Expendable Technicians
    By Tommaso Dorigo | October 22nd 2009 05:05 AM | 21 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Tommaso

    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

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    A friend told me this funny anecdote about the construction of a part of the inner tracker of the CDF detector called "ISL", the so-called "intermediate silicon layers" which were constructed in Italy and then sent to Fermilab for installation in the core of CDF.

    A technician reports: "When we were finished with the construction and we had to move to Fermilab to install the device, he took extreme care to arrange the shipment of the expensive, sensitive device overseas in three parts, with three separate cargos, such that if a plane had an accident, we would only lose a third of the detector.
    ...However, he sent us (all the technicians who had done the assembly, and were now needed at Fermilab for the installation) all in the same plane!"

    If you are cynical enough to consider the matter from the point of view of the good of the CDF experiment, it is clear why losing the ISL is more damaging to the experiment: one would be able to quickly replace the technicians, while  rebuilding the ISL from scratch would take years!


    So true, so true.  The technicians could be replaced in a month at most.  
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Quantum Gravity Girl,

    I do hope you are being sarcastic.
    Not  at all.  There is a mountain of qualified possible applicants to choose from.  The fact is that "mere" technicians are quite replaceable.  The lead researchers are another matter.  
    It's not fair but it's true. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Johannes Koelman
     There is a mountain of qualified possible applicants to choose from.  The fact is that "mere" technicians are quite replaceable.  The lead researchers are another matter. 
    Any given year, I receive lots of job applications from PhDs. There is a mountain of qualified applicants to choose from.

    At the university where I hibernate, the Physics Department has all but collapsed because the ADMINOIDS, not only in our university but in the higher funding bodies, regard technicians as expendable.

    One very competent technician was driven to very early retirement by the attitude problems.  One of these being that academics would ignore safety procedures, taking the attitude "I'm the professor, you can't tell me what to do."

    It is unfortunate that the academics and technicians belong to different Trade Unions.  A united front against "them" might be more effective.

    I recommend you see the articles I have wrote about how some PhD's are snobs.  
    Not all PhD's., not even most, or many,  but a few rotten apples can spoil the whole bunch. Especially if that rotten apple has tenure.   You can't even get rid of him/her. 


    I'm sure there are plenty of PhD's to choose from now that you mention it.  Hearing about how much BS one has to go through just to reach a point where they can do research that interest them it looks like this career is hardly worth it. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    When I first became a US Army officer, Reagan was president and I was in the Signal corps, which is all communications.   Had I stayed in (you had a choice - Reagan was president, so being in the army was pretty safe because the commies were scared s**tless of him so they actually needed to get people out) I was going to be deployed to W. Germany, I was told.

    The USSR attack priority was nukes first and communications second so when we heard about the drawdown of nukes in W. Germany me and the fellow officers in the bar all chanted, "We're number 1!  We're number 1!"

    So I know how those technicians feel.  Sort of.   Actually, I most golfed and sat in air-conditioned trucks as an army officer.  Like I said, it was different then.
    Hey Commander Campbell,
    nice story, I did not know about your military past. It sort of explains your political views, which still survive despite your love of Science draws you unavoidably toward the Left like an electron subjected to the Hall effect.
    I hope you'll maintain your number 1 placement in the list :)
    It was an unspectacular thing(1), which is what we wish for our children but rather boring for ourselves.   From the time I graduated college until I left to go play army I worked for an environmental group and, yeah, I am pretty sure, I was the only Republican army officer knocking on doors for them.  
    But I raised more money than those guys, because they thought their participation mattered most and I thought raising money for awareness campaigns mattered.   So environmental groups should hire more Republicans, I think.  :)


    (1) People who are younger will ask me if I was in a war and I say no.  If it's someone from Pittsburgh I will say "Just the Battle of Frick Park" and they will laugh.   For people our age I simply say "Reagan was president.  The army was safer than any daily commute" and they nod their heads and know what I mean.
    This sad story reminds me of a spectacularly great American professor, who uses to say "I'm the only high-energy physicist I know of who has voted for Bush [Jr.]. Twice."

    ... draws you unavoidably toward the Left ...
    I'm sure the Soviet dignitaries who welcomed and flattered Emmy Noether secretly regarded her, in the words of Dear Old Lenin, as a "Useful Idiot".
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Whaaaa ...?   You mean all this time Tommaso was calling me a 'Marxist-leaning Jewess'???
    Oh, it is ON now, Dorigo!!
    Sending all the technicians in the same plane was an oversight, it was not due to the concept that technicians are as easily replaced as the machine. They probably pay technicians more than physicists in a lot of places, on an hourly basis at least.

    By they way, I interviewed for a job teaching physics to technicians the other day. The pay is sufficiently low that I'm guessing I'll get the job. Having looked at the syllabus, believe me when I say that you don't want technicians doing your physics for you. And from my experience with physicists, you don't want your physicists doing your technician work. (I could point out a certain post on this blog about plugs and a traveling physicist as evidence ...)

    That would be as dishonest as my honesty in writing it, Carl. Anyway, there are indeed physicists who are outstanding in their technical abilities, but they are a minority. However, when we found out that excess glue was blocking the tubing of the cooling system for the same ISL I am talking about in this post, it was through the mind, and then the hands, of Doug Glenzinski -then Physics Coordinator of our experiment- that we got it recovered from the apparently untreatable problem. He put together a device to shoot laser inside the tubes, with a guiding camera, and got rid of the glue in several places along the cooling tubes. This would have been just as possible had the technicians' plane disappeared in the Atlantic! :D

    I guess you'll have to split Glenzinski and put him on two different planes in the future ;)

    Human Tommaso,

    At first, I thought that this was a tongue-in-cheek article, but as the comment thread builds up, it is beginning to appear to the Hedgehog that you actually do hold the attitude in question, and that you regard yourself and other physicists as being intrinsically superior to technicians.

    In fact, you are beginning to come across as being (as your species so ridiculously puts it) somewhat "inhuman".

    Nope. I do not think there is a difference bw technicians and researchers. All are expendable, in the sense that fortunately the experiments do not rely on any single person. True, sometimes we get the idea that somebody did something which others could not have managed. But we have no proof! In general everybody can be replaced, ok? Cheers, T.
    There is a long running tradition in Sci-Fi about technicians being expendable.
    What usually happened in every episode of the original Star Trek series was that when a new misterious planet was found they'd send there a team of four. Three members were main charachters of the show, the fourth was a technician in red suit. Guess which one was going to die in an ambush?

    One tech I worked with liked playing with the arc generated by the 100,000 volt ion implanter. We took bets where the back of his head was going to hit the wall. I wonder what ever happened to him.

    Of course the white collar workers believe that the blue collar workers are just cogs.

    Eventually an experiment is going to need some particularly unusual piece of glass blown or an aluminum object welded, or a 1200 pin BGA resoldered, or a piece of very hard steel machined, or what not. AND they're going to need that skill done to a very high level of exactness and quality, and management (none of whom was ever a technician or likely has ever even been in one of their homes) is going to discover that some of the skills that technicians bring cannot be easily replaced.

    May I recommend to the attention of you all:

    The Insider - Lab Technicians - Keeping the whole show on the road; by Katharine Comisso
    New Scientist, 6 October 2007, pp 62-63

    This brought to mind something much more general than the academic-technician divide, but rather the attitude to science as a whole.
    Mick [Callan] loved science ... and I was especially interested in his emphasis on science as a craft. That down-to-earth idea of craft expresses the need of the scientist to understand the material on which he or she works (and that idea has more meaning in it than loads of philosophy of science) .

    from "The Third Man of the Double Helix" by Maurice Wilkins. 
      His Royal Society obituary is well worth reading.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England