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Organizing large projects across boundaries: The particle physics experience

Sunday, October 16, 2011 from to (US/Pacific)
at San Francisco
The sun never sets on today’s large particle physics collaborations.  Major experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN each involve more than 2000 physicists from more than 100 institutions and forty countries.  The detectors built by these collaborations are massive, billion-dollar enterprises of great complexity and myriad components.  Collaborating physicists carry out the analysis of the data that is acquired by these detectors and relayed electronically across the globe to data centers tied together through GRID computing.  The collaborations publish papers based on petabytes of data just months after the data are taken.
How can this possibly work?
I will describe how particle physics has evolved to be able to organize these projects across boundaries, from setting the physics goals, establishing governance, making the hard technology choices and the actual construction and commissioning of the detectors to the analyses and production of physics discoveries. 

Is there anything to learn here that is applicable to biological research? 
When asked to give this talk I was intrigued by the inquiry into whether the nature of international particle physics collaborations reveals possible applications to major biological projects. I will describe my conclusions and the many questions that this inquiry raised.