Day 2 — First Full Day at CERN

My roommate and I woke up at 7:30 this morning. We were supposed to meet everybody at the bus at 8:45, so I went down to breakfast at 8:15. No other ISEF student was there, so I walked around a bit, eventually eating mango yogurt and tea for breakfast at 8:30 with the other students. Although we left the breakfast room a little later than planned, we had a nice start to a great day!

We then walked to a small conference room in the computer center directly below the room where the World Wide Web was invented. Amazing! Here, we listened to three intriguing lectures from CERN scientists. 

Wolfgang gave the first lecture, which was an introduction to CERN. Wolfgang has worked here for 35 years, so he knows everything going on here. He told us about basic particle physics, CERN’s mission, history, and some specifics on computing at CERN (which is his area of expertise).

Next, Dr. Helmut Burkhardt gave us an introduction to accelerators. He said, rather philosophically, that the LHC, which is 27 km in circumference, is small on the scale of the universe; it’s only large on the human scale. And, of course, the LHC is meant to study the nature of the universe. Finally, Philippe Lebrun told us all about superconductors, which play an enormous role in the accelerators.

After lunch in the cafeteria, we heard a great lecture by a scientist from India, Dr. Archana Sharma, who’s worked at CERN for 25 years. She talked to us about the detectors. I had previously learned much of what she said from Elizabeth, a physics grad grad student I met while studying at UMD, but it was still very interesting.

Dr. Sharma then showed us her lab, which is in the CMS warehouse. (CMS is one of the detectors on the LHC). This is where the detector was assembled.

Interestingly, CERN doesn’t have enough money for a huge, centralized computer center. Instead, they send their data via fiber optic cables leased from telephone companies to computing centers around the world. This system works well because it’s much easier for a university, for example, to get 100 computers dedicated to CERN, than for CERN to get the tens of thousands of computers they need all in one place. On the other hand, allocating computing and storage resources to many places is inefficent compared to having all computing resources in a few data centers.

After visiting the CMS workshop, we returned to the conference room and heard a lecture from a computer scientist, Filippo Costa, who works on the ALICE detector on the LHC. We couldn’t go underground to see the detector because it’s too dangerous while an experiment is running; but we toured the control room, electrical room, and the entrance to the underground passageway.

In the ALICE control room were about eight computer scientists. Three of them had six monitors at their desk! Another had eight! I think the number of monitors is a status symbol.

Throughout the day we have crossed the Franco-Swiss border numerous times without realizing it. Thank goodness there is no border control inside CERN! That would get annoying.

Our busy day was capped by dinner in the CERN cafeteria.

Last night I forgot to put the memory card back into my camera, so I couldn’t take many pictures today, and the ones I did take I can’t put onto the computer until I get a USB cable. Sorry.

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