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Posts Tagged ‘CERN

“Of course there’s a lot of knowledge in universities: the freshmen bring a little in; the seniors don’t take much away, so knowledge sort of accumulates”*…

Professor Paul Musgrave on the wacky world of university fundraising…

I would like you to buy me a chair. Not just any chair: an endowed chair.

Let me explain.

Universities have strange business models. The legendary University of California president Clark Kerr once quipped that their functions were “To provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.” These days, the first is laundered for public consumption as “the student experience” and the third is a cost center (yes, many to most professors have to pay, rather a lot, for their parking tags). (The second remains unchanged.)

You can tell that Kerr was president during a time of lavish support because he didn’t include the other function of a university: to provide naming opportunities for donors.

Presidents, chancellors, and provosts seek to finagle gifts because the core business of universities—providing credits to students in exchange for tuition—is both volatile and insufficient to meet the boundless ambitions of administrators and faculty alike. (Faculty might protest that their ambitions are quite modest, as they include merely limitless research budgets and infinite releases from course time—but other than that, they ask only for cost of living adjustments as well as regular salary increases.) Trustees expect presidents to bring in new buildings and new chairs; presidents expect trustees to help dun their friends and acquaintances for donations. The incentives even trickle down to deans, directors, and chairs, all of whom live with increasingly austere baseline budgets and a concomitant incentive to find and cultivate donors to expand, or even just support, their operations.

It’s easy, and wrong, for faculty to be cynical about this. First, these operations reflect the gloriously incongruous medieval nature of the university. Higher education in its upper reaches resembles medieval monasteries, and such monasteries provided not just seclusion and sanctity for their initiates but the possibility of the purchase of virtue for the wealthy. So, too, do universities offer grateful alumni and those sentimental about the generation of knowledge opportunities to turn worldly wealth into tax-deductible noblesse oblige.

Second, donors are the customers for the other product of the university: the social proof of good works. Universities offer donors solicitous for the future of the less fortunate opportunities to subsidize tuition, and they offer donors more interested in the benefits of knowledge the opportunity to subsidize research. The reward comes in some combination of the knowledge that such works are being done and the fact that the donor’s name will be associated with it. (Few large university buildings are named the Anonymous Center for Cancer Research.)

The bar for giving continues to rise. Nine-figure gifts were once unheard of; nowadays, they are striking but no longer unprecedented. For such a sum you can have a constituent college named for yourself. The next frontier must be the billion, or multi-billion, dollar gift. For that level, of course, the reward would have to be commensurate. Given that Harvard was named for a donor who left some books and a few hundred pounds to his eponymous university, one wonders whether someone in Harvard’s charitable receiving arm hasn’t calculated how much it would cost to become, say, the Zuckerberg-Harvard University. (I would wager that an earnest offer of $10 billion would at least raise the issue.)…

[There follows a price list for endowed/named Chairs at different universities, and an analysis of their economics. The author suggest that a chair for him would run $2.5-3 million…]

Fascinating: “Buy Me a Chair,” from @profmusgrave.

* A. Lawrence Lowell (legal scholar and President of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933)


As we dig deep, we might recall that it was on this date in 1991 that the World Wide Web was introduced to the world at large.

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim) proposed the system to his colleagues at CERN. He got a working system implemented by the end of 1990, including a browser called WorldWideWeb (which became the name of the project and of the network) and an HTTP server running at CERN. As part of that development, he defined the first version of the HTTP protocol, the basic URL syntax, and implicitly made HTML the primary document format.

The technology was released outside CERN to other research institutions starting in January 1991, and then– with the publication of this (likely the first public) web page— to the whole Internet 32 years ago today. Within the next two years, there were 50 websites created. (Today, while it is understood that the number of active sites fluctuates, the total is estimated at over 1.5 billion.)

The NeXT Computer used by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN that became the world’s first Web server (source)

“Advantage! What is advantage?”*…

Pradeep Mutalik unpacks the magic and math of how to win games when your opponent goes first…

Most games that pit two players or teams against each other require one of them to make the first play. This results in a built-in asymmetry, and the question arises: Should you go first or second?

Most people instinctively want to go first, and this intuition is usually borne out. In common two-player games, such as chess or tennis, it is a real, if modest, advantage to “win the toss” and go first. But sometimes it’s to your advantage to let your opponent make the first play.

In our February Insights puzzle, we presented four disparate situations in which, counterintuitively, the obligation to move is a serious and often decisive disadvantage. In chess, this is known as zugzwang — a German word meaning “move compulsion.”…

Four fascinating examples: “The Secrets of Zugzwang in Chess, Math and Pizzas,” from @PradeepMutalik.

* Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground


As we play to win, we might recall that it was on this date in 2011 that scientists involved in the OPERA experiment (a collaboration between CERN and the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso) mistakenly observed neutrinos appearing to travel faster than light. OPERA scientists announced the results with the stated intent of promoting further inquiry and debate. Later the team reported two flaws in their equipment set-up that had caused errors far outside their original confidence interval: a fiber optic cable attached improperly, which caused the apparently faster-than-light measurements, and a clock oscillator ticking too fast; accounting for these two sources of error eliminated the faster-than-light results. But even before the sources of the error were discovered, the result was considered anomalous because speeds higher than that of light in a vacuum are generally thought to violate special relativity, a cornerstone of the modern understanding of physics for over a century.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 22, 2022 at 1:00 am

“A nothing will serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said”*…

Metaphysical debates in quantum physics don’t get at “truth,” physicist and mathematician Timothy Andersen argues; they’re nothing but a form of ritual activity and culture. After a thoughtful intellectual history of both quantum mechanics and Wittgenstein’s thought, he concludes…

If Wittgenstein were alive today, he might have couched his arguments in the vocabulary of cultural anthropology. For this shared grammar and these language games, in his view, form part of much larger ritualistic mechanisms that connect human activity with human knowledge, as deeply as DNA connects to human biology. It is also a perfect example of how evolution works by using pre-existing mechanisms to generate new behaviors.

The conclusion from all of this is that interpretation and representation in language and mathematics are little different than the supernatural explanations of ancient religions. Trying to resolve the debate between Bohr and Einstein is like trying to answer the Zen kōan about whether the tree falling in the forest makes a sound if no one can hear it. One cannot say definitely yes or no, because all human language must connect to human activity. And all human language and activity are ritual, signifying meaning by their interconnectedness. To ask what the wavefunction means without specifying an activity – and experiment – to extract that meaning is, therefore, as sensible as asking about the sound of the falling tree. It is nonsense.

As a scientist and mathematician, Wittgenstein has challenged my own tendency to seek out interpretations of phenomena that have no scientific value – and to see such explanations as nothing more than narratives. He taught that all that philosophy can do is remind us of what is evidently true. It’s evidently true that the wavefunction has a multiverse interpretation, but one must assume the multiverse first, since it cannot be measured. So the interpretation is a tautology, not a discovery.

I have humbled myself to the fact that we can’t justify clinging to one interpretation of reality over another. In place of my early enthusiastic Platonism, I have come to think of the world not as one filled with sharply defined truths, but rather as a place containing myriad possibilities – each of which, like the possibilities within the wavefunction itself, can be simultaneously true. Likewise, mathematics and its surrounding language don’t represent reality so much as serve as a trusty tool for helping people to navigate the world. They are of human origin and for human purposes.

To shut up and calculate, then, recognizes that there are limits to our pathways for understanding. Our only option as scientists is to look, predict and test. This might not be as glamorous an offering as the interpretations we can construct in our minds, but it is the royal road to real knowledge…

A provocative proposition: “Quantum Wittgenstein,” from @timcopia in @aeonmag.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations


As we muse on meaning, we might recall that it was on this date in 1954 that the official ground-breaking for CERN (Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire) was held. Located in Switzerland, it is the largest particle physics laboratory in the world… that’s to say, a prime spot to do the observation and calculation that Andersen suggests. Indeed, it’s been the site of many breakthrough discoveries over the years, maybe most notably the 2012 observation of the Higgs Boson.

Because researchers need remote access to these facilities, the lab has historically been a major wide area network hub. Indeed, it was at CERN that Tim Berners-Lee developed the first “browser”– and effectively fomented the emergence of the web.

CERN’s main site, from Switzerland looking towards France


The wharves of Manhattan, 1851: “There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves
as Indian isles by coral reefs.”

I first encountered the work of Peter Gorman via his glorious book Barely Maps (a gift from friend MK). Early in the pandemic, Peter picked up Moby Dick

I read Moby-Dick in April 2020. For weeks afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started making maps and diagrams as a way to figure it out.

Moby-Dick is infamous for its digressions. Throughout the book, the narrator disrupts the plot with contemplations, calculations, and categorizations. He ruminates on the White Whale, and the ocean, and human psychology, and the night sky, and how it all relates back to the mystery of the unknown. His narration feels like a twisting- turning struggle to explain everything.

Reading Moby-Dick actually made me feel like that—like I’d mentally absorbed its spin-cycle style. I developed a case of “Kaleidoscope Brain.” The maps I was making were obsessive and encyclopedic. They were newer and weirder and they digressed beyond straightforward geography…

Ocean currents, February- U.K. Admiralty Navigation Manual, Volume 1: “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose
gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.”

Moby Dick, mapped and charted: Kaleidoscope Brain, from @barelymaps. It’s a free pdf download, though one has the opportunity– well-taken– to become a Patreon sponsor.

* Headline in New York Day Book, September 8, 1852


As we wonder about white whales, we might recall that it was on this date in 2008 that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN was first powered up. The world’s largest and highest-energy particle collider, it is devoted to searching for the new particles predicted by supersymmetry theories, and to exploring other unresolved questions in particle physics (e.g. the Higgs boson)… that’s to say, to mapping and charting existence.

A section of the LHC


A “map” of a proton-proton collision inside the Large Hadron Collider that has characteristics of a Higgs decaying into two bottom quarks.


“Eagles may soar, but weasels don’t get sucked into jet engines”*…


… they do, however, run more terrestrial risks.  The weasel above (a stone marten) hopped over a substation fence at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and was electrocuted by an 18,000 volt transformer (an incident that knocked out power at the facility).  Lest its notoriety fade, the once-weasel is about to go on display at the Rotterdam Natural History Museum.

The stone marten is the latest dead animal to go on display at the museum. It joins a sparrow that was shot after it sabotaged a world record attempt by knocking over 23,000 dominoes; a hedgehog that got fatally stuck in a McDonalds McFlurry pot, and a catfish that fell victim to a group of men in the Netherlands who developed a tradition for drinking vast amounts of beer and swallowing fish from their aquarium. The catfish turned out to be armored, and on being swallowed raised its spines. The defense did not save the fish, but it put the 28-year-old man who tried to swallow it in intensive care for a week…

The tale is preserved in full at: “Totally stuffed: Cern’s electrocuted weasel to go on display.”

* Steven Wright


As we hold the pose, we might spare a thought for David Wilkinson; he died on this date in 1852.  A mechanical engineer and machinist, Wilkinson (no known relation to your correspondent) played a key role in the development of machine tools in the U.S. (initially in the textile industry): he invented the metal lathe and process for cutting screws.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 3, 2017 at 1:01 am