You and I are going to use actual data to understand diversity in STEM.

You and I are now going to attempt to have a conversation about diversity and discrimination. We’re going to do it with love and respect, and it’s going to take place here, on the internet.

[NARRATOR: And they were never heard from again.]

In particular, because this is a blog about physics, I want to talk about issues of diversity and inclusivity in physics. First, the facts. It is a fact that various genders and ethnic groups are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

In case that graph just looks like a bunch of numbers, I’ve reframed it
below. In a just and equal society, where everyone has the same opportunity
to succeed, you would expect the demographic distribution in STEM to roughly match the national demographic distribution. For example, if 17.1% of the US population identifies as Hispanic/Latino, you might expect that 17.1% of all STEM PhDs would also identify as Hispanic/Latino. A lower percentage would indicate that that group is under-represented in STEM, and a higher percentage would indicate that that group is over-represented. I’ve taken the demographic distributions of various STEM groups and normalized them to the US population to get a rough idea of who is under/over-represented.

By the way, I’ve drawn this data from the US Census [1], from the NSF study on “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering” [2], and from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory’s Diversity website [3]. (I think it’s great that Fermilab is tracking this information and displaying it publicly, and I wish more institutions would do the same.)

There are problems with this data, of course. For example, not everybody fits cleanly into one of the categories in the US Census. What if you’re multi-racial? What if you look Black, speak mostly Spanish, and live in the USA? (Actually, if you really want to get right down to it, “race” is a fiction, invented by people who wanted to sell slaves [4, 5, 6].) What if the gender binary isn’t useful to describe you? What box do you check? And what about LGBTQIA+ folks, who aren’t yet counted by the census and may not wish to be “out” at work? There are a lot of ways to be a person — or, per this essay, a person with a STEM job — and not all those ways are described very well by extant demographic data.

It’s interesting to debate whether race and/or gender are social constructs, but a bit outside the scope of this essay. These memes have colonized our brains, whether we want them to or not. People will judge you by the color of your skin, your perceived national origin, the language or accent they hear you speak with, the clothes you wear, etc. The question I want to ask you here is: what are the consequences for STEM institutions?

There are a lot fewer women, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, etc. folks working in scientific jobs than you might expect, given their populations in the US. Talking about this problem (yes, I think it’s a problem) immediately makes some people defensive. Or emotional. Or just scared, as if the mere mention of structural racism is enough to pitch us all onto the social media bonfire. “I just want to hire the best person for this position” is a common refrain. Or, “we care about diversity, but it’s not our fault that mostly white men responded”. Some people will tell you, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, that the demographic distribution in STEM reflects innate differences in ability between men and women, or between various races.

This is all very lazy.

By “lazy”, I mean that you should expect more from scientists. If you recognize a problem, and the solution to that problem isn’t immediately obvious, shouldn’t this lead to more questions? Shouldn’t you be willing to consider that difficult problems might have complex solutions? If you say “racism is bad but I can’t help anything in my position as a scientist”, why is this any different from saying “this business about `luminiferous ether’ seems fishy, but it sure is a popular theory; I have no choice but to play along”.

There are better, more complete explanations for these phenomena, and they are freely available to us. Social scientists have been attacking the problem of STEM diversity for years. What does their research tell us? What are the sources of inequity, and what can we do to fix things?

This is what I want to tackle in this new series of posts. Some of my particle physics pals have formed a journal club. We meet once a month to pick through an article on diversity and inclusivity in STEM, with some help from our social scientist colleagues. I’m going to write here about what we learn.

I expect that most of what I have to say here will be about the process of learning about this issue. What does the literature say? How should we interpret what the literature says? (This is a big one for us. We’re used to enormous data sets and meticulous systematic error analyses. How should we understand studies with, like, 200 respondents?) And what can we take away from these studies and apply in our own lives?

Did we make it? Everybody still standing? Good, we’ll get into the literature next time, when I discuss our discussion of “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students” by C.A. Moss-Racusin et al., PNAS 109, no. 41, 10/9/2012, pp. 16474-16479 [7].

star trek ok GIF

[1] https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk

[2] https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17310/

[3] http://diversity.fnal.gov/laboratory-demographics/

[4] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/race-is-a-social-construct-scientists-argue/

[5] https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/what-we-mean-when-we-say-race-is-a-social-construct/275872/

https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/the-social-construction-of-race/275974/

[6] http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-02-09.htm

[7] http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.full.pdf+htm

http://www.pnas.org/content/suppl/2012/09/16/1211286109.DCSupplemental/pnas.201211286SI.pdf#nameddest=STXT

Gratitude for Larry Phillips

Larry Phillips is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. I consider him a role model, and I learned today that we lost him to cancer. He was my PhD advisor.

Larry was and is well-regarded in the field of particle accelerator technology. I worked with him on problems related to thin-film superconductivity for accelerating cavities, but he was one of those smart, versatile people who ends up getting involved in all sorts of fun problems. You’ll find that he’s made contributions to the design of cryomodules, RF windows, electropolishing of niobium accelerator components, plasma surface treatments, … it’s a long list. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of how to actually get things built. He “played against type” that way; he could keep up with condensed matter theorists, metallurgists, machinists, and grad students. In recent years he had gotten involved in the design of accelerator-driven nuclear reactors, and novel methods for detecting dark matter.

This diversity of interests and competence is maybe not surprising if you know anything about his life. Larry lived in New York in the 60s, partying with bohemians and working as a motorcycle courier. He blew glass professionally; he got his PhD working with Hans Meissner (son of Walther Meissner, who discovered the eponymous Meissner effect); he lived on a sailboat for a while; he not only designed his own house, but the construction methods used to build it; he was a devoted husband and father; and he was an excellent mentor for young physicists.

This is the part of the essay where I talk about gratitude. Larry took me on as a student at a time when I was feeling very unsure about myself, academically. I couldn’t have been luckier, in retrospect. He was always available when I needed support, and he also seemed to know when I needed to be left alone to sort things out for myself.

He went out of his way to make opportunities for me. There were the kinds of things you’d expect from a PhD advisor, like professional networking or experimental support. But he also made sure I didn’t graduate without learning how to weld, braze, run the hydraulic press, and how to talk to a machinist. (You’d be surprised how many scientists are not good at this.) And he set an example for me and all the people in our group with his positive attitude. He was always getting enthusiastic for new projects, and declaring that they would be fun. (He would also declare that new projects would be “easy”, but we all knew that when he said “easy” he meant “probably not impossible”.) I had a great time with him.

If you have never been a graduate student, you might not see this last statement as an appropriately big deal. Some of my grad school pals had advisors who worked them like dogs, or completely ignored them, or (in a few terrible cases) were outright emotionally abusive. This sort of thing is unfortunately not uncommon. And while I could never claim that the process of graduating wasn’t stressful, I came out of it feeling like a “real” scientist, with an appreciation for the state of my field and the ways I might contribute to it. I came out feeling positive and ready to go.

That’s why I’m talking about gratitude right now. It’s hard to overstate the enormity of the gift that Larry gave me. And not just me. We threw a surprise party for his 80th birthday just a few months ago, and the crowd there was full of people who will tell you the same things I’ve been telling you now.

Thanks, Larry, from all of us.

Gender bias in STEM fields helps maintain the “gender gap”.

We’ve got an accelerator conference coming up soon. I volunteered to help prepare material addressing issues faced by women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. The title says it all, really.

I suspect that every scientist would benefit from doing this sort of service work now and again. I read some very interesting papers and I learned a ton.

Problems of bias can seem nebulous and impossible to describe, let alone to solve. Something I particularly appreciated about my experience making this poster: the problems are clear and often quantitatively described. What’s more, there are data-driven, concrete solutions to these problems! Assuming your department has the political will to implement these solutions, you can help fix things. Not bad!

biasposter

Coffee vs. neutrinos

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oArst6JaE1w

Anaïs took this photo while I was writing this post. I am drinking *tea* here because, after the reading I’ve been doing (see below), I just can’t handle the question of whether I should be drinking coffee. Like, on a philosophical level. It’s right up there with “what is truth” and “does free will exist”.

Let’s start with some numbers. According to the International Coffee Organization, the USA bought enough coffee beans in 2014 to brew something like 100 billion cups of coffee. That’s roughly one cup of coffee per day for every single US resident. Including babies. Coffee is everywhere, all the time.

So here’s a perfectly reasonable question: is coffee good for you? Humans have been drinking coffee for at least 600 years — plenty of time to come up with an answer.

The answer is a resounding “maybe”. Consider:

  • A 1985 article in the New York Times suggested that 5 or more cups a day increases risk of heart disease. Specifically, it described a study which concluded that drinking that much coffee will triple the risk of heart disease, relative to people who drink none. (Coffee bad.)
  • A 2012 article in the New England Journal of Medicine reported a correlation between increased coffee consumption and a decrease in “all-cause mortality” rates, essentially a measure of the likelihood of death. (Coffee good!)
  • A 2013 study by the Mayo Clinic concluded that 4 cups per day increases the likelihood of all-cause mortality. (Coffee bad.) They recommend that young people limit their consumption of coffee to less than 4 cups per day.
  • A 2014 study in The Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that “Regular coffee consumption was not associated with an increased mortality rate in either men or women. The possibility of a modest benefit of coffee consumption on all-cause and CVD mortality needs to be further investigated.” (Coffee good?)

I could go on. And on. And on. There’s an overwhelming supply of studies that will support either side of this argument. We haven’t even started talking about coffee’s effect on specific medical conditions; there are studies out there addressing coffee’s effect on the incidence and/or severity of Parkinson’s, liver disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, anemia, depression, dementia, athletic performance …

Superficially, this is crazy. Coffee is everywhere. If you are not currently drinking coffee, you probably could be five minutes from now if you put your mind to it. I’m writing this post while sitting in a coffee shop. How can we still have so much uncertainty about something so ubiquitous?

The answer is typically science-y, of course. Coffee’s effect on the human body is complex because the human body is complex. These confusing and contradictory experimental results can motivate scientists to seek deeper, more complete answers to difficult questions. In the case of coffee, some very recent work suggests that your genes determine whether “coffee good” or “coffee bad”. Brave readers with lots of free time might want to stick around for the epilogue.

Anyway, I assert that coffee is hard to understand, despite its ubiquity. Do you know what else is ubiquitous and hard to understand?

Did you just yell “NEUTRINOS!” at the top of your lungs? Yeah, that’s the answer I was going for.

Subatomic particles, generally, are so, so far outside our everyday experience as human beings. Chances are, you’ve never had any reason to care about muons in your daily life. The subject just doesn’t come up, right? What about cosmic ray flux? Or neutrino oscillation rates? Not as often as you drink coffee, amirite?

I refuse to apologize for my puns. This is no exception.

I’m willing to bet that this is the only Quark that you have any substantial experience with.

So here you are, minding your own business, when a physicist starts blogging at you about neutrinos. They’re all around you, he says. Trillions of them pass through your body every second, he says. What are you supposed to do with that? To be blunt, how are you supposed to believe something so far outside your daily experience, when you don’t even know whether “coffee bad”?

Here, I don’t mean “believe” in the sense of truth vs. lies. I mean, how can you know that your body is permeated by neutrinos in the same way you know that gravity pulls you down to Earth, or that snow is made of frozen water, or that Daniel is handsome? You have direct, personal experience, through your senses, that these things are true. There are no intermediate steps. You don’t have to consult a scientific instrument to know that things fall down — you can feel the pull of gravity and you can see its effects on everything around you. Likewise, you don’t need to read a book in a library to know that coffee tastes amazing at 8 am.

But are your senses the only reliable source of truth? Are you skeptical about neutrinos because you can’t see them? You haven’t seen live dinosaurs either, and your day-to-day experience suggests that the Earth is flat, not round. Maybe you should limit your appreciation of truth to what you can sense for yourself.

More than two thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks kicked that idea right in its butt.This is a long discussion and I can’t do it justice in an already-long blog post. Essentially, your perception can change depending on circumstances. For example, maybe a fig tastes sweet to you. But if you eat honey before you eat figs, maybe those figs won’t seem so sweet anymore. What can you say that you know (like, really really know) about the taste of figs?

Your perceptions can be unreliable. Just think about the last time you got hangry. You skipped breakfast, maybe, and then right around 11 am the world started to suck, right? The line at the coffee shop started to seem unreasonably long, or the barista’s haircut seemed unreasonably annoying, or the guy behind you in line was talking unreasonably loud on his phone. In that moment, are you really perceiving an objective reality? Do you have well-deserved, righteous indignation about the barista’s haircut? Maybe you should get a muffin with that coffee.

Our senses, by themselves, are not the sole arbiters of truth. They are vital, beautiful, and useful, but they are not the whole story. Humans reach for truth in ways besides immediate sensory experience. One of those ways is called science. We have built tools and systems of thought in order to help us reliably, repeatably demonstrate complex and obscure phenomena.

Leon Lederman is a Nobel laureate, a former director of Fermilab, and the co-author of a truly enjoyable book with an admittedly silly name: The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What Is the Question? (1993, Bantam Press). Here’s a particularly relevant excerpt. (Note for young people: TVs used to be bulky vacuum tubes with electron beams inside.)

The lady in the audience was stubborn. “Have you ever seen an atom?” she insisted.  … My attempts to answer this thorny question always begin with trying to generalize the word “see”. Do you “see” this page if you are wearing glasses? … If you are reading the text on a computer screen? Finally, in desperation, I ask, “Have you ever seen the pope?”

“Well, of course,” is the usual response. “I saw him on television.” Oh, really? What she saw was an electron beam striking phosphorous painted on the inside of a glass screen. My evidence for the atom, or the quark, is just as good.

Sometimes, you need to reach for truth through a pair of glasses. Or a television. Or a particle accelerator.

I’ll be talking about these ideas in more depth on December 6th at an event called Ask A Scientist. It should be fun! Hope to see you there.

 


Epilogue for Sticklers

For those of you still reading, I should admit to being a little glib for rhetorical reasons. As I said before, the human body is an incredibly complex system. To pose a binary question about whether coffee is categorically good or bad is to be ridiculously reductive.

Sometimes, the questions worth asking have complex answers. The questions we ask should allow for answers complex enough to be correct. As they say on Twitter, you should want better for yourself.

Arguments about all-cause mortality are statistical in nature and difficult to apply to a specific individual with her own specific physiology, metabolism, gut flora, lifestyle, etc. And in fact, there are a couple studies I’ve seen recently that bear this out.

  • Does coffee increase your risk of heart disease? Well, you’ve got a gene called CYP1A2 that tells your liver how to make enzymes that help to metabolize caffeine. If you’ve got the CYP1A2*1A allele, your liver will make enzymes that help you to metabolize caffeine quickly; in that case, “coffee good”. But if you’ve got the CYP1A2*1F allele instead, you metabolize caffeine slowly and coffee might increase your risk of a heart attack. (Coffee bad.) This is hard to summarize in a paragraph-friendly way. Check out the article for better information.
  • Likewise, there seem to be genetic factors that influence the effect of coffee on the risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Probably, then, the question “is coffee healthy” is a bad question to ask since the answer depends so much on individual factors. Perhaps a better question would be, “will I personally benefit from drinking coffee?” And perhaps you can’t answer that question without doing some of your own research, listening to your body, … I’ve even heard of people ordering genetic tests for themselves so that they can have some certainty about this.

Tip your baristas, ladies & gentlemen.

On the craziness of neutrinos, or: Why is there stuff?

I’m going to try to blow your mind two separate times in this post. Stay with me while things get weird, ok?

minos_detector

Today’s photos are of MINOS, a neutrino experiment at Fermilab.

Let’s have some fun with neutrinos. For this very-sophisticated physics demonstration you’ll need your hand and one second of time. I’ll wait while you collect those supplies.

Ready?

Ok, first hold out your hand, palm up. Now wait for one second. Are you done? Did you notice anything freaky happening?

What if I told you that about a trillion neutrinos passed through your hand in that one second? Not figuratively, the same way you might say “I’m so hungry I could eat, like, a trillion pizzas”. I mean that several thousand billion particles — called neutrinos — pass through your body every single second of every day and night.

Don’t freak out! Well, go ahead and freak out a little if you want. A trillion is a freaky-big number. But the thing about neutrinos is that they’re guaranteed not to bother you. They basically never interact with other matter. You could shoot a neutrino through a brick of lead one light-year long, and that neutrino would only have a 50% chance of colliding with one of the atoms in that lead brick. They’re like the ghosts of the particle physics world.

Wait wait, come back! I’m sorry I made you think about trillions of ghosts whooshing silently through your body. I promise they won’t hurt you.

All those neutrinos are coming from the sun, by the way. The sun is so hot and massive that individual solar protons will squish together and fuse into helium. One of the by-products of that solar fusion is some neutrinos. And by “some” I mean “a number so big it hurts to think about it”.

minos_detector_hall

Neutrino experiments tend to happen in underground caves. Burying your experiment under a hundred meters of rock and dirt is a great way to keep unwanted radio waves, cosmic rays, and other surface dreck from confusing your data. And the neutrinos don’t care where they are, of course.

Now let’s change gears slightly. Remember the Big Bang? When the universe was a crazy-hot pinprick of horrendous energy? As the infant universe expanded and cooled, little globs of matter — particles! — started to condense out of that energy. That happened the way Einstein said: some energy E would turn into some mc2, and then all of a sudden there’d be a particle (with mass m) where before there was just a wad of energy.

The thing is, Einstein’s E = mc2 doesn’t say anything about particles vs. anti-particles. A wad of Big Bang energy should be just as likely to make an anti-electron as to make an electron. (Or whatever, pick your favorite particle.) Statistically, then, you would expect equal amounts of matter and anti-matter to form after the Big Bang.

But! Any Trekkie will tell you that when matter and anti-matter collide, they annihilate in a puff of energy. (That’s how the Enterprise runs!) So in an early, hot universe with particles zooming around helter-skelter, you’d expect matter to collide with anti-matter, leaving nothing. That’s right folks, if physics was simple and things generally made sense, the universe would be filled with nothing. Instead of which, we have not-nothing! There is stuff, and all of the stuff we’ve ever found in the universe is made of matter. Nobody has ever seen an anti-matter galaxy full of anti-matter stars.

If I’ve done my job right, you’re freaking out again right about now.

where_neutrinos_go

The experiment was RUNNING when I took this tour! That guy is sticking his hand into AN ACTIVE NEUTRINO BEAM. No problem! The white spot is where the neutrinos leave the experimental hall and pass through 450 miles of rock. They emerge at the bottom of a mineshaft in Minnesota, where another set of particle detectors are situated. All of what you just read is real.

Physicists have worked out a theoretical model that explains this matter/anti-matter asymmetry. Theoretically, there’s some mechanism that biased the early universe in favor of matter. In order to test that model, we need to study some pretty esoteric things about neutrinos. That brings us to the final question of this post: If neutrinos are so insubstantial, how can you possibly study them?

The answer has to do with statistics. Let’s say you build a particle detector and then you start throwing neutrinos at it. If you only throw one neutrino at a time, there’s basically no chance of that particular neutrino interacting with your detector. What if you throw a million trillion neutrinos at once? Each individual neutrino still has a vanishingly small chance of interacting with your detector, but now statistics is starting to work in your favor. This is kind of like the lottery. If you buy one lottery ticket, I promise you won’t win the million-dollar jackpot. But if you buy a million lottery tickets, you might have a decent chance of winning.

minos_DAQ_hardware

Computer hardware for data acquisition. If you like things that look cool, you might like to tour a particle physics laboratory.

There are some experiments that manage to use only solar neutrinos to answer very specific questions. The Ice Cube experiment in Antarctica is a notably, amazingly hardcore example of this. But really big questions (“Why is there stuff?”) require way more neutrinos than the sun alone can provide. Another experimental approach is to make your own neutrinos in way, way larger quantities, and to throw them all at your particle detector as fast as you possibly can. (This is equivalent to buying all the lottery tickets.) And what’s the best way to do that? Why, with a particle accelerator of course! This is just what I was talking about in last week’s post.

I want to build a neutrino factory. Don’t you?

Makin’ those Big Decisions

Let’s you and I gaze … INNNNTOOO THE FUUUUTURRRRRRRE!

cloudsI want to be able to tell myself a story about the future. If I have no idea what the next month will bring me (like when I was applying for jobs this past spring) I can get a little stressed. If I have a story to tell myself, then I have a goal I can work towards. But if I don’t know enough to put together a story, then in my mind every future is equally likely. I could get my dream job or I could get no job. We could move to Illinois or we could get sucked through a rogue cosmic wormhole and end up on Planet Squizznonks. I have a good imagination! But my imagination needs some structure or it will freak out, like a middle school student who’s too smart for his own good.

Right now, I can tell myself a pretty convincing story about the next year or two. Anaïs might graduate and start looking for jobs. I might be working like crazy on my new experimental program. Maybe we’ll make it through a couple Chicago winters and they won’t seem so insane anymore. Story: check. No freak-outs: check.

But if I look a little farther out, there’s some pretty big stuff I just don’t know about yet. Are we going to buy a house like real grown-ups? Are we going to start having kids? Can I plan on staying at my new job that I love, or will we need to solve the “two-body problem” again when people start showering Anaïs with super-amazing job offers? (Anaïs will certainly get showered with job offers because she is brilliant and hard-working and beautiful.)

So for now, I’m trying to focus on the present. The present is pretty good. And I haven’t noticed any rogue cosmic wormholes in my neighborhood yet, so that’s something.

Now let’s peer into our copper cauldron to ponder the phuture of particle physics…

cauldronSame story, different characters. When you talk about the future of particle physics, there’s some near-term stuff that’s easier to plan and talk about, and some long-term stuff that’s hazy and hard to imagine.

In the near-term, there’s a lot of exciting questions about neutrinos that we can answer with today’s technology. For example, some people think there might be new, weird flavors of neutrino we haven’t observed yet. Also, a careful study of neutrinos could help us answer this question: “why is there stuff?” Don’t you want to know why there’s stuff?

Let’s leave that as a teaser for the next blog post: the mystery of the existence of stuff. But for now we’re talking about the future. In my artful and clever allegory, all this neutrino business is in the easy-to-imagine, anxiety-mitigating near-future. It’s good to know we have some important work ready to be done right now.

Beyond that neutrino stuff, though, it’s harder to tell ourselves the story of the next big accelerator. The problem is that right now, we don’t know enough about the next big questions. Is there only one Higgs boson, or are there a bunch of them? And what about supersymmetry? Is that a thing, or what?

Those are big, big questions in physics that will be answered by building a big, big accelerator. And until the LHC generates more data, we really don’t know what kind of accelerator we’ll need. Should we even build a new, giant accelerator? (Yes.) Should it collide protons or muons, should it be circular or linear, and who should build it? Right now we just don’t have enough data. It’s hard to say what the next big machine will be like because we’re not quite sure — yet — how to ask the next round of big questions.

That uncertainty about the future of particle physics is fuel today for a lot of meetings and powerpoint slides and general hand-wringing. My physics pals and I are working just as fast as we can to put together the next big story in a way that makes sense to us all. And that’s what I’ll spend my next few blog posts talking about. Stay tuned!

New job, new post!

hoorayI took a few months off of blogging so I could focus all my energies on worrying about job applications. And I guess all that worrying paid off because I got a job! I work at Fermilab now, doing basically the same stuff as before.

I want to tell you all about it! But not all at once, because (a) I respect you and your limited free time too much for that; and (b) oh man, Anaïs and I still have so much unpacking to do.

I’m very happy to be blogging at you again. Hello!

Friday Physics Photos: ???

fragile_lasers

 

Ok you guys, I’m doing that thing where as I write my next post, I discover that I have more and more things I want to talk about and the post gets longer and longer … Right now it’s an unreadable mess. While you wait for me to carve that mess up into several smaller messes, here’s a little bit of fun.

On my bike ride into work, I passed by another department’s lab. In their parking lot was this totally inexplicable vignette. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here and I love it. Somebody write me a short story about this.

I made you a li’l movie!

Hi! Hello. I made a small movie about a small particle accelerator.

But first. A public apology to the woman who cut my hair the other day. (And who is definitely reading this right now?) I’m sorry I made you talk about physics.

For the 100% of you who are not the lady who cut my hair, I will explain. Briefly. During a lull in standard-issue haircut conversation, Haircut Lady asked me what I did for work. My internal dialogue went like this:

  1. I should just tell her I’m a scientist and leave it at that. Supplying more information is an implicit assumption that she wants to hear me say a lot of science stuff.
  2. On the other hand, I’m going to be sitting in this chair for a long time and physics is fun to talk about.
  3. On the other hand, plenty of people have told me that they hated physics in high school and they don’t know anything about it now.  She might be one of those people.
  4. While I’m sitting here thinking, an awkward pause is stretching out into weird, uncomfortable seconds. I should just say what I do for a living.  I shouldn’t be so hung up about this.  Daniel! Have a conversation with a stranger! Go!

Anyway, so I tried a little experiment.  I told her what I do, and then I asked her what she thought of when I said “particle accelerator”. Not like a pop quiz! I wasn’t looking for a specific answer. (I said that, too.) Instead, I think scientists have a responsibility to clearly communicate their work to the general public. If the general public knows what we do, then we’re doing a good job of communicating. And if they don’t, we obviously aren’t doing a good enough job.

Your homework for tonight: What do you think of when you think about particle accelerators? What would you draw if you had to draw one? Describe it in the comments below!

Dear Haircut Lady, I’m sorry that I put you on the spot because I was curious about abstract ideas. You handled it very gracefully.

For the curious: she had the general idea that accelerators are sort of like a laser beam, but wasn’t clear on what they might be useful for. I think this is where most people are at.

Which brings me to this video I made! A colleague at work had this little science demo that she let me play with, and I had so much fun I wanted to share it.  Here we go!

DIY photo booth adventures

This is a scan of a print-out of a very handsome couple’s booth photo at our wedding. That is, this is what the final product looked like. Read on to find out more!

My cousin had a photo booth at his wedding.  It was super fun and everybody loved it and for his entire reception, there was a line of excited people outside the booth waiting for another turn.  So when we were starting to plan our wedding, I started thinking about whether I could do something similar.  Naively, it seemed to me like it should be possible to write a computer program that does all the stuff a photo booth should do.  Could I really do this myself?

“Yes” is the answer.  You can too — you can make a photo booth similar to the one my cousin used with relatively few supplies and without a lot of computer-related suffering. And everybody will love it and your party will be great!  On the other hand. If, like me, you have poor impulse control when it comes to solitary learning and technical problems, you can try to do everything yourself!  And it will only take a thousand times the sweat and effort!

Here is an uncharacteristically long post about how I built a photo booth for my wedding.  Partly, it’s a long post because it contains advice and recommendations for other people trying to build a photo booth. Partly, though, it’s long because I’m so pleased with myself.

Planning

Sitting at the metaphorical drawing board, I tried to sketch out the job I wanted my booth to do.  Here it is:

  1. The user should be presented with a very very simple setup.  Inside the booth, only the camera, a monitor (for feedback to the user), and a big shiny button should be visible.
  2. Wait for a user to sit down and get themselves situated.  Display a live image of the camera’s view in the monitor, so the user can compose the photo.
  3. The user pushes a button to initiate the photo taking/printing process.
  4. The DSLR takes 4 photos.
  5. The photos are stored on the computer with unique filenames so they’ll all be available later.
  6. The photos are stitched together into a standard-looking photo booth strip, along with a label marking the occasion and the date.
  7. Send this image to the printer.
  8. While the computer is thinking / printer is printing, the button is disabled so a rambunctious user doesn’t break the software or clog the print queue.
  9. Once the photos are printed, goto step 2.  Do this until the end of time, or until somebody digs out the laptop and presses Ctrl-C.

Also important during the planning stage was my existing inventory.  I wanted to avoid buying anything expensive or learning complicated, new software just for the sake of the booth.  Here’s the material I had on-hand before I started building:

  • DSLR camera
  • tripod
  • laptop running Ubuntu, full of free software
  • generic color printer
  • 19″ LCD monitor
  • the same Griffin PowerMate USB button that my cousin used for his booth
  • all kinds of cables and whatnot

If you look around at other photo booth DIY projects (and really, the internet is crawling with them) you’ll see that lots of people use webcams instead of DSLRs.  This isn’t a bad idea, since there’s plenty of software out there to control webcams.  Plus they’re fast and cheap.  I went with my DSLR instead since (a) I own one that takes good photos, (b) it gave me more control over photos in low-light situations, and (c) I wanted high-res photos that I could send to people afterward as keepsakes.

Software

Here’s a thing about DIY projects: they become way less scary if you can break them down into sub-projects.  It’s not calming or instructive to tell yourself “Today I have to build a photo booth”.  By comparison, it’s fun and exciting to think “Today I need to figure out how to operate my camera from a UNIX terminal.”  Small tasks = considerably less panic.  Once I made my numbered list, each individual step didn’t seem so bad.  I finished some of those sub projects by typing a single line of code, or after five seconds of Googling.  Here, let’s walk through that list again and I’ll tell you what I did.

  1. Set everything up.  Nothing to discuss, really.
  2. Getting the camera to show a live view of the booth interior took some thought.  Fortunately, somebody had thought about it before me.  To control my camera, I used gphoto2 and a set of scripts by Alex Dumitrache called piggyphoto.  This software worked beautifully for me! And it was very, very easy to install on Ubuntu.  Once your camera is plugged in and detected by the software, you can take photos from the command line!  And do other more complicated stuff too.  Very smooth.
  3. Getting the USB button to “talk” to the computer was the hardest part of the whole process.  I don’t have much experience programming for peripheral devices, so there was a big learning curve.  Maybe there was a better solution here, but I went with gizmod, a Python-based not-really-a-daemon that looks for specific input device events and maps them to user-specified computer functions.  I wrote a script that “listens” for a USB button press, and then starts the photo taking/storing/printing process.
  4. Taking photos using command line functions was a breeze using gphoto2.  To take four photos at intervals of one second and store them on the computer’s hard drive (instead of the camera’s internal memory), do this:
    gphoto2 --capture-image-and-download --interval 1 --frames 4
  5. My friend Matt, who is smart, suggested naming each photo using the standard UNIX “date” command.  That way, each file gets a unique filename and nothing is in danger of being overwritten.
  6. You can easily stitch your photos together using ImageMagick, another wonderful bit of free software:
    montage test00.jpg test01.jpg test02.jpg test03.jpg caption.jpg -tile 1x5 -geometry +0+10 final_product.jpg
  7. Print using “lpr”.
  8. Disabling the button until the printer is finished: easy.  Just build a delay into your script.
  9. Repeat!

Since I don’t have much USB control experience, it’s totally possible that I made step #3 unnecessarily complicated.  But ultimately, gizmod was a problem.  It was heartbreaking to install and run, and then a memory leak meant that somebody had to restart the photo booth script every once in a while.  Bummer.  I’d do this part differently next time.  But anyway, it worked!  Mostly!

Construction

This part was pretty easy, actually.  I build a boothy sort of structure out of 3×6′ plywood sheets, some scrap wood I salvaged from the street, and a handful of carriage bolts.  I put it together in an afternoon.  Compared with the software, this was so easy and fun!  I didn’t have to Google anything to build it right.

I used some 1.5″ PVC pipe and connectors to build a frame I could hang some curtains from.  The curtains were just raw, unsewn fabric that was heavy enough to block out light, and that had a cute pattern for the photo backdrop.

As a side note, the plywood sheets made another fun little diversion for our guests.  We painted the plywood a flat blue before the guests started arriving, and then during a party we set out paint and brushes and our guests went to town:

Here’s the setup: camera + monitor + a big shiny button. I used some of the curtain material behind the monitor to hide the tangle of cables and the un-painted interior booth walls.

Operation

One other difficulty deserves mentioning: the printer broke.  Of course the printer broke! That’s what printers do.  Actually, it didn’t even break.  It was running low on blue ink, so it started refusing to print black and white images.  I warmly invite you to explain to me why this makes sense.  Since I had only planned on printing black and white images, I didn’t have any spare color ink at the reception.  And since printer ink is expensive, it’s not like I was going to encounter this problem during my normal testing.  Quick fix: Since all the photos were saved on the computer anyway, I just put up a note promising to email everybody their photos after the wedding.  I was disappointed that our guests couldn’t have a party favor to take home with them, but it’s better than nothing.

Aside from the software and printer problems I mentioned, I’d do one other thing differently next time: I’d add a progress bar.  I hadn’t built any user feedback into my software, so after my guests pushed the big shiny button, there were no messages saying “Say Cheese!” or “All Finished!”  That stuff would’ve added an extra layer of polish to the whole operation.  

Parting Thoughts

Do you have some DIY project kicking around in the back of your head?  And you haven’t started yet because you’re not sure whether you can do it?  I fully recommend jumping in with both feet.  Look, as long as you can do it safely and the deadline is far enough away, you can do anything you set your mind to.  If you get stuck, well, the internet is enormous and full of people who want to give you advice.  And the payoff is new skills and a really excellent sense of accomplishment.  Nothing feels quite like building something that works.