From particle physics to the computer industry
In particle physics, advanced computing is a way of life. Studying the universe on the smallest scale requires some of the largest datasets in the world, and particle physicists often have to create their own solutions to computational challenges because no commercial solutions exist.
As a result, particle physicists leaving universities or national laboratories often find their skills highly valued in the computing industry. There, they are valued for their experience in applying computer skills to real-world problems, their ability to work in large collaborations, and their adaptability.
While studying particle astrophysics for her master’s degree, Malina Kirn fell in love with data. It has become his favorite tool for answering big questions. Kirn then spent five years working on the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, earning a doctorate in scientific computing and immersing himself in one of the largest datasets in existence. For his thesis, Kirn studied the frequency at which top quarks are produced by the LHC, using a technique called machine learning, which teaches a computer system to separate wanted data from unwanted noise. Kirn also worked on grid computing, a system that distributes data and data analysis systems to storage centers around the world, making the massive volume of data produced by a particle physics experiment more manageable.
Two weeks after graduation, when most of his peers were gearing up for postdoctoral positions, Kirn began his new job as an embedded analyst at Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley company in California. Palantir develops data integration and analysis software for businesses and organizations that face a problem of the digital age: massive amounts of information and no internal means to manage it.
In this role, Kirn most recently worked with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which provides a detailed database of missing children for parents and law enforcement.
“We’re aiming for really tough things; they are missing children,” says Kirn. “We seek to answer interesting and important questions with data.”
Kirn directly credits her time in particle physics for giving her the technical knowledge and experience to prepare her for her current role. She says her computer work taught her how to properly process data and, quite simply, “how to make a computer do what you want it to do.”
Ari Gesher, a senior software engineer at Palantir who is also recruiting new hires, says it’s not the specific computer skills that Palantir values in its employees, but the hands-on experience of building systems to solve problems – and Palantir s tackling very big problems. According to Gesher, Palantir’s software is used to solve problems ranging from foodborne illnesses to fraud in mortgages and online financial transactions.
“All of these issues, if left unchecked, have a huge negative impact on the economy,” Gesher says.
Handle the tools
Computing was part of particle physics long before it was part of most people’s daily lives. Jon Streets obtained his PhD in particle physics in 1985 from the University of Birmingham in the UK, where he worked on the UA1 experiment at CERN. Streets moved to the United States for a post-doctoral position based at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where he eventually landed a full-time position in the computer science division.
Eight years later, Streets has moved from Fermilab to the telecommunications industry and now works with a company called AccuStrata, which makes devices that monitor thin film production to make films more efficient. For AccuStrata customers, more efficient films lead to more efficient products, including LEDs, an energy-efficient alternative to traditional incandescent bulbs, solar panels and low-e windows that improve insulation.
For AccuStrata to help improve energy-saving technologies, it needs employees like Streets with backgrounds in both computing and physics.
“We’re not really interested in computers or how they work or why they do what they do,” Streets says. “The work is really about thin layers. The software side is just a tool.
And while many computer-trained people may own the tools of computer science or software engineering, former physicists like Streets and Kirn have actual experience using those tools.
At Fermilab, Streets participated in a large data acquisition project to create software that could be used by multiple experiments in the lab. This meant collaborating with a large group of computer scientists and engineers, something particle physicists working in large collaborations know well.
Streets says this kind of collaborative experience is often missing from more traditional computer science training, which is one reason particle physicists are so valuable.
“You have to learn to interface with different people. You have to divide the tasks. You need to plan ahead. You have to design the code first, then write it,” says Streets. “All of these sorts of rules are the same in high-energy physics and in industry.”
explore the border
Google is undoubtedly one of the most influential companies in history. The Silicon Valley giant is trying to create the world’s largest e-book resource, and the Google search engine performs more than 4 billion searches a day. According to the company’s latest economic impact report, in 2011 Google generated a total of $80 billion in economic activity for US businesses, website publishers and nonprofits.
There are over 34,000 Google employees worldwide, and a few hundred of them are trained in physics. That’s according to an unofficial investigation by Google software chief Bahman Rabii, himself a former physicist. Rabii says about half of Google’s employees are on the engineering side; Of these, Rabii estimates that about 500–600 have a background in physics, and 100 or more have a doctorate in physics.
“Google hires people when we believe they will help Google improve and succeed,” says Rabii. “We hired physicists — many of whom, myself included, have research backgrounds in national labs — who went on to contribute heavily to Google.”
Yonatan Zunger is one of those people. Zunger came to Google in 2003 after earning his doctorate in physics from Stanford University, where he studied string theory and worked closely with the particle physics group at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
Over the past nine years, Zunger has established himself as a leader at Google. He began his career working on the core issues of Google’s search engine infrastructure, then its storage systems, and now its social products. He manages and supervises large groups of people and participates in the hiring of new employees.
If physicists entering the computer industry need a cheerleader, they’ll find one in Zunger. Like Kirn and Streets, he says his training in physics gave him invaluable skills that he still uses to this day and shares with colleagues from different backgrounds.
Zunger goes so far as to say that physicists are better prepared than computer scientists for certain aspects of engineering work at Google: while the latter may have more technical knowledge of computer science, physicists are better at handling problems. that are outside their area of expertise. This comes in handy for an innovative company that frequently explores uncharted territory.
“Physics gives you an incredible ability to think quantitatively. It gives you the ability to look at data in a way that very, very few other disciplines give you,” says Zunger. In addition, he cites the practical skills that particle physicists learn, such as managing complex projects and teams of people. In short, he says, “I think physicists coming into other fields are actually better prepared than almost anyone else.”
Ready for everything
With practical computing skills and experience applying them to some of the world’s toughest problems, computer scientists trained in particle physics are making a difference in the computing industry. As computing becomes increasingly important to the private sector — and to life in general — this resource helps bolster a valuable part of the US economy and keep it competitive in the global marketplace. Ancient particle physicists who studied the smallest building blocks of the universe are poised to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges.