Editors Note - There are two types of pictures in this blog. The good ones (thanks to Eric Grancher) and the bloody awful ones (thanks to my camera).
When I was at the UKOUG conference in Birmingham last December, some of the guys who work at CERN mentioned to me that now was an excellent time to visit. Much of the work on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and the associated experiment pits is nearing completion but visitor access is easier because they're not fully operational yet.
As well as having a passing amateur interest in Physics and a sense of the importance of the work at CERN, I really liked the guys I met and had enjoyed Lutz Hartmann's blog posting about his visits there to teach so the thought of visiting appealed to me. I work beside a Physics graduate/fan, Dave Swan (the Swanny from earlier blog posts) so I mentioned it to him when I got back into the office. He was pretty excited by the prospect so, with a little family persuasion, we decided to organise a short boy's trip to the accellerator!
I've known Eric Grancher (a fellow Oak Table Network member) for a little while via emails and blog comments and it was a pleasure to meet him properly in December. Eric's a lovely guy and very helpful, so I asked if he could help arrange our visit. Eric is also organising a future Oak Table delegation organised around some Trivadis training days that Christian Antognini is organising but the timing didn't work for Swanny and I, so he arranged for the two of us to visit last Friday. Despite awkward flight times because we had to limit the time out of the office by using direct flights and going on Friday and returning on Saturday morning, Eric managed to arrange for one of the tour guides to give us a late afternoon tour. Better still, it was going to be one of the last opportunities to visit the inside of the Atlas pit.
A Brief Diversion
With the bizarre humour that permeates both home and office round here, it was inevitable that the prospect of visiting an experimental nuclear facility would be seized upon. Swanny suggested that his main hope for the visit is that he might return with Superpowers! We agreed to be particularly watchful for any stray animals or insects that might be lurking around the LHC, ready to bite us when we stumbled into the particle beam accidentally-on-purpose In the final week, Swanny broke the news to me that he was going to hide an Aardvark in the tunnel so that I might come back as Aar-Man - able to recover databases in a single bound! Believe me, there was a lot more to it than that and it went on for quite a while ... Following several photos of aardvarks bouncing back and forward, the end result was that Swanny turned up at the airport insisting he had an aardvark in his back-pack that he'd found in his local woods. My main concern was the large snout that would be an inevitable consequence.
Via a short flight and a taxi, we arrived at the reception and Eric met us for a coffee and a quick chat. He was up to his eyeballs in problem resolution management, so it was good of him to tear himself away and leave it in someone else's capable hands. Once refreshed, we made our way to the exhibition centre just alongside the main reception where we witnessed, among other joys, the Next machine Tim Berners-Lee used while working on the design work for the future World Wide Web, along with a paper he wrote on the subject with the supervisors comment - 'Vague - but interesting'. There was a host of old computer equipment which made it a real pleasure for me - parts of an old 3090 mainframe, the first Cisco router used in Europe, some truly enormous old disks capable of storing a few Kilobytes and so on. It was probably the largest such collection I'd seen in one place. An old physics-obsessed friend had managed to make the trip too
Pretty soon, 4 o'clock arrived, as did our tour guide Stephan. We crossed the road and made our way to the building containing the Atlas pit. The surroundings of CERN are strange. The surrounding mountains (not quite the Alps, but bigger than anything in Scotland) are beautiful and the air is crisp but the buildings, most having been designed and built many decades ago, are fairly dull and anonymous and there's really no sense that anything special is going on there at all. It could be any university campus, albeit a large one. That changes when you enter the Atlas pit which is awash with electronics and engineering and such things as retina scanners, airlock doors and superconductors. The thought kept recurring that it's the most unusual mix of large scale - dwarving the human visitors - and small scale - all those tiny components, all individually bar-coded with their history stored in a system Stephan works on. (All of the tour guides at CERN also have their real jobs that they do the rest of the time.) This is a view down into the experiment pit 100 metres below a viewing balcony. These shafts allow equipment to be lowered using the permanently installed cranes.
I've certainly never seen anything like it. It's well worth watching the many videos you can find on YouTube by searching for cern and atlas (The stop-frame video of it being built is fun). So why go all the way to Geneva for a one hour tour to see what you can see on the web from your living room? Well I was looking forward to seeing Eric again, but there's something about standing next to the equipment that makes you appreciate it more. However, the best thing about visiting personally was this guy - Stephan, our guide (Oh, Swanny is the bald guy on the left and you probably already know who the ugly one on the right is.)
He was the best guide I've ever had for any tour. Knowledgable, passionate and funny. He was a born entertainer and really brought everything to life beyond the immediate power of seeing the equipment. I'm so glad that Eric asked Stephan and that he was able to make it. Oh, and all of those badges round his neck means he can take you to places that no outsider is going to be visiting once Atlas is fully operational!
I'll let readers dig around the links for a proper description of what Atlas and the LHC is all about. Suffice to say that it was a unique experience that I won't forget. I was even prepared to make myself look even more silly than normal!
Behind us is a truly enormous piece of equipement which runs the full height and length of one end of the detector, covered with different types of measuring equipment. It was truly awesome amd one of Eric's friends lead the design, but none of the pictures or words can really do it justice.
That's Eric on the left. After leaving Atlas, he also took us on a quick tour of one of the Data Centres. By now I'd moved beyond taking pictures which I regret in a way, because it was another awesome site, filled with modern equipment which I wish I had the chance to work with, but I don't very often. Of course the punchline is that all the "cool" equipment just means that they face the same problems everyone does - dealing with the power and ventilation requirements! Isn't it strange how the basic physical fundamentals are becoming the problem
Later on Eric, Swanny, Nilo (another experienced DBA on Eric's team) and I went out for a lovely dinner in a restaraunt on the Swiss side of the border. We kept Eric and Nilo out later than we should and drunk their share because they were both driving, but the conversation was great and it was a nice end to a nice day. Thanks to Eric for arranging the trip; Stephan for a first class tour; Nilo for the lifts and excellent company and Swanny for the hangovers the next morning and the constant laughs.
CERN holds a visitors day in April. The last time there were something like 40,000 visitors and as only about 15,000 can be underground at any one time, it must be interesting chaos! But, mark my words, if you do ever have the opportunity to visit CERN, you should take it. It's going to be more difficult in a few months though once everything swings into full operation and we were particularly lucky to see an almost complete Atlas detector before it's used in the search for the Higgs Boson amongst other things.
Trivia Note - Peter Higgs was one of Swanny's lecturers in his first year at University.