University of Wisconsin-Madison

IceCube spokesperson transition

In May 2013, the IceCube Collaboration elected Professor Olga Botner as its new spokesperson. Botner, of Uppsala University, Sweden, will serve for two years. Her stint as spokesperson follows Professor Greg Sullivan from the University of Maryland. Both Botner and Sullivan are long-time members of the IceCube Collaboration, and below they reflect on the future of IceCube as well as sharing science with the world, training students, and thinking outside the box.

Laurel Norris: Greg, looking back on your time as spokesperson, how do you feel the collaboration has changed since you started?

Professor Olga Botner, Uppsala University, Sweden, at the 2013 IceCube Collaboration meeting in Madison, Wisconsin.
Professor Olga Botner, Uppsala University, Sweden, at the 2013 IceCube Collaboration meeting in Madison, Wisconsin.

Greg Sullivan: The main thing is that we have transitioned to a fully operating experiment. We successfully made the change from building the detector, from focusing on the South Pole construction seasons, to data analysis and optimizing the detector.

Another difference is that the collaboration is growing. New people coming in have access to the operating detector and can concentrate on the physics they are interested in. It’s a change in perception because some people in the collaboration have been part of the project for a long time; they worked on developing and building IceCube. There is an effort to make sure that they are recognized, and that everyone appreciates what went into building IceCube.

Olga Botner: With respect to students, the changes are good and bad. Good because of access to the data. But with construction over, there are less opportunities for them to get to the South Pole. Once we were able to seduce them into doing calibrations, which provided them an opportunity to get to the Pole, which is a great experience.

GS: I think there is a generally a focus away from operations and instrumentation, especially because the location is so remote. People mostly work with data on a computer over the internet. It’s the evolution of how science is done in our field. For IceCube, with the facility being at the South Pole, researchers can feel particularly isolated from the source of their data.

LN: Greg, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced as spokesperson?

Greg Sullivan, Professor of Physics from the University of Maryland, served as IceCube spokesperson from 2011-2013.
Greg Sullivan, Professor of Physics from the University of Maryland, served as IceCube spokesperson from 2011-2013.

GS: It’s always a challenge to try and make sure we are doing the best that we can. It’s also a challenge to not take things personally. Everyone is motivated by the right things and wants to do what is right. As many scientists as we have, that is how many right paths there are [laughs].

The biggest challenge was getting people to move in a collective way based on consensus. It’s not the most efficient way to get people to do things. I had to get used to working that way. The other challenge is time. I spent a lot of time on personnel issues, people and social issues. It’s not what we trained to do, and you have to sacrifice a lot of time.

OB: Being the spokesperson is to some extent a service task.

GS: It also has its rewards. It’s a good experience.

OB: I think you have done a tremendous job. Maybe there was no perfect answer to a problem, but you have always been able to do what was best for the collaboration.

GS: It’s important to do things that might not work. That’s why I’m an experimentalist, not a theorist. You don’t always know what will work. It’s not that simple.

Another challenge is funding the detector. We have a beautiful detector and we need to be exploiting the detector to the best of our ability. It’s a constant battle, especially in the US.

LN: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for the collaboration now?

OB: We have several challenges. We have tremendous results coming out, and we want to be certain we are presenting them in the best possible way and at the right time.

Other challenges remain, funding PINGU [ed note: an IceCube extension], evaluating new institutions that want to join the collaboration.

GS: I agree with the difficulties in managing messages, expectations, and results. People get things in snippets. We faced it when we started building IceCube and when we were running [early versions of the detector].

Another challenge is continuing the operations funding we need. Funders maintain that in future years it will be easier to operate the detector, but in reality, it’s comparable to a smart phone. It will still need to be updated, and applications have to be changed, these are systems that need to be updated.

OB: That’s right. The equipment in the ice won’t change, but the software, the systems, the people to operate it will change. We may need new groups to be able to maintain what we are doing.

GS: We will need to maintain the resources that we have.

LN: Olga, what would you like to accomplish over the next two years?

OB: That’s a hard question. I like to think about ‘what would the collaboration like to accomplish?’ And that’s clear. The dream is to observe a [neutrino] point source. If we are not granted that, we will at least be able to make a definitive measurement of the diffuse flux.

GS: World peace.

OB: Have all the collaboration speak together as a whole.

LN: Olga, can you talk a little bit about your decision to have a deputy spokesperson?

OB: IceCube is not the only thing in my life. I have other duties at the University; I am a member of the institutional board, of the Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Committee for Physics. The Nobel Committee consists of only seven people, really an exclusive group doing something I think is important to physics.

I also don’t want to give up vacations. I need to keep my sanity.

And I think I need a sounding board, I need someone to talk to. When I realized the governance document gives me the possibility of having a deputy, I took the opportunity.

I think it works. It’s of course a personal thing. I respect people who don’t need a deputy but I think I do.

LN: A question for both of you. What do you think should be some of the key areas of growth for the collaboration?

GS: Ultimately as a legacy for IceCube, I hope we are always regarded as an experiment with integrity, that we are contributing to the body of knowledge of physics with thoughtfulness and care.

We also have a responsibility to the people in collaboration, especially the young people, to allow them success as they move forward. Continued growth of young people into faculty: we help them and give them skills and they move forward. It’s up to the individual, but we provide a fertile environment for them to work in.

And I hope we make significant contribution to the body of knowledge. That’s up to nature but we build and experiment and hope that we are.

I would love to, 20 years from now, talk about the dawn of neutrino astronomy the way people talk about optical astronomy or gamma ray astronomy.

OB: We talked about this yesterday, we are living in the decade where cosmology is becoming precision science. This has been happening through the development of precision experiments and I think that IceCube as one of these can provide a piece of the puzzle to help us see the Universe with different eyes.

We are doing something that people never thought was possible. We are no longer dreaming. The [neutrino] events are out there. I think that through that, and through the outreach activities, through programs that give young people like high school students channels to excite to them, that is a way we can influence as well.

GS: In the US we use this term STEM, and there is a real push to get students into these fields. There is an opportunity to use these experiments to give people an idea where we are. Cosmology, astrophysics, people can’t help but be interested in these things. These are the big questions and we come at it from science.

OB: We are showing we can get places by thinking outside the box. Even if you think something is a dream it can happen. It’s important for young people to see you can succeed by thinking outside the box.

No matter how many resources, or how much money a country or state spent developing candles, you would never have gotten electricity. It’s the playful things outside the box that get you something.

GS: You’re at the cutting edge and you have to have new ideas to think outside the box and see things in a new way.