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!

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