Aake Aardvark to Zygmund Zygote

You may have followed the saga of the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN particle accelerator which straddles the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva. Early hopes for this gargantuan physics experiment were dashed by some dodgy electrical wiring that broke the machine when it was switched on for the first time in September 2008. Since then the LHC has been repaired, and all now appears to be well with the multi-billion euro project.

This month we have the first scientific results from the LHC, in the form of a paper published in the imaginatively named European Journal of Physics C. The experimental report is of proton-proton collisions observed with the ALICE detector, and focuses on the “measurement of the charged-particle pseudorapidity density at √s = 900 GeV”. For those unfamiliar with the language used by the high priesthood of science, pseudorapidity density refers to the average number of particles emitted perpendicular to the beam direction at the collision site.

What do the results signify? ALICE spokesman Jürgen Schukraft provides the PR spin…

“This important benchmark test illustrates the excellent functioning and rapid progress of the LHC accelerator, and of both the hardware and software of the ALICE experiment, in this early start-up phase. LHC and its experiments have finally entered the phase of physics exploitation.”

As is usual with high-energy physics experiments, more scientists were involved than you could shake a sonic screwdriver at. In the case of the first per-reviewed paper from the LHC, the author list takes up five whole pages of A4 paper, with the contributors listed alphabetically. The body of the report is nine pages long.

Scientific paper author listing is a very sensitive subject. Careers are made and broken on the basis of scientists’ published output, and in most fields their relative ranking in author lists. In the case of huge projects such as CERN, with hundreds of physicists and engineers involved in the experiments, all of whom deserve recognition for their efforts, haggling over author listings is out of the question. So instead we tend to see contributors listed alphabetically in journal papers. With the first LHC paper, it’s lucky for “K. Aamodt”, and not so for “V. Zycháček”.

If you’re wondering about the title above, this was my response to an argument in 1998 with senior colleagues in Southampton about an experimental campaign proposal for the EISCAT space radar. I designed the radar and optics experiment with the help of a Canadian collaborator, and drafted the proposal. However, a certain individual in Southampton felt that she should be first author, despite having done no work on the experiment design. She got her way, thanks to the intervention of the professor emeritus who led our research group. Life’s a bitch, but you live with it.