Physics

Unfortunately I was right: at least in predicting that the INFN exam dubbed "R5" would not go deserted. The R5 exam, which in exchange for a stressful pair of written tests (which I am trying to get a hold of, to report on it here) guaranteed nothing that the participants did not have beforehand  -a certification of readiness for a temporary position within INFN, which the institute cannot however offer, being short of cash-, saw the participation of 178 candidates among the about 350 who had submitted their application a couple of months ago. Barely more than half: this is a victory, since the participation is sufficient to grant value to the results.
"The INFN directorate may have invented the Identity operator in the space of qualifying exams"

Guido Volpi (commenting on FB on the very offensive R5 exam held today by INFN post-docs).
The 2009 World Conference on Science Journalism took place last week in heat-wave-struck London, at the convenient location of Westminster Central Hall (see below). More than 900 delegates got together from 90 countries to discuss the future of science journalism, understand the challenges the field is facing, and finding strategies to face them. An impressive event, excellently organized.



As I promised a week ago, I am posting answers to a few of the 42 questions which constituted the first part of an the exam selecting experimental particle physicists for the INFN (the italian institute of nuclear physics) four years ago. Next week, a similar exam will take place to "qualify" post-doctoral scientists which aspire at a temporary position with INFN.
In a few days, scores of Italian post-doctoral researchers in experimental particle physics will get tested on their knowledge of the matter, without any promise of a position, but just to get one further "stamp" on their curriculum, testifying that they are competent enough to be worth offering a temporary position by INFN, the Italian Institute for (sub)Nuclear Physics. So this is a  national exam, with the sole purpose of giving a green light to be admitted to two-year positions , which are typically paid less than 1400 euros a month, and which are so far not available. Frankly, I feel ashamed, since I myself work for INFN, and I strongly disagree with its current recruitment policies.
From Prof. Chad Orzel's Graduation Speech:

Science isn't a body of facts, science is a process for figuring out how the world works: you see something interesting, come up with an idea of why that might happen, and test you're idea to see if you're right. You repeat this process until you figure out why things happen the way they do, and then you use that knowledge to explain new things, or to do things that you couldn't do before.
If you have followed this blog for long enough, dear readers, the words "multi-muons", "anomalous muons", or even "lepton jets" are not foreign to you. They all refer to a paper appeared on the ArXiv on the evening of Halloween last year. In the paper the CDF collaboration published the results of a detailed analysis which described how a component of collider data containing two or more muons could not be explained by known Standard Model processes.
In a few days italian post-docs working in high-energy physics will be asked to gather for a nasty exam, held by the INFN -the italian institute for nuclear physics- to qualify valiant researchers for future hiring in the institute.

The exam generated a wave of outrage among the very pool of people at which it is aimed: the scores of "precari" (temporary workers) who are spending the best years of their life to try and make a career in particle physics.  Let me explain why that is so.
Prologue
For a long time, recreational computer users all over the world have benefitted from improvements to computing systems that were invented in order to facilitate research in fundamental physics. The foremost example is, of course, the World Wide Web which you are using to read this.

Now the time has come for the gamers to give back to physics. Of course, nobody would buy that as a moral argument, but money talks louder than most ethicists, and the market for games consoles and graphics cards has become huge and strongly driven by increases in computational performance, leading to ever faster graphics processors being developed to please the gamers. If you have a moderately recent desktop computer, odds are that the graphics card has more computational power than the CPU.