Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Branching out

For the past eight years I've been active in particle physics research, but that hasn't been my only interest. As time has gone on I've found myself taking on more and more elaborate projects in my spare time that build on my experiences as an international particle physicist, without directly contributing to my physics research. During my time at SLAC I spent most of my spare time travelling and exploring the local (and not so local) world around me. As time passed I found I spent more and more time developing programming skills for fun, but always with an eye for what would be useful and transferable in the future. (At one point I wrote a content management system from scratch. It was rapid development and looking back I shudder to think of the security holes it had. Still, that was all part of the learning process!) On top of the normal work there were of course all the other burdens that go with being a student, such as writing a thesis, taking a lecture course, and helping with the then brand new series of student seminars. Add to that the tedious paperwork of being an expat in the US, and taking the time to react to the funding cuts on both sides of the Atlantic I had a full schedule. It was a brilliant experience, and one that left me exhausted.

Then I moved to Geneva to work at CERN and things changed quite radically. My new boss was an old colleague and friend of mine and we had high expectations of each other. The three years we spent working together were probably the most rewarding of my career so far. As well as all the usual work: taking part in two analyses (one of which I started and lead for a year), service work, software development, giving talks at international conferences, and mentoring students, I also took part in many extra curricular activities. I was one of the most prolific outreach bloggers in the field, making liveblogs and videos, including a 10 minute April 1st video. On top of this my programming and photography skills saw a huge improvement. I directed and gathered footage for a horror series (still to be edited and published, alas) and started a whole new set of blogs exploring life as physicist, life following bereavement and musings about life in general. One of the long term projects where I'm still active is the LGBT group at CERN. When I arrived there was no such group, which I thought was a gross oversight, so I aimed to fixed this. After negotiations with CERN management we got recognition and paved the way for other similar groups to join us, modernising CERN's approach to equal opportunities by (in my opinion) a couple of decades. Towards the end of my contract at CERN I was spend more of my time evangelising particle physics, first by reaching out to particle physicists in the field to advertise my new analysis (and to try to change the focus of the work from a bump hunt to a signal strength measurement, which was largely unsuccessful) and later to advertise the work of the whole experiment to the US funding agencies. This had style and flair that went beyond what is normally expected of physicists. Most talks we give are clinical and drab. Mine were bright and energetic, conveying emotion and wonder as well as information. I also spent a great deal of time socialising with my students and colleagues, often at my own expense, not only because it's a pleasant way to spend time, but because it's vital that people in a foreign country feel welcome, supported, and willing to come back in the future. As all this happened I tried to tie the different activities in together. I explored CERN for fun, taking photos as I did and getting the idea for the horror series. The photos I took I posted on my outreach blogs, and I would go with some people from the LGBT group to film more footage. I socialised with the people I knew the best, finding common ground between the Brits, the outreach bloggers, the analysis team, and the LGBT group, drawing on the strengths of each and making new connections when useful, building stronger social networks for everyone. In all this my boss helped with the outreach, the horror series, the evangelising, and, of course, the work itself. All the time this was documented with a "photo of a day" project, and highlighted with the discovery of the Higgs and some truly amazing conferences.

The point to all this is that the physics itself was not enough to keep my mind occupied. I needed a lot of other outlets for my creativity and to keep boredom at bay. It also gave a welcome break from the physics, allowing my subconscious to take over those problems for a while and quite often in the middle of doing something else entirely I'd come acros the answer to a physics related problem I'd been thinking over for days. I had to have distractions to keep my mind active and reach those parts of my brain that physics research didn't exercise often. This has become more and more important to me as I've become more experienced and competent as a physicist. Since moving to Brussels I've found myself taking on additional projects that are moving even further away from physics. This blog is one example, where I take a deep and long look at where my life is heading. It's been an exercise in clarity that has taken a great deal of thought and attention, and many people have praised me for my writing on here. Finding the right words takes practice, and I've been developing the necessary skills in many different guises over many years. This has included being a student activist and support officer (including writing hundreds of pages of literature and policy), the technical writings associated with physics, some teaching and mentoring experience, documenting software effectively, blogging in many styles and contexts from the frivolous to the poignant to the serious, to the LGBT activism at CERN, writing for audiences of different levels of knowledge and competence of English. I find I have an ongoing need to explore new and different styles to challenge myself in novel ways. I currently have a few long term software projects taking place that go far beyond anything I've attempted before, and have definite audience demographics with their own challenges. One is an educational game for pupils in high school, another is a point and click tool for creating physics diagrams (an interface which is woefully underused in our field) and another is an online tile based exploration game that tests the limits of what a browser is capable of delivering, in terms of scope and resource use.

However the project that surprised me the most and what I enjoyed the most was taking part in stand up comedy at CERN. Writing a comedy set and performing it on stage for a given audience is something I had never done before. It tapped into a whole set of skills I had only skirted around before and never used fully. It forced me to think about the differences between being funny to friends and being funny to an audience, between telling a joke and setting up a joke. During the whole process I received all kinds of positive and negative feedback (all constructive), learned that the creative process is largely about deciding what not to include, received praise for my performance on the night, and ultimately made something of which I very proud. It also opened up a whole new avenue of possibilities for me. I met all kinds of creative and funny people who were equally as excited about the evening as I was, each with their own acts. Again, it fed into the social life I had developed at CERN, drawing on my experiences as a physicist, as someone who takes part in outreach, as an LGBT physicist, meeting familiar faces in a new context, and realising that a lot of the talent was already there at CERN. If only I had known this four years ago instead of being more mercenary! I look back on the experience as one of the most impressive and "cool" things I've ever done, and note that on the one hand it would not have been possible if I was not a physicist, and on the other that it used skills which are mostly non-overlapping with those of the typical physicist. It was outside my comfort zone by just the right amount, and that's what I'm looking for in the next chapter of my life. Something that builds on my creative and social skills, not necessarily a distraction from my technical skills, but something complementary that makes me a more well rounded person, and fulfils me in a different way. At that point I'll find my goalposts moving again and who knows where that will lead in terms of my personal life. I have a few ideas for short stories, so perhaps I'll take up writing for a few years.

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