Sunday, February 21, 2010

Some things I learnt in a Friday conversation with a high energy physicist

Yup, I paid another visit to the high-energy physics lab over here to have a pow-wow with one of the group leaders, so that I can get out as much of the FAQs as I could. Also of course, so that he could also ask me a bit more question about my intended project. I supposed first and foremost, I wanted to ask him to suggest some more general reading materials I could get through to help me sift through all the technical details in the journal papers that I attempt to read (not always most successfully). Or even to recommend some chapters I can read from books that I have since the exigency of the current-graduate studies system leaves you with little time to read widely beyond your immediate 'professional' requirements (note I did not say 'interest').

In the process of asking these questions, I learnt a lot more about the politics of specialization, where high energy physicists do not concern themselves too much with what goes on in accelerator physics beyond what is required to help them do their physics (which of course means excluding out all material details unless it is somewhat involved with the art of detection that is their pre-rogative). Also, experimental physicists too would have their own domain of interest relating to instrumentation outside the immediate interest of the theorists. I would really need to learn to sort out these different prerogatives and interest to better channel my questions in the right direction.

I also learnt something about the politics of 'new' physics versus 'old' physics; how certain theoretical constructs and equations we see pepperring in published papers do not necessary contribute to a new scientific paradigm for as long as the data (or lack of) are still crunched using old models. Of course, the whole idea of big science is to create a new way of doing science, of thinking science, though of course the professor I spoke to hesitate to make such big claims, that one can even dispensed completely with existing models.

The other thing I learnt about the preoccupation of high energy physics people with the Monte Carlo method (also something which I picked up from an e-mail conversation with an acquaintance) is to try to simulate the possibility of a reality (note this rather strange conjunction of terms 'reality' and 'simulate') with whatever traces their detectors were able to register (as the collided particles decay onto the detectors rather than disappear into 'void'). These simulations are able to help the physicist prove the existence of a particle/entity that has been theorized into their Standard Model. However, the reality is such that the imperfection of the tool, and the vagaries of the particles (since however much you may use transverse momentum to try to channel the direction of the particle into particular sections of the detector, whether the barrel or the endcaps, some would still choose to escape to elsewhere outside of the detector, and thus away from 'making history') mean that you cannot yet detect their 'existence' in a way that proves their existence resolutely to oneself.

At this stage, I am trying my best to understand the physics that is being done in this project, and this may mean reading tonnes of things I may not understand (rest assure that even physics grad students who had taken courses in the field may not comprehend what they have to encounter when out in the 'field') and to realize that there is no real textbook solution to understanding, not unlike the dilemma I'd faced as an undergrad physics major trying to make sense of the disjunct between textbook concepts and doing actual proofs (this perhaps relating to my own inability to 'supervene' knowledge). I try to watch the videos at CERN document server as one of the many ways of educating myself, and also engaging in conversations with practising physicists and students alike. A rather haphazard way of doing things, but this would have to do for now, and learning is a haphazard process.

Am finally getting around to reading Traweek's Beamtimes and Lifetimes just because I need to read a passage of it for class. An old book but certainly much I can learn from what she'd learnt and the mistakes she made. Speaking of this, the other problem I have is balancing between reading materials within the province of science (theoretical and experimental high energy physics in this case) in practice and reading ethnographical, philosophical, historical and sociological accounts of it, as well as other philosophical works that would help inform me of it (such as phenomenology and post-phenomenology) including the work of people such as Serres Birth of Physics and Merleau-Ponty's Nature.

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