Geek heaven - CERN

I had the privilege of visiting CERN last week, in Geneva. On of the members of a working group I am in is currently there setting up his part of the project ALICE.

Now I had this vague notion of CERN, the particle accelerator on the boarder between Switzerland and France being big - but not this big. It is a 27 kilomenter long ring 60 m down in the ground that starts near Geneva, runs around underneath a good bit of France, before returning to the start. There are a number of experiment "holes" drilled at various locations along the ring.

The experimental holes don't look all that fancy - just a security gate, and then a large hall - could be any sort of production facility. Inside, however, are the most amazing things. In one room a group of people stand around some large, golden-foil wrapped electronic device, carefully doing something to its innards. In another, a guy is surrounded by hundreds of ethernet cables, wiring them up while piles of computers await their final destination inside of huge 19" racks.

The atmosphere is charged - people are excited to be working here. The ring itself was turned off a few years ago, the old experiments dismantled, and now some new ones are going in. People are working feverishly to get everything done by November, when the ring is to be turned on again.

We got to go down the ALICE hole (somehow this should be Alice going down the Rabbit Hole....) wearing hard hats and have a look at what was going on. Massive bits of steel are holding four detectors in place. The size of the detectors seems to be inversely proportional to the size of the bit they are trying to measure. They will be looking for quarks, which make up the protons and neutrons of the universe - so the detectors are enormous.

A ring of sleds carries special computers sandwiched in between cooling layers - something like a quarter of a million (!) processors, and once the thing starts you can't get in to change anything or reboot. No Microsoft products anywhere to be seen....

The logistics of getting all of this delivered and installed is enormous - hats off to the people sorting it all out.

The CERN main area itself is a strange place - it is extraterritorial, that is, neither France nor Switzerland has jurisdiction inside the gates. Once you are inside you may move freely and photograph at will. The tables and chairs are the cheapest around, there are cheap places to stay and a few cafeterias with affordable and good food.

The money is all in the experiments and the computers and the books and so on. People seem to not sleep much, but just work round the clock. In the cafeteria they talk about - what else, particle physics! Every now and then someone strays off to a real-life topic, but soon they are back on everyone's favorite topic.

This seems to be the place to be for geeks - round the clock playing with expensive toys!

1 comment:

WiseWoman said...

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