Sunday, March 27, 2016

The move back

In December I made plans to move back to the UK. After some searching I decided to settle in Manchester and found a nice place with plenty of space. Apparently it's not normal in my field to find somewhere to live before moving, and the ULB found it unusual that I had somewhere to move into before I arrived. That says quite a lot about the mentality of the field, and the fact that the idea that someone would want to move with more than a couple of bags of possessions is perverse is a little worrying. In any case, it matched up nicely with the Trinity friends' Christmas dinner, and they were very happy to help me.

Behind the wheel.

The move back presented a bit of a problem, and I love a good problem. It meant driving a huge white van from the UK to Brussels and back, via the Channel Tunnel. None of that was cheap or easy or quick. Even the packing was hard work and exercise in space manangement that spanned a couple of weeks. The logistics were tricky too, partly because I had a friend helping me out, so that meant planning double hotel rooms, breaks at the right times, finding decent food, and translating French to English.

One of the reasons I did all of this was because I knew it would be hard, and that transitioning to life in the UK would also be hard and logistically challenging. I wanted to look back on this as a time when I took on something physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding, and dealt with it head on, without giving in to fear or lethargy. It would have been easier to hire someone else to move my possessions and just fly to Manchester, but I went for the option that was cheaper, more labour intensive, and that called on the support of my friends at both ends.

Since then, the moving process has continued, and I'd forgotten quite how long it takes to organise all the boring things like Council Tax, GP registration, and changing bank accounts. (I'm still using my Belgian bank account for most things, despite being back for over two months.) I still look back on the move fondly, as an adventure from Brussels, through France and the Channel Tunnel, around London and Birmingham. It was a lot of fun and I'm glad I still have it within me to take on something so daunting without a second thought. That's the attitude I'm going to need in the next year or so, and I've got yet another achivement under my belt that should keep me going when things get tough.

J is for Jamboree

I haven't written in this blog for quite a while (I actually thought it was even longer than it really is), even though many interesting things have happened, and the only reason is that I've been very busy. In the usual course of work, we have to prepare results for important meetings and for conferences. If all goes to plan we get plenty of beam time and then a few weeks to put the results together in time for the conferences. One of the biggest conferences, Moriond, is taking place right now, and it's what I expected to be working towards. It turns out that CERN and CMS had different ideas.

First, the LHC slipped behind schedule (which is fairly typical) and that meant there was less time to analyse what we already had in place. Then the CMS exotica (EXO) group decided to host their annual meeting off-site in November. Finally, CERN decided that they didn't want Moriond to get the first announcements of any big discoveries, so they asked us to prepare our results for mid-December Jamboree, just before the Christmas break. At the same time as all this was going on, I was in the process of handing over the analysis to my successor, as well as doing the regular work that goes along with developing and maintaining an analysis package, and performing calibrations. When all of this is taken into account it's quite a lot of work.

I don't mind hard work, in fact I thrive on it, but this did seem quite excessive. The EXO meeting in the middle of all the Jamboree was problematic. The meeting itself was fine, and an excellent use of time, but it was planned long before the Jamboree was announced, and created "maximal destructive interference", as one colleague put it. The problems we had with a preliminary analysis were multiplied because we had to on the one hand develop the analysis for the Jamboree, and on the other hand freeze and report on the analysis for the EXO meeting. The simultaneous development and freezing of work is a constant source of frustration and seems rather futile to me. We have to have a version of the code and plots ready for a presentation, while at the same time working on the calibrations on the side which will eventually lead to different code and plots for the Jamboree. As in any field, progress reports detract from progress, and that's fine when you have time to spare.

Finally, the Jamboree arrives, and we get to see what the competition sees...

Unfortunately we didn't have much time to spare. The internal review process spans several months, and we laid out a plan for the review that gave us no breathing space at all. (This wasn't poor planning on our part- there was only just enough time to fit the review in once the announcement of the Jamboree was made.) That meant that I had get my work done, at any cost, because there would be no second chances and very little wiggle room. Given this situation, there were many studies and decisions we postponed until Moriond to give us more time to work on them, and many of these things needed more time and consideration because they were very deep questions. The Jamboree would be a place to present a simple preliminary report on the findings, and Moriond would allow us to go into more detail on the salient points and the challenges of 2016 data taking.

The timeline was brutal, and it took its toll on all of us. My health suffered, my teaching was not up to scratch, and I was having to tell people to leave my office as I gave a last minute sign-off on physics decisions. As I'm sure you can work out, I'm not a fan of the decision to have a Jamboree in mid-December. This isn't because of the extra work, that goes with the job and I was expecting similar for Moriond, but it's because the deadline was arbitrary and motivated by CERN's need to be first with any big discovery. I don't begrudge CERN being first, but I do begrudge not giving the physicists enough time to get robust results ready for a public announcement. When I present results I want them to be well researched, well understood, and with plenty of supporting evidence. As it happened we had to show results that had preliminary luminosity measurements that changed by about 5% between the Jamboree and Moriond. I don't care that the data and simulation were consistent, or that the uncertainties were sufficiently large, what I care about is that if we had waited a few more weeks we would have had a better understanding of the luminosity. Instead we put physicists through a brutal deadline twice just because CERN decided to announce a Jamboree and nobody wanted to be excluded.

Working on Christmas day on a very important study that got pushed back. At least I tried to bring some seasonal cheer to the physics...

I've complained about the conference cycle before, and I doubt it will ever get better. One of my favourite feelings is when we have a deep problem to solve, which obviously won't be solved in time, and we make the decision to miss a deadline. That feels like a victory for science, placing the understanding of the problem above the recognition for it, and it eventually leads to better results.

I'm glad I helped get the Jamboree results out, and also that I helped the transition from the Jamboree to Moriond, but I also consider it a bitter reminder of one of the biggest problems in this field (and I'm sure many others.) If nothing else, I'm just not young enough to keep up that kind of timeline indefinitely. Since moving back to the UK things have been busy and stressful, but I am no longer staying up until 3am to finish off a piece of work, and I'm generally much happier. These days the fruits of my labour are realised much sooner and make more sense to me. That's a topic for another post though, this post is all about the unreasonable pressure exerted by the Jamboree and the dubious decision to put it at such an awkward time.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The final marathon

Right now work on CMS is tough. We have tight deadlines to meet and a lot of work to do. This is what happens every time we get new data, and despite the increased workload it is my favourite time to be a physicist. What usually happens is that we target the Moriond conferences in March, but this time there is a December Jamboree for rapid analyses, and I'm working on one of them. The Jamboree and Moriond are my final push to get some physics results out, physics results that I'll be proud of and will make me nostalgic years from now. This is what I've been waiting for the past two years, building up my tools slowly and getting them ready, in anticipation of the data that turns our world upside down. There was some initial excitement over a single very high mass event, which was completely unexpected. Since then we've been keeping an extra look out for high mass events in the data set, and this has only made the curent work more exciting and competitive.

Unfortunately this level of work is not sustainable, even without any other commitments. As one of my friends pointed out in a recent (and probably final) visit to CERN, it's not unusual to do 40 hours of work in two days when things get tough. On top this, there is travel, teaching, and other meetings that take a long time. When I moved to CERN, I moved there to work, and to immerse myself in the life of the lab, which meant more work. It was very exciting and rewarding, but also exhausting. Since moving to Brussels I've been told to restrain my enthusiasm and to not lose myself in work, which isn't why I came here. I came to work hard, to give physics one last chance to show me that I still love it. Looking to the future, I realised that I don't want to keep following the same patterns. Whatever I work at, I'll always work hard and have long hours, but for the next few years I want to be able to set my own deadlines and any rush will be self inflicted.

A quick trip to Venice. It was pleasant, but did rather distract from the main event.

So I find myself slogging through the final marathon, a final blaze of glory before it all ends, and for now, I love it. If I had my own way I'd do nothing else, and for a few weeks I'd immserse myself in the work, going from one cross check to another and measuring all the spectra I could get manage. Knowing that this is the last time makes it all the more enjoyable, and more frustrating when other commitments keep me away from this work. These few months are the whole reason I came, and the reason I waited two years for the data. This is what make physics fun, this is what makes physics worth the time and effort.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


For the past few months I've been rather busy (hence the lack of updates) with some outreach activities. For a long time I've wanted to create a lightweight particle physics experiment simulator that can run in the browser. An offshoot of this has been a trigger simulator and this has been used in various physics shows across the UK. These shows have developed from the standup comedy I performed last year, into a series of interactive comedic lectures where I write apps that allow the audience to interact. As with any project, it has its fair share of frustrations, but overall I'm very pleased and excited by how it's progressing. The show itself is roughly split in two halves, with the first half discussing cognitive biases, and the second half taking the audience through the scientific method, using the discovery of the Higgs boson as an example. They use the apps to collect and analyse data, and we end the show with the discovery of the boson.

It ticks a lot of the boxes that I was looking for in a project:

  • It allows me to develop some JavaScript skills in a new environment.
  • It forces me to write for portable devices.
  • It involves writing a user interface and testing it on people.
  • It develops my communication skills.
  • There's opportunity for travel in the UK
  • It's slowly building up a range of useful contacts for future work.
  • It involves collaboration with colleagues in the UK.
  • There are social media elements that I need to build up.
The first draft of the app in action.

To be honest it is quite a workload to commit to, and there are still some elements that have to come together. However the timeline is long, the progress has been quite rapid, and the audiences seem to love the show (and give useful feedback at the end.) As with most of my projects, this is a stepping stone to something bigger and better. Interacting with the public (both the audience and people testing my apps) exposes me to new skills I haven't need to explore much before, and each iteration improves my skills at making the interaction intuitive. For example, no matter how rough a draft is, and no matter how much I tell someone about a project, they still assume that if an app doesn't acknowledge an input then it hasn't seen it. That means for every interaction I need to add something to let the user know things are happening, even in the roughest, most basic draft. Suddenly even trivial changes take a while to implement.

There is scope to extend the project beyond January, and for now I'm ambivalent about doing so. I already have many plans for what to do in the following year and I don't want to overburden myself with free projects. There's also a constant tension between the education and the entertainment, and I want to focus more on the education. Unfortunately that doesn't sell many tickets, and it's harder to deliver. At the same time the most lucrative elements of the show are not so much focused on the science itself, but more about cognitive biases. That's a fun and exciting avenue to pursue, bue it may require the help of someone with a degree in psychology to back up some of the claims we make.

During the show itself.

This project is a nice counter balance to my research, with a focus on communication rather than analysis, ease of use rather than problem solving, and rediscovery rather than research. Even the medium of the browser is different, more direct and fast paced (and in my opinion, more pleasant to work with) than the data analysis on the GRID. That said, the standards are higher. The public expect things to work flawlessly first time, and do not tolerate quick fixes or works in progress.

Much of the work is already done, but there is still a lot to finish up, and with the data analysis in full swing I don't have much time to dedicate to it these days. Right now I'm hurtling across the UK on a train to give a seminar in Liverpool, while my analysis jobs are being resubmitted. There's still a lot of physics to be done between now and the end of my contract and I have to make time for both my job and my outreach. I'm never bored with this much physics!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Embracing uncertainty

I've spent the past three weeks at CERN for shifts (something I'll blog about another time) and bumped into many old friends and colleagues. Some of them have asked me about what I've got planned for the next year or so. That's not an easy question to answer, and not one that I want to answer right now. My life from one week to the next is very diverse, which means I have problems predicting what I'll be doing a week from now, let alone a year from now. That's how I like it. I love it that my life changes giving me new experiences all the time. On top of that, if life has taught me anything in the past decade it's that it's okay to not have a firm plan.

I'm not sure why other people seem to find uncertainty uncomfortable. For me it means freedom. It means not tying myself down and being predicatble or boring or bored. I'm currently in a physics lab where we have to routinely deal with lack of knowledge and where we have to find the answers ourselves, if we're lucky enough that we can obtain some answers. We all know what the job market is like in the field and that it's normal to move around, and that the number of opportunities outside the field is vast compared to the number inside. Yet somehow people find my lack of a job and a place to live in six months disturbing. That's how I found myself two years ago, with my SMU contract winding up and searching for a new job. Within a few months of looking I found a great job in Brussels in a new country in a city I'd never lived in before. I went from no planned job and no planned abode to finding a decent position and a flat in a foreign country. It was all timed so that one contract ended the day before the next one began. That was all down to embracing the uncertainty and taking advantage of the opportunities of the time.

Uncertainty is when you meet a colleague of a colleague in Paris and he asks you to join him at the South Pole for some world class science.

I don't know why people ask me what my plans are. Is to make me feel better, or them? Is it reassure them that the world isn't a scary place? Sometimes it feels invasive. These uncertainties are my own, not theirs, and they're not entitled to an answer to these tough questions, even if I had them. I suppose in some ways it's easier for me as someone single with no dependents. I can't maintain a stable relationahip with this kind of lifestyle, and pets and children are certainly out of the question.

I won't pretend that it's always easy. Occassionally I am afraid of the future and the uncertainty that comes with it. Sometimes I think I must be mad to leave the comfortable bubble of academia. Then I look back at the other times in my life with hard decisions, the times I moved everything I had into a new, foreign place, and was a better person for it. One of the reasons I moved to Brussels was exactly because it was a new place and living in a foreign country is good for personal development. I've done that three times now, and aside from learning French again I don't think there's much else to be gained from doing it again. The kind of personal growth I need now involves creating and leading my own projects. There's a huge scope for learning there and so it brings its own steep learning curve and uncertainty. I don't know where I'll be what I'll be doing a year from now because I don't know much about the steps I'm going to take in the next few months. I can say exactly the same about every year since I finished my undergraduate course, and those years have given me more than I ever would have asked for.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

When work and pastimes collide

Someone asked me to write a few paragraphs about what I like about my work and coding in general, so here's what I sent. It quite nicely summarises the transition from physics based problem solving, and other, further reaching topics.

I'm Aidan and I use computers all the time for work and as a hobby! I work on the CMS experiment at CERN and it's my job to analyse the data that we collect. It's a very exciting job because we're using some of the world's largest data sets and the world's most powerful computing systems, and we're the first people to see the results. It's not a simple job, because the task is so large, and there are many opportunities for mistakes and failures, of both humans and computers. The final results we show the public are usually just a graph, or s single number, or even a diagram of a single physics event, but there are hundreds of tiny steps between getting the data and showing those results. That's what I do, and there's something very satisfying about making that possible.

Some of the computing resources available at CERN. (CERN Computing)

It's all about problem solving and being creative in how to approach these problems. At CERN we have access to so many different resources, and we are given the freedom to use them as we see fit. We're faced with some of the most challenging and promising data in the world, we're given some of the most impressive tools to analyse them, and we can play about with whatever methods we like to get the answers we need. For me it's all about working out how to solve the problems and be ready for the when the data arrive. They arrived a few weeks ago and for the past two years I've been slowly building up the software needed to analyse them and to understand the data sets we use. As it happens I was one of the first people to analyse the most recent data, perhaps the first in the world, and seeing the data, using the software I had written myself, is one of the best feelings in the world. It's not something you "do", it's something you create, and becomes your pride and joy. For the past couple of weeks I've been staying up very late and working from home, just to get a few extra hours to analyse the data, and to be the first to see it, because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. If you want a project that you can make your own, that you can build up from almost nothing into something beautiful and elegant, then data analysis might be perfect for you!

I also develop code in my spare time. When I was a child we didn't have the internet, and all we had at home was a BBC micro computer with 32 Kb of memory, and a handbook to a computer language called BBC BASIC. In those days the floppy disks really were floppy, they were about 13 cm wide, and had to be stored in protective paper sleeves. It was with those tools that I learned how to code and how write simple programs. I knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life (or at least a part of it.) Eventually we got a family computer and a slow dial-up internet connection. Over the years I've learned so many different computing languages, and I keep learning new languages and skills today. Some of my coding projects have been ongoing for over a decade, so it really is a gift that keeps on giving. I think that as well being a lot of fun, coding helps develop a lot problem solving skills, and helps clarify the way we think. It's one thing to ask someone to make a cup of tea, but if you have a tell a computer how to do it then you suddenly realise how precise you have to be! But once you've worked out how to tell a computer how to make one cup of tea, you can tell it to make thousands of cups of tea, you can tell it to tell other computers how to make cups of tea, you can change things around a bit to get a cup of coffee instead. Suddenly all these possibilities open up and you realise that you can do so much more than you could before.

Computing is all about empowerment and extending your reach to do things which are beyond even most intelligent and tireless of people. If there's a problem you want to solve, then the only limits are your own ingenuity and the limits of your hardware. One time I lost my phone and I needed to make an alarm clock, so I spent about 20 minutes making a web page and now I've got an alarm clock I can use any time. Problem solved! I've always enjoyed maths and science and this has motivated a lot of my coding projects. Sometimes someone will tell me about some theorem or a fractal or a pattern, and for the next few days all I want to do is find out more, to analyse it, to find out the answers, and with coding that's possible. If, like me, you have an insatiable urge to discover things and understand things, then learning how to code is one of the best things you can do with your time. If you want to answer a question you can go online, get a little help, find the data you need, and get your answer. Some of the data I've analysed have been general election results, LGBT rights worldwide, stock prices, and how much money I spend on train tickets to visit family and friends (which told me I could afford to visit family and friends more often!)

LGBT rights in Europe, a temporal intersection of politics, social change, and geography, that just begs to be analysed.

Solving problems is one thing, but making games is another. I love to make games, and sharing them with my friends. If solving problems and analysing data are fun and interesting, then that's nothing compared to interacting with other people. Suddenly you have to combine computing with psychology, and that's fascinating. Even more than that you have to keep up with the latest technology, which puts you at the cutting edge. There have been many times where I've looked online for the answer to a problem and found that nobody has posted an answer, so it's possible that I'm the first person to come across it! I love to push technology to its limits and see how far I can push software before it breaks. As soon a a new technology opens up I'm all over it and seeing what can be done, what fun I can have. One of my current projects involves writing educational software about data collection at the LHC. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, and it's all my own work. As far as I can tell there's nobody else in the world doing anything even similar to what I'm doing, and now I'm getting funding from a UK research council to develop this further and take it into schools. If you have an idea that want to pursue, and the patience to follow it through, then there are so many opportunities that open up for you.

It's not just games though, you can make some beautiful art with software. There's a mathematical fractal known as the Apollonian gasket which is where you pack a space with circles, so I learned how to make this fractal, then decided to use it to fill a photo. Suddenly I had a really cool image that I could print off and put on my wall. Even better than that, I could scale it up to any size without losing any image quality!

Apollonian gasket art.

There is something very satisfying about making something of your own, especially when you show it to a friend and they have a hard time believing that you made such a thing. That's what I do on my website as well, I make an interesting game or a tool and for some reason it doesn't occur to some people that writing your own software is possible. Of course it is, because real people have done it and none of us is particularly special in our talents. It takes a little patience, some practice, and a drive to create something new. As time goes on we find more and more resources at our disposal, more and more experts to help us, better hardware to use, and all this makes it easier than ever to start developing software. There's an excellent community out there as well, other hobbyists who want to share the joy of coding with the latest newcomers. Some of the most fascinating people I've ever met have been other coders, people who freely share their own projects, help strangers out, write games for fun, and write software for the greater good. If you want to see some examples of open and honest altruism then speak to coders online and see what they have made and freely shared. They've made something that has cost them nothing but their time, patience, experience and ingenuity, then shared it with the world. Some things are frivolous, some are crowd-sourced projects that help people out, some lead to revolutionary new techniques or ideas.

It's an exciting time to be a hobbyist or a developer, and I've found that there's no firm boundary between my hobby ends and my work begins. The skills I learn in my spare time I apply to my work, and the problems I solve in my work inspire new projects. I now find myself developing educational software, inspired by my work and initially a hobby, now occupying more of my time and something that will feature prominently on my CV. It's like the saying goes, if you find a job you love you'll never have to work a day in your life!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

New data!

Recently the LHC has started Run 2 and this week there are high intensity beams delivering a lot of data. This is a very exciting time to be a physicist and what I have been waiting for the past two years. In fact, my contract as been extended to make the best use of this new data. No amount of working with simulation or theory can compare to working with real data. This job has a lot of advantages and disadvantages, and right now the job is extremely motivating and enjoyable.

What the first 2015 data looked like at CMS.

Something I've wanted to do with new data is automatically analyse them as they arrive, and now I can do that for the first time. (I had tried when I worked on ATLAS, but due to time and technology constraints it was not possible.) Now that we have a globally distributed computing system where any computer can access any file at any time I can stream the latest data each night and run the analysis before I even wake up. So that's what I'm doing right now and it's one of the most fun projects I've ever developed! I've spent the past couple of years preparing and tweaking the software so that I'd have a push-button system in place by now, and it's worked very well so far. There are going to be many teething problems, of course, but they're minor compared to the labour that will be saved. My first large test job is currently running, analysing at its peak 300 events per second (100 events per second, once I/O is taken into account.) Following on from a previous post about how my personal computing resources are not sufficient to do all the work I need to do, I've contacted IT support and been given a generous allowance of disk space, as well being able to run my CPU and I/O intensive jobs overnight. This is going to make a huge difference, and has allowed me to support my students with the simulations and datasets that I analyse. Seeing all this come together is a wonderful experience.

This is how excited physicists get when we first see beams in the machine! I was a very proud Shift Leader that day.

On the one hand this is, of course, very rewarding, but on the other hand a little disappointing that this isn't already being done. There seems to be a culture in particle physics that real work is about manually submitting jobs and analysing data, and there are politics associated with the notion that people should take turns in carrying the burden. We have the technology and expertise to run an analysis automatically, so why not do that? That's what we would see in the private sector. We have access to some of the largest datasets the world has ever seen and some of the most powerful computing resources ever created, it would be a crime not to exploit those as much as possible. I get the impression that I'm the only person doing this kind of work, and if that's the case then it's certainly time to move on to a different workplace. But first, I have data to analyse! I love data.