Serendipity in HEP?
One of my favorite quotes comes from Louis Pasteur:
"In the fields of observation, chance favors the prepared mind."
It seems to me that too much of our research is guided by our theoretical prejudices, and there is too little emphasis on pursuing the oddity that crops up in our data. It takes a different kind of skill and discipline to do so, but I believe that such pursuits are vitally important in experimental science. Of course the vast majority of oddities are just statistical fluctuations or systematic effects (in which case a proper investigation may save us from publishing a wrong result!) but if an anomaly turns out to be real, then science will get a huge boost forward.
Two recent posts speak to this topic. The first one comes from Jao Ortega-Ruiz at his blog physics musings. He gives a wonderful account of several crucial observations made in the last century – I strongly recommend reading it! (It is interesting to note that he is a theoretical physicist.)
The second comes from Tommaso Dorigo's prodigious blog A Quantum Diaries Survivor. He talks about fishing for new physics, and with a cute diagram shown by Jaco Konigsberg, makes the argument that we should be "fishing" in our data if we hope to find something "deep."
I think that every advanced graduate student and post-doc should be spending at least 20% of his or her time chasing something that looks wierd to him or her. You learn the most that way and your research becomes your own – not just part of some grand program to "do collider physics." It is so much more interesting to go to an internal physics meeting and hear about a problem that has cropped up in someone's analysis than to listen to answers to a dozen questions posed by experts trying to raise the level of a given analysis. In my opinion, the latter can be carried out offline, while the former, potentially, enriches all who are present and who participate in the discussion.
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