Particles (and Powder) in Aspen

By John Conway | January 20, 2010 9:32 am

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We are here in Aspen for what is always the first particle physics conference of each year, the Aspen Winter Particle Physics Conference. This is the 25th anniversary of this series, hosted by the Aspen Center for Physics. I have attended myself twice in the past (1998 and 2007) and this year I am an organizer, along with Robin Erbacher, Tim Tait, and Graham Kribs.

The format of the conference is much like the other winter particle physics conferences such as Lake Louise in Canada, and La Thuile in Italy. We have a morning session of talks ending a bit after 11:00 am, a long mid-day break to allow for a bit of skiing, and an afternoon session from 4:30 pm to after 7:00 pm. It runs Monday – Friday this week, so we are half way through. Tonight the conference is hosting a public lecture from David Kaplan from Johns Hopkins at the Wheeler Opera House, with a “Physics Cafe” before hand at which we organizers will field questions from the public.

We chose as a theme for the conference “The Revolution in Particle Physics is Here” and there is definitely a palpable sense that the revolution is indeed upon us. Neal Weiner gave a great opening talk recounting the many curious anomalies that we already have observed in experiments, and speculated on what may lie in store at the LHC and in astrophysical observations. Eric Prebys, a leader of the US effort on the LHC commissioning, gave a very interesting and detailed talk about the recent successes in commissioning the LHC machine and the very bright prospects for this year. The machine will turn on again in February, and soon raise the beam energy to 3.5 TeV (a collision energy of 7 TeV). Big decisions face the CERN management: should we stay safe at 7 TeV or attempt a higher energy like 10 TeV this year? Should the LHC shut down for many months at the end of 2010 or press on in 2011 to collect as much physics data as possible?

There is truly crackling excitement for the prospects of discovery this year at the LHC, and maybe even the Tevatron. The big LHC experiments are all working extremely well out of the box and eager for physics data: we heard talks from ATLAS, CMS, and LHCb. In fact the first three days of the program are devoted to the LHC and Tevatron, including some very nice theory talks from Tilman Plehn, Paddy Fox, Martin Schmaltz, and Jay Wacker. And for every theory talk there are about three or four talks about the latest results and projections from the Tevatron and the LHC. Heady stuff!

As for Aspen itself, it’s a place of almost surreal beauty, nestled in the Rockies, with fantastic skiing at four mountain areas. It is truly the playground of the super-rich: on the mountain slope above us are arrayed dozens of trophy mansion estates running in the seven figure range. (One colleague quipped “your health care dollars at work!” Heh, heh.) The only reason we (relatively) poor physicists can enjoy such a place is due to the existence of the Aspen Center for Physics. The Center is an offshoot of the Aspen Institute, the postwar brainchild of Chicago businessman Walter Paepcke, dedicated to becoming “an ideal gathering place for thinkers, leaders, artists, and musicians from all over the world to step away from their daily routines and reflect on the underlying values of society and culture”. And so it has become – it’s a really unique place.

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