Large Hadron Collider: The Insider Perspective

LHC – Glamour Shots

We’ve all heard about it. We’ve seen pictures, videos, and articles about it, but what it is really like to work at the Large Hadron Collider? When the glitz and glamor of media coverage die out, what happens? I don’t know about you, but I want to know what happens at CERN on any given tuesday. I don’t care if it’s slow, boring, or mundane. I want to know more about life at the LHC. Well friends, my wish has just been granted. And yours too (assuming we’re wishing for the same thing here).

I’m fortunate enough to have an uncle who is a physicist. He’s spent years working in the field and has been offered what many physicists would consider: The opportunity of a lifetime. A chance to, not only visit, but work at the groundbreaking Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. The best part is, he’s decided to share his experience with the rest of us. So over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting his stories right here on The Noisecast.

Starting with this one:

Working A Beam Shift

I was to be working the night shift on a “test beam”. I would have posted sooner but it turns out I have to upload pictures using the hotel internet, which is extremely slow. I finally have an account at CERN, but am still waiting for my laptop to be registered and therefore able to run on their wireless, which is much faster. (Remember, CERN is where the internet was invented). I am hopeful to be all set by the time I leave next week.

If you are interested in CERN and the experiment I am remotely involved with, here are some links: Public web site and general information. Information about the CMS experiment, which the Princeton group is involved with. One objective is to detect the Higgs Boson. The Large Hadron Rap. Entertaining and somewhat informative. My students enjoyed it when it came out a few years ago.

Right now the Princeton group and other institutions involved in this international collaboration is running some tests on a detector that will be used in the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) in a few years. The idea is to duplicate the conditions in the Large Hadron Collider using a test beam, to test and calibrate the equipment.

The protons that are flying around in the LHC are actually produced in a smaller accelerator, sped up to a certain energy and then injected into the LHC, where they are then further accelerated to very high energies (duplicating the conditions of the early universe, producing the Higgs and other particles, creating black holes, quark-gluon plasma, yada yada etc.). The tests are performed at the CERN Prevesson site, using one of the start up accelerators. (At one time this was THE particle accelerator). Some of the protons are injected into the LHC, and some are diverted for the test beam. So as a “beam shifter” I was “working” at the Prevesson site, helping a group from Turkey test their detector.

So here I am, looking pretty good for 3 am! See all of those wires? I know what every single one is for. Not! And I thought there were a lot of cables laying around when my band plays!

So what happens is that after the protons are accelerated they slam into a target (by the concrete on the right in the picture below) and stop. Other particles are then produced, depending on the target material (some kind of metal). For the first part of the night we used a target that produced muons. After that we used another that produced pions. In each case, the particles come through the bluish tube (You can’t see them, but they are there. That’s why we wear radiation badges).

The muons then go through the detector shown below, which has a bunch of metal plates which stop the muons at different distances depending on their speed. This is actual a massive machine that is moved around by huge motors on a track, like a rail car. It was moved out of the way of the beam for the pion experiment.

The muons that are not stopped are detected in another instrument about 10 feet past the one pictured above (the pions had to go through about 1 foot of iron first). I don’t have a good picture of that instrument but it is just a metal box with photomultiplier tubes inside, sitting on top of a big jack stand so the position can be changed. For most of the night we would just take data until 10000 or so particles were detected, then move the box and did it again. Very exciting. But I managed to stay up until 8:30 am!

Painstaking work, but in the end, this is what it’s all about.

Will post again soon.

4 thoughts on “Large Hadron Collider: The Insider Perspective”

  1. CERN and the LHC are fascinating to Tech geeks (guilty) for several reasons. Aside from the whole discovering new physics that is one of the main goals of the place they are advancing technology on several fronts including superconducting magnets, massive grid computing and IT in general, superconducting RF cavities, etc. I enjoy following their exploits on the web and appreciate the openness CERN is demonstrating encouraging the world to follow along as they do their work. my favorite LHC monitoring site is Meltronx ( ) which has taken several of the information pages CERN provides and puts them into a number of configurations for quick easy monitoring. Also much information on current activity is provided on the LHC Commissioning with Beam page ( ) which has links to many other good sources of information like the Statistics page ( ) which shows the details of past fills and the luminosity they produced.
    Some people like to watch reality TV but I think CERN is a lot more interesting than Jersey Shore.

  2. Your uncle is working on the end of all existence.  How cool.

    Also, they made pions, which I mentally pronounced as “peons.”  I imagined particles colliding and a bunch of guys with short sleeved white shirts and black ties emerged with pocket protectors and thick glasses asking if there was anything they could to do help.

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