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#555294 - Sat Oct 02 2010 05:46 PM Interview with CellarDoor
Pagiedamon Offline
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Registered: Sun Jun 15 2008
Posts: 2592
Loc: North Carolina USA
Bruyere
Cellar Door, I've known you since joining the site nine years ago and it's an honor to be on this panel. Let me see. One of the things I've noticed is how well-rounded you are with interests in simply everything from science, religion, literature, and many others. What have you learned here that's helped you in your life or studies? Is there any topic in particular that does NOT interest you much?


FunTrivia has helped me with real life more than I can say! It's kept me well supplied with book recommendations, zany conversation topics, and invitations from friends for pub trivia nights. As far as my studies go, writing quizzes for FunTrivia has been very helpful; trying to fit some complicated physics topic into ten questions, short answers, and information sections is very, very good practice for giving clear and concise explanations to students, colleagues and even relatives at the Thanksgiving table. At least there I can sometimes draw on a paper napkin! And this may be a little silly, but your own Absurd French quizzes have helped too. The best references for a major portion of my work are in French, which no one else in my working group speaks, and your quizzes are a lovely confidence builder. I figure that if I can work out that the parakeet on the man's head is asking for a bubble bath, then surely I can work out how a detector I'm already somewhat familiar with is put together!

I confess there are a few subjects that leave me pretty cold. I have a lot of trouble getting into economics, for example, which bothers me because it seems very important for understanding the world! But I can't figure out how to approach it. Fashion is another thing I just don't grok, which is odd because I like other textile arts.

salami_swami
Why did you become an editor? Do you enjoy it?


I first became an editor in 2000, just a few months after users started being able to submit quizzes. I enjoyed the site a lot, I really liked being able to write quizzes, and editing seemed like a great way to give back. A few years later, I took a break from editing (and from the site) for a year or two, and I came back for the same reasons I still enjoy editing so much now, ten years after I joined the first time and three years after I rejoined. As an editor, you get to work with a great group of people, and by that I mean not only the other editors and the administrators -- who are great! -- but also the authors. The vast majority of authors are just a delight to work with. I love being able to work with someone to make a quiz better, and to publish it for the world to see; it gives a real, shared sense of accomplishment! And you learn the most amazing things from quizwriters, even in areas where you'd thought yourself an expert. It is a big beautiful universe out there, and I feel lucky to be able to explore it in some depth as an editor reviewing a quiz or researching a correction note.

LeoDaVinci
Two physicists run the Religion category... sounds like the beginning of a joke. How did you get involved in the category in the first place and how do you deal with the sensitivities that can arise from such a potentially volatile category?


I got involved in Religion (and in Music, which I think was my other first category) because there was an opening and I wanted to edit! I had no idea what I was getting into, which was lucky, because if I had I might not have been willing. I didn't know much about religion then! But the category needed a strong hand, and I was willing to put in time and energy and research. I've wound up learning so much from editing that category, and it's hard to imagine not editing it these days. It is a sensitive category, and I try to be very gentle (but firm) in my corrections. If a quiz needs a lot of work, and is about, say, the musical "Wicked", I can be a little blunter, but even a very unpolished Religion quiz is typically on something very dear to the quizwriter's heart. When it comes to subtler things -- for example, a question with multiple right answers depending on what set of teachings you follow -- I find that quizwriters are generally pretty receptive when I point out the nature of this website, the diversity of our audience, and the differences between a trivia game and a pulpit. I am also lucky that our very knowledgeable players are usually pretty understanding when I accidentally let something by, and our correction note system allows me to make sure those bloopers are fixed..

Bruyere
You and I began as Music editors together at roughly the same time. I imagine we can tell tales that would curl people's teeth, but what kind of progress have you noticed over the years in that area in particular?


Oh dear, yes -- I remember the bad old days all too well! I really do think that, in the ten years (!) I've been on the site, the overall quality of quiz submissions has been getting better and better. In the early days, there weren't many quizzes online, and of those, there weren't a lot that would be up to today's standards. Woefully inadequate (or missing) info sections, poor context, time-dependent questions -- you name it, they were there, not because the early editors weren't hard workers but because what works and what doesn't was something that we really figured out as we went along! But nowadays, there are so many good examples for a new quizwriter, both in quizzes and in the questions that come up in tournaments. I think that most new quizwriters today are putting in more work on their first submission than their counterparts were seven, eight or nine years ago, and it definitely shows. It may still take a few tries to get the quiz into publishable shape, but on average there are fewer stages of multiple exclamation points and opinion-based questions along the way.

salami_swami
What's the most enjoyable quiz you've ever edited?


That's a hard question! I've edited thousands of quizzes, and it's hard for any given one to stand out against the background months or years after I've edited it. But I can tell you that, although I always enjoy seeing well-written and novel quizzes from the site's standout quizwriters, the quizzes that give me the most pleasure to edit are the ones I don't start out with a lot of hope for. Often it's a quiz I've already rejected once or twice, for serious errors in spelling or grammar or fact or construction. Usually, it takes many rounds to get such a quiz in publishable shape -- but sometimes, the quizwriter really takes the feedback to heart, and ends up submitting a silk purse where I'd expected a sow's ear. Those quizzes are such a delight to edit when they come through.

salami_swami
What badge are you most proud of?


The Endurance badge, which is a bit silly. The quizwriting badges took a lot more work, but they kind of happened automatically. For Endurance, I had to scout out categories where I hadn't played many quizzes, plan out achievable badgelets (with their accompanying free points), set up bookmarks and carve out a lot of time on a weekend day. The badge itself felt like an achievement, rather than like a recognition of one.

LeoDaVinci
(I know I know but) what flavour of physics do you do? What interesting experiments have you been part of?


Ha ha! (For the non-physicists in the crowd, "flavor" is used by physicists to distinguish between different types of quarks and leptons -- it's sort of the equivalent of electric charge for the weak force, which is most famous for causing radioactivity). Depending on who you ask, I'm either a high-energy nuclear physicist or a medium-energy particle physicist. Either way, I try to gain insight into the fundamental nature of matter by slamming particles into other particles at high speeds and seeing what emerges from these interactions, how fast, and how often. (Sometimes we lie in wait for high-energy particles that occur in nature instead of making our own, so to speak.) I've been privileged to be involved in several very neat experiments. Before I settled on this field, I worked for a while on star catalogues and quantum cryptography. For the last few years I've been working on the structure of nucleons (protons and neutrons) and nuclei. It turns out that when we look at a particle like the proton or the neutron, which is made up of smaller particles (quarks, anti-quarks, and gluons), it's really not clear exactly how all the pieces fit together to give us the properties that make a proton a proton and a neutron a neutron! I've been involved in a few experiments to try to explore the spins of quarks inside the neutron, plus some experiments that try to pin down just how important rarer flavors of quarks (namely strange quarks) are to understanding how protons and neutrons behave. It's very cool stuff. I've gotten to spend a lot of time crawling under expensive pieces of equipment with a screwdriver and an oscilloscope, which is my idea of a good time!

LeoDaVinci
Now that you're finished your studies, what do you plan on doing with this degree?


Oh, how I'm looking forward to *really* being able to answer this question! I have a job lined up and have moved to a new city, but I'm not actually done with my degree yet -- I barricade myself in my home office to work on analysis and dissertation writing, occasionally emerging to edit a quiz or answer an interview question while I'm waiting for a program to finish running. I'm very excited about the job I'll start after I graduate; I'll keep on doing physics research, at a new university, and there are several exciting experiments I'm anxious to get involved with there (mostly having to do with neutrinos, which are the particles that can travel through a light-year of solid lead (that's 6 trillion miles or 10 trillion km!) before they notice, on average, that there was anything in their way). Someday, I think I'd enjoy being a professor of physics somewhere.

agony
Life is full of choices made and paths not taken. What were some choices you made (or had made for you) that changed your life? What would an alternate life look like, for you?


There are a couple of places where, looking back, I had a crossroads. Nowadays, I'm a pretty quintessential geek girl, but I was once much more oriented toward writing and drama and dreamed of being an author of fiction (not even science-fiction!) When I left elementary school and started middle school, I had to choose which track of math classes to take, and I wound up deciding on the most intense track because I liked cute, geeky boys and that's where they seemed to be. A couple of years later, something clicked in one of those classes and I suddenly realized how amazing math and science were. I have a hard time imagining what my life would have looked like if I'd never made that realization -- history major? French major? Blogger? -- but I'm very glad I put myself in a position to grow into math.

Perhaps the other one is more romantic. Early in my college days, I made friends with a cute, geeky boy. (Anybody notice a pattern?) Two years into our friendship, despite neither of us having time for a relationship, I asked him out. Two years into our relationship, we chose our graduate programs so that we could be at the same school. If the timing of my question had been different, the answer might have been too, or we might not have had a solid enough foundation to survive the stress of the school choice. As it was, we've been married four years, and have extremely nerdy and delightful dinner-table conversations.

In a lot of ways, my life the last several years -- as I've been trying to develop my career as a scientist -- would have been easier if I'd been single. I could have chosen a research project based in Switzerland, China or even Antarctica. (This is a great department.) Even if I'd chosen the same research group, I could have benefited by living longer at the accelerator lab two states away: you really learn a lot when you're working with hundreds of other people solving similar kinds of problems. As it was, the time I did spend away at the lab -- six months here, six weeks there, a couple of days for a meeting -- it was pretty hard on both of us. But, as dreamy as this alternate career path sounds, I wouldn't trade for it, especially now that we've found jobs in the same area. I'm very fortunate to have a partner who understands my zany life and work, and who can sometimes persuade me to put the screwdriver down and go for a walk. I need that help!

Bruyere
I distinctly remember hearing from you on the tragic events of September 11, 2001 on this site. It forms part of my memory of being a long way from my own land, and yet, consoled in some way that we'd hear from people on this site. Do you remember being here that day?


Yes, I do. I was a sophomore in college; classes hadn't started yet, and I hadn't yet made most of my close college friends. I remember spending a lot of time on this site, and taking comfort in the community. I'm from Washington, DC, and I vividly remember how -- far away at college -- we were getting a lot of news reports that were not at all accurate. The radio was talking about bombs going off and buildings blowing up all over DC, it was hard to tell what was real and what wasn't, and of course it was impossible to get in touch with my loved ones who worked in or near places that later turned out to have been safe the whole time. The community here, with its different channels of information, was so helpful in making sense of things and getting through the day. Thanks so much, belatedly, for being a part of that!

LeoDaVinci
Where have you been travelling, and where would you still like to go?


I've been phenomenally lucky when it comes to traveling. As an adult, I've been to (counts on fingers) thirteen countries on four continents, counting my home country of the USA but not counting airport stopovers. (In alphabetical order: Bermuda, Canada, China, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States). I've been to every major region of the contiguous United States and lived in three time zones. Still on the list? Really, there are dozens of places I'd love to go, but the top three would have to be Athens and environs, Australia, and Israel. I am still kicking myself for not having managed to make the time to visit Jerusalem while my best friend was there for a year for school.

agony
Could you tell us something about some of your role models, mentors, and heroes?


I guess I'll start with my parents as role models. They've been extremely supportive of my physics research even though they don't really have any scientific or mathematical background; they try to read all my papers, although most times not even the title is comprehensible to them! My mother was prevented from taking advanced science classes in high school because "girls don't like science" (she likes to think that every paper I publish and talk I give makes that particular administrator spin a little faster in his grave). I'm really grateful to her for showing us, growing up, that hard physical and mental work and kindness are expected no matter what your chromosomes. My father is a civil rights lawyer and I am so proud of the work he has been doing for decades, trying to make sure people get a fair chance to work and learn.

My heroes are the women who have done scientific research over the centuries, when it was much, much harder than today to be a woman in science (though it isn't always a picnic now). They suffered incredible indignities and humiliation and still managed to add to the sum of human knowledge. Henrietta Swan Leavitt (look her up, seriously) is a particular hero of mine. She worked for astronomers as a "computer" -- doing all the dull numerical computations and searches through data that we now expect machines to do -- for decades starting in the 1890s, because that was the only scientific work a woman could get in those days. Yet she never turned off her brain -- she took the data she was sifting through, realized that there was a category of stars that had something in common, and derived a mathematical relationship that eventually enabled us to reliably determine the distance to other galaxies. She was one of the best astronomers of her time.

My mentor is my PhD adviser. I will be the first woman in our group to get a PhD (barring volcanic eruption or Godzilla attack), and I hope I'll end up being a physicist as knowledgeable, hardworking, and kind as he is.

LeoDaVinci
Many of my physicist friends play a musical instrument. Do you?


Once upon a time, I played the piano, but never really got into it; I guess I missed the famous intersection of music, math and science that gives a lot of mathematicians and scientists joy. I do enjoy singing (I'm an alto) and was part of a few groups in college. I was able to put those skills to good use recently during a late-night drive with some other scientists; my adviser was driving and requested help staying awake, so I sang him the theme song to "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." I am pretty sure that wound up in my reference letter.

agony
It's a beautiful crisp fall day. You don't have to work, household chores are caught up, and there's a bit of money in the bank. How will you spend the day?


Sounds delightful! I live near a little lake, so I think I'll go sit by the shores and watch the ducks. I'll bring a good book (science fiction, naturally) and a notebook, so I can either read or write quizzes as the mood takes me! If the water is too enticing I'll have to go to a slightly bigger lake and rent a canoe. When evening comes I'll head back home, cook some pasta or stir fry with my husband, bake some banana bread just to have the smell of it in the house, and spend the evening embroidering in front of a light-hearted movie. And, of course, I'll have to play my Global Challenge rounds -- I'm going for hardcore!

salami_swami
Why did you choose the name "CellarDoor"?


"Cellar-door" is reputedly one of the prettiest words in the English language, if you go by sounds alone, instead of the rather more prosaic meaning. You can find paeans to the cellar-door from J.R.R. Tolkien, H.L. Mencken, and even the movie "Donnie Darko"! I'd heard this somewhere -- I forget where -- and it came to mind when I was trying to pick a username. I like the idea it gives me of hidden beauty in ordinary things.


Thanks to all who took part.

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#555298 - Sat Oct 02 2010 06:14 PM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
salami_swami Offline
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Registered: Thu Nov 01 2007
Posts: 8760
Loc: Colorado USA
Wow, thanks for choosing me to interview, you, Cellardoor. Very nice interview, too. :-)

I learned a LOT about you that I never knew before (the others seemed to know the answer a lot. Haha). ;-)
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#555333 - Sun Oct 03 2010 02:27 AM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
doublemm Offline
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Registered: Thu Apr 16 2009
Posts: 203
Loc: Lancashire England UK
Thanks CellarDoor. I loved your last answer.
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#555341 - Sun Oct 03 2010 03:57 AM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
rossian Offline
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Registered: Sat Jun 10 2006
Posts: 3386
Loc: Merseyside UK
What a fascinating interview, even if the science part might as well have been in Chinese for all I understood. You're right that it is still not always easy for women to progress - my daughter was actively discouraged by her sixth form (age 16 - 18) tutor from applying to study maths at university. He (of course it was a he) was ignored, she graduated successfully and now teaches maths herself. I would also like to add that your skills as an editor are exceptional. When you edited one of my quizzes, I always felt that your corrections were well worded and made me feel that we were working together.
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#555362 - Sun Oct 03 2010 07:02 AM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
agony Offline

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Registered: Sat Mar 29 2003
Posts: 14801
Loc: Western Canada
Thanks for a great interview, CD.

I remember a science class when I was about 14, when the teacher said flat out to the class that boys were better in science and math than girls and gave some ridiculous justification which I can't remember now. And sitting right there in front of him were two girls who were getting the best marks in the class.

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#555511 - Sun Oct 03 2010 11:10 PM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
CellarDoor Offline
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Registered: Sat Feb 12 2000
Posts: 4894
Loc: Seattle
Washington USA
Thanks to agony, Bruyere, LeoDavinci and salami_swami for some excellent questions! That was a real pleasure. And rossian, I really enjoyed working with you too! Thanks for your kind words.

It is really quite amazing the lengths some people will go to in order to deny the potential and achievements of people right in front of them. It seems as though it would be much less work to congratulate the girls at the top of agony's class and just write a nice reference letter for rossian's daughter instead of arguing about it. Very odd behavior...
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#555729 - Mon Oct 04 2010 11:07 PM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
ozfei Offline
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Registered: Mon Sep 25 2006
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Loc: Deception Bay QLD�Australia...
Great interview. And a very interesting interviewee. smile
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#555872 - Tue Oct 05 2010 03:01 PM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
Bruyere Offline
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Registered: Sat Feb 10 2001
Posts: 18792
Loc: California USA
I had to really think about what to ask as I know quite a few facets!

I've always admired your entrance into the science world as I think in another world, I might have done alright. I can pinpoint my dislike for math to a few teachers who disdained the shortcuts my father, an elementary teacher who specialized in math and music, had taught me like how to do ratios and other sundry things. They were things that math people do instinctively but that people like me can be taught. Because I had an almost retiree who was put upon about having to do the 'new math' that year, she basically shrieked at me for not doing it by the book then punished me by sending me to the principal's office and giving me the book from the year before! I still get a block from those days when I do math tests. Science relied on math, so that pretty much put the kibosh on it.
I later was able to translate in a number of fields though and help scientists with their English so perhaps I used my science knowledge more than I thought. I was a two times science fair winner and one of those was a trophy when I was twelve with a working model of the ear made out of household materials. I think that it wasn't just the teachers who were biased towards males in math but also the society around you. I'm happy that you had a different experience.

I also knew that your French was excellent but I cannot take any credit for my series of quizzes helping you! They are carefully designed to help jog the memory of people who've had a few years of French. I hope to publish a series some day though so thank you for being a great guinea pig!
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#555889 - Tue Oct 05 2010 04:12 PM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
Quiz_Beagle Offline
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Registered: Thu Jan 04 2007
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Loc: Gloucestershire UK
Excellemt stuff, CD! I really enjoyed that! wink
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#555955 - Tue Oct 05 2010 10:58 PM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
CellarDoor Offline
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Registered: Sat Feb 12 2000
Posts: 4894
Loc: Seattle
Washington USA
Oh, I very much feel the pain of young Heather -- I'm so sorry you got in trouble for using your shortcuts! I remember getting in trouble as a youngster for objecting when the teacher told us that numbers started at zero -- they were all positive. I knew there had to be some way of representing what happened when you owed someone a penny instead of having one!

I'm afraid my French *was* excellent when I was practicing it all the time in college, but years of disuse have really taken a toll and some parts of those French references have really been a struggle. I really did need the Absurd French boost!
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#556126 - Wed Oct 06 2010 05:01 PM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
jonnowales Offline
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Registered: Mon Oct 30 2006
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A wonderful interview, thanks CD and those who posed questions.

I particularly enjoyed the reason for taking the intense route of maths classes! laugh

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#556490 - Fri Oct 08 2010 12:50 PM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
Gatsby722 Offline
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Registered: Fri May 18 2001
Posts: 123698
Loc: Canton
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Yes, really smile! What a terrific read/interview! You're a fascinating person, CellarDoor! I don't even have a small part of a head for science, but I'm fascinated reading from those of you who do, indeed!
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#557310 - Wed Oct 13 2010 11:17 AM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
BxBarracuda Offline
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Registered: Wed Sep 05 2007
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Have you ever watched the show "The Big Bang Theory" and if so have you ever worked with anyone who behave similiar to any of the physicist charchters on the show?

Television Shows and Movies have a way of stretching the truth when it comes to reality, focusing on making something entertaining rather then factual. Are there any movies or T.V. shows which you think do a disserive to the area of physics you work in and are there any which are closer to how things really happen?

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#557841 - Fri Oct 15 2010 06:42 PM Re: Interview with CellarDoor
CellarDoor Offline
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Registered: Sat Feb 12 2000
Posts: 4894
Loc: Seattle
Washington USA
Aw shucks. :-) Thank you all for stopping by!

BxBarracuda, I watched the first season of "The Big Bang Theory" pretty recently on DVD. It is particularly popular with spouses of physicists, in my experience -- they like the chance to make fun of us!

The characters are pretty exaggerated, but I do recognize pieces of them in some physicists I know. I've definitely worked with people as dismissive as Sheldon (the character who doesn't follow social norms), but they aren't usually quite as rude. I've also worked with (male) scientists who had trouble figuring out how to relate to the women they were working with, but fortunately they tended more toward Rajesh (the quiet one) rather than Howard (the womanizing one). In my field, there tend to be a lot of late nights working together on troubleshooting or babysitting the equipment, which tends to be a nice equalizer; people are more comfortable with and respectful of each other after they've shared a pizza at 3 a.m. to celebrate solving a major problem with the data.

I'm afraid that I have to turn off the physicist part of my brain for most movies and TV shows. (The work on the white boards for "The Big Bang Theory" is usually accurate, though.) I think I was most annoyed by the scene in "Spider-Man III" where the Sandman was made. Near the beginning of the movie, a petty criminal somehow falls into a particle accelerator. Scientists notice more mass in the target area, but brush it off as "a bird" and turn the machine on. A few seconds later, the petty criminal is a supervillain made of sand.

This bothered me partly because all of the media frenzy given to worries that the LHC -- a high-energy accelerator near Geneva -- was somehow going to destroy the world when it was powered up in 2008. (It's running now. World's still here.) With that as background, I didn't like the portrayal of scientists as careless of human life and safety (or of the fact that even getting a bird in the way would ruin their data!) I've worked at three particle accelerators and visited many more, in three different countries, and while individual scientists can be stupid about some things, accelerators are large institutions that spend a lot of time, money and effort on safety, both for scientists and for the general public. Some are better than others, but none of us is irradiating random passers-by.

Most particle physics in the movies just strikes me as funny (like the scene in "Iron Man 2" where Tony Stark builds an accelerator in his basement...) instead of a disservice to science. I haven't really seen any movies or TV shows that did a good job of representing my field -- there aren't that many that try! -- but I have seen some good movies about scientists in general; I really enjoyed "Proof" a few years ago, for example. Generally I'm just excited when a space movie manages to avoid having sound when the camera is supposedly located in vacuum. :-)
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