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Thursday, September 10, 2009

work vs. research

My new project involves developing a beam optics code based around a spreadsheet. The job is basically to convert this program from Microsoft Excel and Visual Basic to something based on Open Office Calc. Now, despite the fact that open source is nice, and open office seems to be pretty quality stuff, there is something decidedly unsexy about spreadsheets. They suggest doing a large number of small, not particularly interesting calculations. An emphasis on detail, an office setting, and a sense of the mundane come to mind.

But this area of beam optics and particle tracking is a mess. There are multiple codes with lousy interface and difficult interconnection. People become experts at particular codes, and this is what accelerator physicists do. The expertise, however, is often more in the technicalities of the mess- the bureaucracy of the multiple organizations and the history of the field, if you like. Its called research, or physics, or dynamics, or something exciting, just to motivate people to do this rather boring work.

Thus, to me, developing an optics code based on a spreadsheet is confronting this fact about this field honestly. We are managers of many small formulae, doing rather well-known things.
The point is that perhaps this project will allow one to more easily separate what is well known from what is a bit more difficult. In other words, we can train people to do those parts of this work that are already figured out. The operators in the control room should be able to change the quadrupoles to reduce the emittance, or affect a change in the optics to reduce the beta function, or play around with the weights on the non-linear dynamics properties. This isn't research, but it still takes effort, care, and can be done well with pride.

So I see this project less as a research project, and more as providing a tool that will separate out the known from the unknown- give people a tool with which the known aspects of this field can used, in the same sense that knowledge in finance, medicine, or nutrition might be utilized.
At the same time, in order for a field to be healthy, there must be this transition of knowledge into the arena of easily available, well known information. I think this is the value and nature of science, as described in "Laboratory Life" by Latour and Woolgar for example.

I don't want to say that there is no research to be done in this field, but just that there is a lot of known stuff, and it should be made easily available. It may not be popular with those who would rather keep the mess of obscurity. But I think its necessary if there is to be development.

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