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My Three-Hour Tour

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 22, 2011

(three-hour tour… three-hour tour…)

Today went a lot better than yesterday, though I still had a few administrative blips to deal with. First thing this morning I went to get my ID card, and the lady was totally rude, yelling at me for not knowing if I was in the right place and not giving her the papers before I knew she needed them. Then she took my picture without telling me. If I ever get arrested, my mug shot couldn’t be worse than the picture I have to show every guard on site any time I go anywhere. Sigh.

I also tried to open a bank account, but was denied because I will only be here for 6 months. I’m still working on a solution for that. So if anyone knows a cheap way to get money from America to Switzerland let me know, otherwise I will just have to keep paying the exchange fee to turn dollars into francs.

Anyway, onto the good news! This morning I ran into a grad student I knew from SLAC. It was nice to see a familiar and English-speaking face, so I’m hoping it will turn into introductions of more grad students and potential social opportunities. I also practiced my numbers in French, which came in handy at lunchtime, when my meal cost “huit quinze” (or 8.15, which sounds like “wheat cans”).

Finally, this afternoon I met with a scientist who took me on a tour of one of CERN’s largest experiments, CMS, which stands for Compact Muon Solenoid. The “C” part is funny because the detector sits 100 meters underground, and is 7 meters high by about 22 meters long. Unfortunately the protons started accelerating again the same day I landed in Geneva, so the detector is off limits. A shame, because it would have been amazing to photograph. I did see the warehouse where it was built, and the insane mechanisms they used to lower it into the ground, piece by piece. He said each piece took about 10 hours to lower down this massive shaft, and only had about 10 centimeters of clearance on all sides. All in all it took about a year and a half, because they had to build each piece above ground after the previous one had been lowered then assemble everything underground. He did open the gate and let me peer over the edge down the shaft, which was just dizzying. It’s insane the infrastructure they had to build just in order to build the machines that will actually do something!

We also saw the control rooms where people can monitor the beams and the collisions, as well as where they control the magnets that bend the protons around the circular accelerating ring. Then we went up to the room with all the computer servers that process the data. Proton collisions happen roughly 40 million times every second. A trigger chooses about 100,000 of the “best ones” (that look like they might contain something interesting), and the computers pare that down to about 100, which they send off in real time to computers on the main site where scientists will analyze them. It seems like a lot of wasted data, but 100 events per second is still tons to work with! Finally we visited a display area where they have replicas of the accelerator tunnel and magnets. I learned what actually happened during the 2008 accident, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy 😉

CMS is located across the ring from my office, which is about 6km in a straight line, but between 10-15 km driving. CERN doesn’t own all the land above the ring, just the land where they have above-ground facilities, so driving to CMS was all farmland and tiny little villages with stone houses and roads. It looks quite idyllic, except there isn’t so much as a grocery store. It was cloudy again today, but the nearby mountains were visible. Slawek, my tour guide, showed me a road to take on a clear day where you can see all the way to the Alps and everything in between.

Tomorrow also looks promising. I’ll be touring another one of CERN’s major experiments and then having lunch with people from the US mission to the UN. Stay tuned!


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