Monday, July 12, 2010

The week continues at CERN and tracing the history of the book by tracing the history of scientific publications

THere are tonnes I can say about what I've learnt today after the visit to the LHCb and ALICE control rooms, and also in conversations with the students. At the same time, I am spending more time digging into the publications produced by CERN to fill in all the gaps and clarify further much of the knowledge I've gained by seeing physics in practice. After all, as a shift leader at the LHCb control room told me, it is the work of the data analysts, data quality checkers and those who are involved in the reconstruction of raw data from the detectors that are under-highlighted (though by no means ignored, as many historians of science have tell the stories of human computers, usually women, who were set the task of painstakingly identifying, cross-checking, analysing and cataloguing the many extra-terrestrial objects that they were able to detect with their astrophysical apparatuses) in the sociology of physics (perhaps that is true in some of the older works, which I am still in the process of reading for my exams, but is slowly be rectified).

Moreover, I managed to spend time talking to the different experts of the different subdetectors (there were many graduate students numbered among them) whose expertise would be called should any problems arise in any of these different subdetectors. Beyond that, there were also offsite experts who functioned in a way not unlike telemedicine works (or even on-call specialists), as they were called on at any hour of the day to fix a problem immediately, either by logging in remotely from home or by going to the site.  In talking about the different points in which the experiments are located (and joined by the LSS or eight 500-metre long straight sections), I suggest reading this very interesting article by Lyndon Evans, a project leader of the LHC. It's called "The Large Hadron Collider: An Introduction" in The Large Hadron Collider: a Marver of Technology. Ed Lyndon Evans. Lausanne: EPFL Press, 2009. It gives you a very good overview that one does not find in the usual publicity materials on the CERN website, such as how the different points are chosen for each experiments (there are 4 of them), stretched between the Meyrin and St Genis area. Of course, after some downtime yesterday due to injection studies, data are beginning to be collected (which, in LHC jargon, would be physics getting done!) However, there were again periods of downtime in the afternoon due to some issues with missing branches (packets) from the beam.

However, there is another fascinating area at CERN that may be overlooked and which would be interesting to those who are interested in the history of the book (an area which I hope to develop into a specialty on top of science studies) in relation to the scientific enterprise (I have a book on my history of the book course reading list that talks about this but I'm disinclined to dig it up now, as I am likely to talk more about that later as I move to that other aspect of my work) is the way in which CERN has been collecting and collating documents. CERN has its own library science department and is in the process of developing a system of catalogue for the massive knowledge churned out every few months (that despite the very winding and arduous review process before any discoveries of analysis can be made public, something which I will talk more in details later). Moreover, everything that comes out at CERN, however recent it may be, will always be part of the public domain. The idea is that instead of having the readers pay to read, the authors would pay to be published (I am not sure how this works, but perhaps in my next trip, I will beforehand try to make contact with the CERN information systems specialists). CERN itself keeps archives of everything that has come out of it since the 1950s, though much of the newer materials are heading towards electronic archiving. As I mentioned in an earlier posts, there are tonnes of annual reports that are worth sifting through to understand the development of post- world-war two big science. Even more interestingly, CERN has a section dedicated to the history of science, and it would be interesting to find out more about the way in which the scientific community has been cataloguing its own history. Hence, the assumption that physicists have no real interest in history is not true. They may not be interested in history the way humanists are, but they are certainly interested in knowing the historical developments of the theories and experiments that they are working with, even though the need for increasing specialization when it comes to big science makes it very difficult for them to command the width of historical knowledge in their field. However, librarians of huge scientific research facilities know the value of keeping available and accessible the tonnes of documents produced in the past to any visiting researchers. In fact, if there are any researchers out there using this who had spent some time at CERN sifting through their documents, please do get in contact with me.

Moreoever, the scientific community is the leading force in information dissemination way more than most of the rather technologically-challenged humanists are (I can say this since I am a humanist too). That said, I feel that it is vital that humanists should learn to master the technological tools for informational democracy and utilization for empowerment rather than spending time pontificating on technological dictatorship without a slightest clue as to how the technology itself works. It is only by a thorough understanding that the humanist can really put to practice all its theorizing on the problems of technology. At the very same time, it also avoids the euphoria stemming from naivete and ignorance. Sure, humanists have less money than scientists (something which I am well aware of as perhaps the only humanist visiting scholar at CERN at the moment on my own very limited funding) but I believe there are ways in which we can make our contributions recognizably valuable to potential funders without all these blind fear that we will fall into the language of crass capitalism. If that is all there is to money and knowledge, fundamental researches in the sciences would have died out by now, and money would not be wasted by research institutions such as CERN (and even the AIP with its Niels Bohr Library and Archive that I will be visiting next week) in preserving in many medium the knowledge it has accumulated from days gone by. Nevertheless, there is always an ongoing joke among the scientists I know about how nobody really visits the library nowadays, since they get all their papers online. Perhaps not when they are doing hard physics, but certainly so when they have to begin preparing a presentation that would involve a bit of historical background.

In talking about the history of science section at CERN's library, it seems as if they are collecting books on the history and sociology of physics. In fact, in the first part of summer student lecture on detectors (you can see the notes here) to be given tomorrow was a reference to Peter Galison's huge tome, Image and Logic: a Material Culture of Microphysics. One may deduce that physicists are probably interested in using history to understand how their material culture has evolved. Hence, one may even say, perhaps, that Kuhn's postulation of a scientist's indifference to history as rather misleading. Therefore, in saying that scientific production is not cumulative, Kuhn is oversimplifying and missing the point behind the meaning of the term 'cumulation'. Scientific work may not be cumulative in a linear sense, but there are always multiplicities of cross-referencing and cross-checking with history.

I will write more later, since I need to get to bed now. Going to be an intense day tomorrow. Perhaps I'll get some time to visit downtown Geneve again tomorrow, despite missing the chance again today. I really need to get off early at some point to at least visit the History of Science museum located in downtown Geneva. Surprisingly, when I was in Vienna, such a museum did not really exist, except perhaps in parts at the University of Vienna (so you may see the history of medicine museum or some little exhibits here and there at the various science departments around the city).

P.S. I recently discovered that the Monte-Carlo methods used in physics simulation, through softwares such as Phythia, allows analysts to set the parameters of detector conditions and then simulate the possible data plots that could be derived from it.  As I begin to understand this sytem better, and also understand the reconstruction of raw data by the physicists, I may be able to do more with the visualization project I have had been trying to work on for some time. Might be a worthwhile project to pursue in this class on 3D simulation and archaeology, if the professors are amenable to it.

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