Summer at CERN

I like telling old stories – so I am just going to keep doing that.

I wanted to share a particular story of an event while I was at CERN – but then I figured I should explain why I was at CERN first.  So, here it goes.

I was an undergraduate student at Benedictine University (we called it I.B.C. back then) with a major in physics.  BTW – that was a great experience, I should write about it sometime.  After graduating, really the only graduate program I was accepted into was at The University of Alabama (in 1992).

After my first year, I started working with the Experimental High Energy Research group.  I honestly have no reason to be in this field except that one of the physics faculty sort of invited me into the program – so I did.  I clearly wasn’t theoretical physics material – so, what the heck.  I figured that’s where I would go.

The group originally worked with the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC).  This was a giant particle accelerator being built in Texas.  SPOILER ALERT: they soon canceled the program.  Anyway, our group’s role was to build muon detectors.  These are essentially super long Geiger tubes.  In order to get precise muon track position, we needed a precise location of the wire in the middle of the tube.  Since these were long tubes – the wire had a sag.  It was that sag that we tried to determine.

But the SSC was canceled.  I think the program had some funds left over from the grant – so the faculty member in charge decided to collaborate with CERN.  He had money to send me there to work the following summer.  I think his main goal was to use up the money and have a student listed as “doing research” – that would look good for his tenure application.  Yes, faculty do silly things like this.

I didn’t really want to go to Switzerland.  I know people travel to all sorts of crazy places when they were much younger than me, but I really didn’t do stuff like that.  On top of that, I really didn’t know what my “mission” was at CERN other than to serve as a “checkbox” on a physics faculty tenure application.  Oh well – I went anyway.

Wait.  What the heck is CERN?  CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research – the acronym works in French)  is in Geneva Switzerland (mostly) and is a particle accelerator.  So, essentially it is a giant underground ring that accelerates particles and then smashes them into other particles.  There are some particle detectors spaced around the ring to – you know – detect stuff.  Our group worked on the L3 detector.

OK, so I move out to Switzerland for the summer.  Maybe now would be a good time to point out that that part of Switzerland speaks French.  I don’t speak French.  However – I am fluent in pointing at stuff.  Most people at the research facility spoke English – but food was in French.  I just pointed.  I didn’t starve to death.

While I was there, my “job” (which was poorly defined at first) was to write and modify FORTRAN code to analyze detector alignment data.  Basically, there are more than one detectors and you need to know the relative position of these things to track particles.  We had two alignment systems – a laser alignment and a capacitive sensor.  I was supposed to take data from these and then “do stuff”.

I’m a pretty sucky FORTRAN programmer.  I was then, and I still am now.  It was great to be at CERN, but I mostly just worked in the computer lab messing things up.  I really don’t know if I even accomplished one thing while I was there (research-wise).

I did get to meet lots of new people and hang around CERN and see cool stuff.  Overall, it was a great experience.

More on my CERN adventures will be posted at some point.


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