleeping on the floor outside the auditorium. People foresaw that this seminar would be historic and CERN foresaw such overflow. Fortunately projections of the transmission of the seminar would play in several conference rooms and auditoriums around the site.

A nice breakfast, and then an ATLAS conference room it would be. The challenge: stay awake.*

……………………………………………………

“We conclude,” he begins, the CMS spokesperson (tall, American) with some ceremony. But he’s only reading what is on the slide, and surely, everyone in the room (and all the rooms) has already read what is written. At least I have; I’m fixated at the number at the end of the sentence. It is what we’ve been waiting for: the proof that all of this isn’t just a fluke, the number we all needed to convince ourselves that this is, this is for real. He goes on: “We have discovered a new boson with a mass of 125.3 GeV plus/minus 0.6 GeV at a certainty of 4.9 sigma.” 4.9 sigma. Something like electric shock runs through my body; the room erupts in applause.

ATLAS speaks next. The spokesperson is, of course, the deceptively slight Fabiola, who aside from having a fantastic name and a wonderfully frizzy mane, is somewhat of a force of nature. She speaks for a hour, culminating discreetly with 126.5 GeV, at 5 sigma. 5 sigma! Again, the shock, again, the thunderous applause. Oh, but Fabiola, she is perhaps the purest and most pragmatic among us; so much so that she doesn’t even give a damn that her presentation is in Comic Sans. “Why are you clapping?” she admonishes the crowd and the entire Physics community. “I’m not finished, there is still more to come.”

Oh, so, so much more. A new era of Physics: it begins today.

……………………………………………………

I’m all abuzz, wishing I knew more about particle physics (I don’t work on LHC), vowing to learn more about particle physics. I keep repeating to myself everything I could parse: H to gamma gamma, excess, four lepton, five sigma…surely the signals each experiment is observing, if  they are the Higgs or not, are coming from the same thing. Or are they? Are the results really compatible? 1 GeV, is, well, quite a lot.

But me, abuzz? Oh, how small I truly am in this worldwide community of hundreds of thousands, who were all (to think!) that morning tuned into the same channel. Many of these people have been working to complete this theory, to detect this boson, to bring the LHC up to the unfathomable energy it can now achieve, since well before I was even alive. Peter Higgs himself didn’t believe it would happen in his lifetime, I heard him say.

……………………………………………………

My landlady, doing her honest best to comprehend what all the fuss is about, emerges from her room after watching twenty minutes of the German news.

“So, help me understand,” She says, with a look in her eye betraying that this time, just maybe, she thinks she’s got it.  “You have discovered an X chromosome,” she begins cautiously, “which can help you find the weight of the Universe?”

I smile.

Exactly.

……………………………………………………

*Full disclosure: I fell asleep breifly during the CMS talk. Nightshift, ja.

Light my Fire

April 1, 2012

Two figures in official-looking uniforms appear on the platform across from the control room, were I’m sitting. As soon as I realize they are coming in my direction, breathe deeply and look down at my hands. You see, I’m mentally preparing myself for a barrage of bureaucratic interrogation in French. What with me being alone in the control room on a Sunday (I’d rather sit here than in the hostel, truth be told), surely there is no Francophone colleague nearby to save me this time. Why, on earth, would they come on a Sunday?

As the two men enter, I see that “CERN Fire Brigade” is stamped across their shirts and I can’t help but notice that, weeeell, they are not unattractive. I brace myself for the French, and am shocked when the younger one says to me, in remarkably flawless English: “Hello, do you mind if we ask you a few questions?” Uh, sure?

He starts talking and it turns out his questions are not about fire escape routes, flammable chemicals, or even the pile of cardboard boxes that’s partially blocking the doorway. No, soon enough it becomes clear: it turns out he came here today to ask me about physics. I’m at a complete loss for what’s going on, but I’m still doing my best to explain the experiment.

His friend, apparently emboldened by my willingness to talk, speaks up at last: “So, wait, can you explain antimatter in simple terms?” I do my best to accommodate:

“At the Big Bang,” I start off, in the classic, grandiose way of explaining baryon asymmetry, “there were equal parts matter and antimatter…” I continue, but fear I may be loosing them when I start talking about spectroscopy. It seems, however, that they get the basics: We’re comparing one thing we know a lot about to another, anti-thing which we can barely hold on to. Pretty much. After we’re all satisfied with the physics discussion, I have some questions of my own. For example: what is going on here, anyway? Why am I sitting here, explaining hyperfine transitions to of all people, two smiling Swiss firemen?

“Well, we don’t have much to do around here on a Sunday,” the younger one says. “So we just wander around, find people, and question them.”

Good God! Why, it’s Learning For Its Own Sake. It’s taking advantage of the unique position of being a fireman at CERN with free time by chasing after wherever your curiosity beckons you to follow, and not being afraid to ask questions. It’s approaching possibly cranky physicists and wanting to listen to what they have to say. It’s evidence of active public interest in Science! It’s evidence of the inherent curiosity of the spirit! Of course I don’t let on too much, but these firemen may have just given me new hope in the human race.

“I think that’s wonderful,” I say. He, the younger one, goes on:

“We try to get people to explain in simple terms, in terms we can understand,”

“You’re doing great at that” the friend says. He adds with grin: “You pass the test.”

“Well, thank you.” In the interest of full disclosure: Here I blush. “But that’s probably mostly because I don’t understand all of it myself.” We all chuckle, they thank me again, I recommend they take a look at the semi-dismantled cryostat, and they walk out the door. With that, we all return to our own, specialized worlds.

Did that really just happen? I want to ask someone to pinch me, but of course, there’s no one here. I think I just may wander into the fire station one of these days, you know, with a couple of questions.

Corrections and Updates

November 18, 2011

Updates and Corrections to my last post:

1. the man with a gun who was shot by police at the Haas school of business died in the hospital.

2. SF Chron reports 10,000 people at on Sproul Plaza tuesday night, and order of magnitude more than my original claim of 1,000. My people estimation skills must be inept. (Or are they?) the daily saga…regrets the error?

3. Physics 105 had a discussion about the protest. It was like a dream come true, to have the opportunity to hear my classmates opinions. Scientists, they are smart folks, and they care, they really do. More on this later.

4. I quote (formatting intact) from an email sent out the entire campus from the UC Chancellor:

“To the Campus Community:

We all share the distress and anger at the State of California’s disinvestment in public higher education.

IN THE SPIRIT OF TODAY’S DAY OF ACTION, I AM URGENTLY CALLING ON THE POLITICAL LEADERSHIP FROM SACRAMENTO TO COME TO CAMPUS TO ENGAGE WITH ME AND STUDENT REPRESENTATIVES IN A PUBLIC FORUM TO DEBATE THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC HIGHER EDUCATION.

The issues require bold action and time is short. I will inform you of the time and place as soon as possible.

Robert J. Birgeneau,
Chancellor”

4. the Occupy camp was bulldozed last night. Architecture students devised a scheme of suspending tents with balloons over the plaza.

5. I don’t know what.

The God Syntax

October 28, 2011

An excitable theorist, he’s a canine sort of lean and though I can’t tell from the back row of 1 Leconte, tall as well. Conceivably French, he’s got those square-rimmed glasses and he gestures spread-handed as he speaks: the particle that imbues all others with mass!

The LHC must be a big deal or something; I haven’t been in a colloquium this crowded since, well, since that fateful antihydrogen one last year. This time it’s all about giant magnets and smashing protons and putting limits on the mass of the Higgs. All stuff I’ve heard before but am always happy to hear again. He pauses breifly at the end of hefty part of the talk, and asks if there are any questions. Someone at the front asks something I can’t hear or don’t remember. Any more questions, the theorist asks. I have one, but I bite my tongue because I’m never really sure how to phrase it: At what point do you, um, stop looking? Do you ever stop looking? At what point do you, um, give up? At what point do you accept the invalidation of your own beliefs?

Once all vocalized inquiries are dealt with, he ends with a charming thought on the plight of the scientist. This being the type of thing that warms the cockels of physicist hearts, the  guy sitting on the aisle step in front of me takes out his pencil and copies it down. I figure (as a vigilante journalist of sorts) I may as well follow suit. I squint up at the presentation slide and read off:

“It is our responsibility to work hard and be patient and humble, in order to observe and interpret Nature as it reveals itself to us.”

It’s a lovely sentence, really. A lovely sentence, save for the errant comma that is likely a relic of translation. But “Nature?” Why did he capitalize “Nature?” I think I know–and surely, it was no error of translation.

Every Girl’s Dream…

August 12, 2011

Content Warning: mild feminism and the woes of Women in Physics

“You know, you’re part of a pretty exclusive club. there’s only about four women in the world who’ve seen trapped antihydrogen.” Clearly, he’s just extremely proud that his experiment is the only one in the world that can hold on to the fickle antiatom. After all, it’s true: there really are only four women in the world who’ve been in our control room during a successful trap. I start to feel a little proud too, until he continues:

“Statistically, you’re more likely to sleep with Brad Pitt.”

Honestly, it takes a bit of concentration to hold back my guttural instinct to vomit all over him, or at least fight the urge to take a sip of water just so that I can spit it out in disgust. He is, after all, one of the most senior people on the experiment. In hindsight such restraint was, admittedly, well played.

“You know,” I say, the sarcasm only just barely palpable, “I’m really really glad that’s the data point we’re comparing to.”

He chuckles awkwardly. End of Conversation.

Stick it to Me

July 5, 2011

Alternate title: “Why there has been no blogging for the last two weeks”

there is a part of the experiment we call “the stick”. It’s sort of a mechanical arm that vertically lowers different gadgets (a Microchannel plate, an electron gun, and a microwave horn) into the experiment. It may look sort of like a gun the terminator might use, it’s full of delicate and expensive science toys, and it lives in the trap vacuum, but overall the stick is is quite literally, a stick. So “Stick” became the name, and it stuck.

However, after the spending the last week on the front lines of the painstaking assembly of a new version of the stick, I’ve decided it might be more appropriately described as “the F****ing Stick.”

Our new stick took around 16 hours a day for five or so days straight to build. Ultra High Vacuum is a finicky thing: It is more than a little difficult to build something that cannot be touched. A single oily human fingerprint on a part that is to be put into UVH conditions outgasses (yup) and will degrade the vacuum. Enter hundreds of pair of clean nitrile gloves and more tin foil than I’ve used in all the rest of my life up until this point. AND: none of it was recycled. My “save the earth”, co oper soul was writhing in horror. Writhing in horror, that is, up until the point where it simply got too tired to care.

My work on the stick was oscillatory in relative coolness: at one moment I’d be screwing the microwave mirror into place and in the next I’d be using my bodywieght to stabilize a table as other people tightened bolts. Real thrilling stuff, experimental science. And always, in endeavors like this, there were speed bumps. Holes in the plans. Miscommunication between us and the machinist. Re-purposing of parts. Accidental misalignment, which calls for much dreaded redoing.

Worst of all throughout this entire process was the fact that I had to let least fifty potentially brilliant “that’s what she said” jokes about the F***ing stick simply dissolve into air because, well, I’m the only girl around and well, these are really distinguished physicists and well, it would awkward.

Despite all this (I admit it) whining, it turns out I’d only come in last minute on the saga of the (F****ing) Stick. Walter is a Canadian Professor, a superconductor physicist, and one hell of an on the fly machinist. He’s also actually retired and is volunteering his time at CERN. Retired, but you sure as heck wouldn’t know it from the way he runs around the lab or skillfully machines any part to make a ‘chewing gum solution’ a reality at odd hours of the night and day. Walter has been designing and helping realize the stick since February. Let’s just stay, the stick has been a long  time in the making.

And so by last night I found myself several days deep in the trenches of the war against the stick, running out of food, clean clothes and sanity. Not to mention: pushed to physical exhaustion and sufficiently and embarrassingly out-lapped by a 70 year old man.

Last night the F***ing Stick was completed and lowered into the unpumped experiment with a large crane and a lot of fanfare (by physics standards). We did the alignment of the instruments this morning and the pumpout of the vacuum systems this afternoon. I can now also proudly say that I’ve screwed down a flange (that’s what she said).

Finally this evening I was released from duty after only eight hours on, and despite the exhaustion I somewhat recklessly began entertaining the idea of riding into the mountains for a bit before riding home. All hopes of this were damped significantly however, when I was randomly stung by a wasp on my middle finger of my right hand as I was walking from the control room to the office. A brief shot of hot pain pulsed up my hand, my finger began to swell, and I suddenly remembered that I’d never been stung before and had no idea whether or not I was allergic. Five minutes passed and I wasn’t dead, so I figured I was alright.

I took the sting as a sign it was time to just ride home, for goodness sake. I made it home before the store closed so I could buy some food.

Phew.

that has such people in it

April 13, 2011

It’s always, hard, at first, to get over how much physics colloquium smells like old men. But then, looking around you think: It’s hardly a wonder.

Alan Guth is the picture of everything I’d imagined Alan Guth to be. His glasses are thick rimmed and thick glassed, his mouth is big lipped and his fine grey hair neatly combed. He walks unevenly although his voice is remarkably measured, assured.

He’s talking about inflation—the rapid expansion of the early Universe—a theory he came up with twenty years ago. Showing us the much-beloved power spectra of the CMB anisotropies produced from the WMAP results with the theoretical prediction considering inflation also plotted (a near perfect match), he remarks that this, this is his favorite graph in the entire world.  Inflation: it seems to work. But soon Guth has turned to string theory is asking us all to envision something larger than our universe: a landscape of many universes, pocketed within each other, each with its own physics: Its own \hbar, its own cosmological constant. All of them are exotic with respect to each other and with our Universe (and galaxy (and solar system (and planet (and epoch)))), where everything seems to be just so.

Consider the fragility of life on Earth (and the fragility of life in the solar system (and the galaxy (and the Universe (and the multiverse)))). This soggy, bacterial globe is nothing short of miraculous; like negative pressure material. The Physics we have invented is astoundingly beautiful, but it pales in comparison to the natural world.

It’s 5 PM in 1 Leconte Hall, and I’m floored by the sound of my own exhalation.