Tag Archives: European Laboratory for Particle Physics

CERN’s artist-in-residence speaks

CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics) in conjunction with Ars Electronica was looking for an artist-in-residence last fall (my Sept.21, 2011 posting). They found one, Julius Von Bismarck. From the Arts@CERN webpage,

Creative collisions between the arts and science have begun at CERN with the first Collide@CERN artist, Julius Von Bismarck starting his digital arts residency at the world’s largest particle physics laboratory outside Geneva. He was chosen from 395 entries from 40 countries around the world from the Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN competition launched last September 2011.

To mark this special occasion, the first Collide@CERN public lecture open to everyone will take place on March 21st 2012 at CERN’s Globe of Science and Innovation, with a drinks reception at 18.45 and with presentations starting at 19.30 [CET].

This talk will be livestreamed tomorrow (March 21, 2012) at 11:30 am PST (or 19:30 CET, which is GMT + 1 hr).

There’s not much text on Von Bismark’s website but I did find this on the about him webpage,

born in Breisach am Rhein
raised in Riad (Saudi Arabia), Freiburg and Berlin
Abitur in Berlin
from 2005
student of “visual communication” at the UdK Berlin
from 2006
student at “Digitalen Klasse” by Prof. Joachim Sauter
student at the MFA-Programm of Hunter Collage New York
from 2009
student at Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments) “Klasse Olafur Eliasson”

Clicking on the art pieces will get you more images and some (very little) additional text. I clicked on Versuch unter Kreisen; Ordinary lamps become circles over time to find not only images and more text but a couple of videos including this one (for which he offers no explanation),

I recognized Gale Sondergaard, Dorothy Lamour, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby because I love old movies (Road to Rio).

As for what Van Bismarck will be doing at CERN, here’s how they describe it on the Arts@CERN webpage,

Julius Von Bismarck is one of the most exciting artists of his generation, being awarded the first Collide@CERN residency by the jury for “his proposal and work which manipulates and criticises our notions of reality in unpredictable ways, often with inventive use of video, objects and public interventions”. His works are also characterised by his fascination with complex philosophical and scientific ideas as well as his profound interrogations about the purpose of the invention of technology. He is studying with the great Danish/Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson in Berlin.

There is more about Van Bismarck and his work here at ‘the creative project’ website in a Dec. 6, 2011 blog posting Julia Kaganskiy. The accompanying video is in German with English subtitles; the posting is in English.

Shifting winds in the world of particle accelerators: the Fermilab

I’ve been spending more time with physicists (in my own mind, anyway) than is usual for me.  I’m sure this will pass but while I’m hot (so to speak) on the topic, here’s an item about the Fermilab in the US. From the Feb. 1, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

In this month’s Physics World, reviews and careers editor, Margaret Harris, visits the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) to explore what future projects are in the pipeline now that the Tevatron particle accelerator has closed for good.

After 28 years of ground-breaking discoveries, the Tevatron accelerator has finally surrendered to the mighty Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN [European Laboratory for Particle Physics], placing Fermilab, in some people’s mind, on the brink of disappearing into obscurity.

(I did cover some of the excitement over the Higgs Boson search at the the LHC at CERN in my Dec. 14, 2011 posting.) As for the folks at the Fermilab, they  do have plans (from the news release),

Fermilab can no longer compete with the LHC when it comes to smashing particles together at high energies, but it can look for rare interactions between particles at lower energies. In this type of experiment, the key is not a beam’s energy but its intensity: the number of particles produced per second.

Their plans include two experiments – one already being built and another in the pipeline – that will send beams of neutrinos underground to distant detectors to see how these particles change between one form and another.

More ambitious still is Project X – expected to cost between $1-2bn – which will provide intense beams of protons for experiments on neutrinos, rare decays and heavy nuclei. Outside of high-energy physics, the lab currently participates in experiments into cosmic rays, dark matter and dark energy.

One aspect,  I find particularly interesting about this news release and article is that it makes some of the positioning and jockeying for funds visible to a larger audience than is common in Canadian circles. From the news release,

One obstacle that stands in the way of Fermilab’s progression is money. With the US Congress’s budgetary process – which allocates funds one year at a time – threatening to delay projects, combined with the current economic downturn, there is cause for concern, especially for a lab currently in transition.

The other aspect I find interesting is that while the Fermilab is based in Illinois (US), the article is being published by the UK-based Institute of Physics in their Physics World journal. Is this article part of a larger public relations initiative on behalf of physicists in the UK concerned about their funding? Nassif Ghoussoub at his Piece of Mind blog notes some of the discussion currently taking place in the UK about one of its funding agencies in his Jan. 31, 2012 posting and what is sometimes called ‘basic research’.

The smallness of the Higgs mass (finding the Higgs boson)

As I noted last week (in my Dec. 6, 2011 posting), there was a big Dec. 13, 2011 announcement from CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics) about the Higgs boson. No, they haven’t found it but researchers believe they’ve discovered a hint of where it might be—this ‘hint’ has made international news.

For anyone who may have some questions about what exactly a Higgs boson is, here’s a video of “Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln [describing] the nature of the Higgs boson. Several large experimental groups are hot on the trail of this elusive subatomic particle which is thought to explain the origins of particle mass” (from the YouTube description),

Here’s a little more about why there’s so much excitement, from the Dec. 13, 2011 news item on Science Daily,

The Standard Model is the theory that physicists use to describe the behaviour of fundamental particles [the smallest discrete entities that make up matter and are not made up of smaller constituent bits of matter themselves] and the forces that act between them. It describes the ordinary matter from which we, and everything visible in the Universe, are made extremely well. Nevertheless, the Standard Model does not describe the 96% of the Universe that is invisible. One of the main goals of the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] research programme is to go beyond the Standard Model, and the Higgs boson could be the key.

A Standard Model Higgs boson would confirm a theory first put forward in the 1960s, but there are other possible forms the Higgs boson could take, linked to theories that go beyond the Standard Model. A Standard Model Higgs could still point the way to new physics, through subtleties in its behaviour that would only emerge after studying a large number of Higgs particle decays. A non-Standard Model Higgs, currently beyond the reach of the LHC experiments with data so far recorded, would immediately open the door to new physics, whereas the absence of a Standard Model Higgs would point strongly to new physics at the LHC’s full design energy, set to be achieved after 2014. Whether ATLAS [research group at CERN] and CMS [research group at CERN] show over the coming months that the Standard Model Higgs boson exists or not, the LHC programme is opening the way to new physics.

The search for the Higgs boson has been ongoing for some 40 or 50 years and this announcement points to a definitive answer as to its existence by late 2012.

Two groups at CERN have reported on the results of their search for the Higgs boson. From the Dec. 13, 2011 news item on physorg.com,

Two experiments at the Large Hadron Collider have nearly eliminated the space in which the Higgs boson could dwell, scientists announced in a seminar held at CERN today. However, the ATLAS and CMS experiments see modest excesses in their data that could soon uncover the famous missing piece of the physics puzzle.

The experiments revealed the latest results as part of their regular report to the CERN Council, which provides oversight for the laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.

Theorists have predicted that some subatomic particles gain mass by interacting with other particles called Higgs bosons. The Higgs boson is the only undiscovered part of the Standard Model of physics, which describes the basic building blocks of matter and their interactions.

The experiments’ main conclusion is that the Standard Model Higgs boson, if it exists, is most likely to have a mass constrained to the range 116-130 GeV by the ATLAS experiment, and 115-127 GeV by CMS. Tantalising hints have been seen by both experiments in this mass region, but these are not yet strong enough to claim a discovery.

Scientists (Philip Schuster, Natalia Toro, and Andy Haas) at the Dec. 13, 2011 (9:30 am PST) Perimeter Institute webcast (What the Higgs is going on?), which took place a few hours after the CERN announcement, exhibited a lot of excitement liberally spiced with caution in regard to the announcement.  The webcast is available for viewing and if you’re wondering whether it’s suitable for you, here’s a description from the event webpage,

What is everything in the universe made of? What was the universe like billions of years ago?

These are eternal questions that humans have pondered throughout the ages. Today, we are on the verge of potentially making revolutionary breakthroughs in answering them.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is a 27-kilometre long underground experiment located on the Swiss-French border near Geneva. It smashes subatomic particles together at vast speeds in an effort to learn more about the fundamental building blocks that make up everything around you. It is the biggest, most ambitious scientific experiment in human history.

On December 13, the LHC will announce its latest findings in its search for the last undiscovered particle in our current model of subatomic particles. This particle is the near-mythical ‘Higgs Boson’ — the particle thought to be involved in giving other particles their mass.

This educational event, geared towards high school students, teachers and the general public, will follow CERN’s announcement and discuss its findings and their background and implications in clear, accessible language.

You can view the webcast from here. The description of how scientists choose which events to measure and the process they use to define whether or not an event is significant adds to one’s appreciation of the work being done in these projects.

Jon Butterworth, a physicist who works at CERN and whose blog is one of the Guardian science blogs, wrote a limerick about it all in his Dec. 13, 2011 posting,

A physicist saw an enigma
And called to his mum “Flying pig, ma!”
She said “Flying pigs?
Next thing you’ll see the Higgs!”
He said “Nah, not until it’s five sigma!”

Five sigma is a measure of certainty. The current results have a 2.3 sigma, which is promising but the gold standard is five.

Here’s the live blog that Alok Jha, science correspondent for the Guardain, kept during the Dec. 13, 2011 announcement (excerpted from the live blog),

1.01pm: Cern’s live webcast has begun, but the seminar has yet to start. The expressions on some of the faces in the audience suggests Christmas is about to come early for the physics community.

1.02pm: Ok the seminar has started, but traffic to the webcast is obviously heavy, breaking up the transmission.

TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, held a public seminar at 2:30 pm PST (Dec. 13, 2011) on their site at the University of British Columbia. They also have some information on their website about Canadian scientists who are involved in the CERN experiments ( from the Research Highlights page,  Physicists Smell but Don’t Yet Taste Higgs),

In a seminar held at CERN this morning and then repeated across Canada at multiple partnering institutions, the ATLAS and CMS experiments presented the status of their searches for the Standard Model Higgs boson. Finding this particle would snap in the last missing puzzle piece of the Standard Model that describes the universe at its most basic level. Tantalizing hints have been seen by both experiments in the same mass region, but these are not yet strong enough to claim a discovery. The main conclusion is that the Standard Model Higgs boson, if it exists, is most likely to have a mass in the range 115-130 GeV, excluding essentially all other hiding places.

“We are at a crossroads in our understanding of how energy gained mass and became matter in the early universe,” said Rob McPherson, spokesperson of the Canadian team working on the ATLAS project and a professor at the University of Victoria and a research scientist with the Institute of Particle Physics. “If these hints lead to a firm discovery over the coming year, we will be at the start of our investigation of the interactions that lie behind our current theories. If they are not confirmed, we will have to reject our present understanding, throw out our current theories, and start over. It is an extremely interesting time in particle physics.”

So there you have it. They think they observed something but they’re not sure, which makes for a very exciting time (they hope). While I’m not a scientist and cannot fully appreciate this moment, I can remember similar moments in my own work when something seems to be coming into focus. It isn’t my final result but it does hint at what is to come and gives me the resolve (giddy excitement for a few hours or days) I need to continue because a lot of what I do is slogging (I recognize the word play).

On a final note, it seems there was a minor crisis during the presentations in CERN. Lily Asquith, at the Argonne National Laboratory [Chicago, US] writes about it on Jon Butterworth’s blog (Guardian science blogs) in her Dec. 14, 2011 posting,

We have a large windowless meeting room at Argonne with an old-fashioned pull-down projector screen. When I walked in there yesterday morning for the CERN videolink I was greeted by 30-odd ashen-faced physicists. Oh lord, I thought, there has been a terrible accident. …

There stands Fabiola Gianotti [particle physicist in charge of the ATLAS experiment in CERN], our queen, looking fabulous and doing a typically faultless job of presenting a complicated and not-yet-conclusive measurement; taking the work of hundreds of nutty, stressed-out physicists and breathing sense into it.

But I hear only one thing as I walk the corridors of my lab and of the internet:

comic sans [the font Gianotti used for the text in her presentation]

- why‽

Do we need to add an additional systematic uncertainty to all our measurements based on this unwise choice of font? Are any of our results still valid? What does this mean for the speed of light?

Please do read the rest of Asquith’s very amusing piece. Who knew physicists are so concerned with fonts?

For the curious, here’s a sample of Comic Sans along with a history excerpt from its Wikipedia essay,

Microsoft designer Vincent Connare says that he began work on Comic Sans in October of 1994. Connare had already created a number of child-oriented fonts for various applications, so when he saw a beta version of Microsoft Bob that used Times New Roman in the word balloons of cartoon characters, he decided to create a new face based on the lettering style of comic books he had in his office, specifically The Dark Knight Returns (lettered by John Costanza) and Watchmen (lettered by Dave Gibbons).

So the font was originally designed for children and comic books, eh?

Dancing the Higgs boson?

Sometimes known as the ‘god’ particle, there’s talk that a major announcement is about to be made about the Higgs boson next week at CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics). From the Dec. 6, 2011 posting by Ian Sample on the Guardian science blogs,

Soon after Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general at Cern, emailed staff about next Tuesday’s seminar [Dec. 13, 2011] on the most sought-after particle in modern times, rumours hit the physics blogs that the lab might finally have caught sight of the Higgs boson.

I wrote last week that the heads of the two groups that work on the Atlas and CMS detectors at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will give the talks. That in itself is telling – usually more junior researchers present updates on the search for the missing particle. [emphasis mine]

Sample provides an explanation of the Higgs boson and why it and its mechanism has such importance,

…  The Higgs mechanism describes an invisible field that, it is argued, split one force into two soon after the birth of the universe. Specifically, it divided an ancient “electroweak” force into the electromagnetic and weak forces we see at work today. The latter is seen in some radioactive decay processes, and is involved in creating sunshine. [emphasis mine]

This is an excerpt from the full explanation, which precedes answers from a number of physicists around the world to a question Sample asked about what gives mass to fundamental particles. Here are a few randomly chosen answers Sample received to his question,

Shelly Glashow, Boston University. Nobel prize in physics, 1979

“They said when the collider goes on
Soon they’d see that elusive boson
Very soon we shall hear
Whether Cern finds it this year
But it’s something I won’t bet very much on.”

Frank Wilczek, MIT. Nobel prize in physics, 2004

“The Higgs mechanism for generating masses is extremely attractive and has no real competition. Beyond that there’s little certainty. A near-minimal implementation of supersymmetry, perhaps augmented with ultra-weakly interacting particles, is the prettiest possibility. So I’d like several Higgs particles, Higgisinos, some ghostly stuff, and a pony.”
[Note: A Higgsino is a supersymmetric partner of a Higgs boson].

Martinus Veltman, Universities of Michigan and Utrecht. Nobel prize in physics, 1999

“You are mistaken about the Higgs search at Cern. The machine runs at half energy so far, and no one expects relevant (for the Higgs particle) results. After the shutdown [in 2013] the machine will gradually go up in energy, and if all goes well (this is non-trivial) then in about half a year the machine energy might reach design value and there might be Higgs-relevant results. So if you are thinking next week then you are mistaken. Of course, we never know what surprises nature has in store for us … It is my opinion that there is no Higgs.”

Philip Anderson, Princeton University. Nobel prize in physics, 1977

“I doubt if the opinions of one who thinks about these problems perhaps every 30 years or so will carry much weight. I’ve been busy. But the last time I thought, I realised a) that the Higgs (-A) mechanism fits the facts too beautifully not to be true, but b) it must be incomplete, because there’s no proper accounting of the vacuum energy.”
[Note: Anderson essentially described the Higgs mechanism in 1962, two years before Higgs and five other physicists published the theory.]

There are more answers in Sample’s posting.

While it’s fascinating to see how widely divergent opinions are about Higgs, I have to confess my understanding of all this is rudimentary. Perhaps the dancers and performers (my Nov. 28, 2011 posting about a dance/performance residency at CERN) will help clarify the matter for me.

Arts residency collides with CERN and Ars Electronica

Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN Artists Residency Prize is inviting submissions.  CERN, for anyone unfamiliar with the institution,  is the European Laboratory for Particle Physics which is home to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). From the Arts@CERN page describing the residency in Geneva (Switzerland),

CERN’s latest experiment colliding the minds of scientists with the imagination of artists opens with the Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN prize in digital arts. This is the first prize to be announced as part of the new Collide@CERN Artists Residency 3 year programme initiated by the laboratory.

This new prize marks a 3 year science/arts cultural partnership and creative collaboration between CERN and Ars Electronica – which originated with CERN’s cooperation with Origin – the Ars Electronica Festival in 2011.

We are looking for digital artists who will be truly inspired by CERN, showing their wish to engage with the ideas and/or technology of particle physics or with CERN as a place of scientific collaboration, using them as springboards of the imagination which dare to go beyond the paradigm. You might be a choreographer, performer, visual artist, film maker or a composer – what you all have in common is that you use the digital as the means of making your work and/or the way of presenting it.

You need to register (here) to make a submission. Multiple submissions can be made by either the artist(s) or other interested party.

Full details can be found at the Ars Electronica ‘CERN artists residency’ page,

The aim of the Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN prize is to take digital creativity to new dimensions by colliding the minds of scientists with the imaginations of artists. In this way, we seek to accelerate innovation across culture in the 21st century – creating new dimensions in digital arts, inspired by the ideas, engineering and science generated at CERN, and produced by the winning artist in collaboration with the transdisciplinary expertise of the FutureLab team at Ars Electronica.

The residency is in two parts – with an initial two months at CERN, where the winning artist will have a specially dedicated science mentor from the world famous science lab to inspire him/her and his/her work. The second part will be a month with the Futurelab team and mentor at Ars Electronica Linz with whom the winner will develop and make new work inspired by the CERN residency. From the first meeting between the artists, their CERN and Futurelab mentors, they will all participate in a dialogue which will be a public blog of their creative process until the final work is produced and maybe beyond. In this way, the public will be able to join in the conversation.

This final work will be showcased both at the Globe of Science and Innovation at CERN, in Geneva and at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz. It will also be presented in the Prix Ars Electronica’s “CyberArts” catalogue.

It’s a pretty exciting opportunity that includes a prize of 10,000 Euros plus accommodation and travel.

We are looking for digital artists who will be truly inspired by CERN, showing their wish to engage with the ideas and/or technology of particle physics and with CERN as a place of scientific collaboration, using them as springboards of the imagination which dare to go beyond the paradigm. You might be a choreographer, performer, visual artist, film maker or a composer – what you all have in common is that you use the digital as the means of making your work and/or the way of presenting it.

Here’s a checklist for the submission(s),

  • A personal testimony video which introduces the artist who describes why and how this residency will inspire new work (Up to 5 min.)
  • An outline of a possible concept/idea which the artist wishes to pursue at CERN and Futurelab
  • A draft production plan with costings and timeline
  • A selected portfolio of work which showcases work the artist is proud of

The submission platform was opened Sept. 15, 2011 and will close on October 31, 2011. For anyone working up till the last second to make a submission, you may want to keep in mind the timezones. I assume the submission platform is being operated out of Switzerland. Good luck!