Time’s up and this time it’s serious ! All big experiments at the LHC are gearing up for collisions within the next month, and for ALICE the numbers are staggering. Assuming we are running about six months of proton-proton collisions and one month of heavy ion collisions per year (i.e. 30 weeks of continuous operation) , the commitment it takes from each and every member of the collaboration is substantial.
The ALICE experiment consists of 18 detectors and 6 so-called general systems (experiment control, detector control, central trigger processor, high level trigger, data acquisition and offline monitoring). In the start-up phase, which is scheduled to last at least the remainder of 2008 and maybe most of the 2009 run, the experiment requires not only a steady 24/7 shift crew but also a substantial number of on-call experts. At this moment the conservative estimates are that at any given time 24 persons need to be on shift and 41 persons need to be on-call experts. In 2009 the on-site shift crew is supposed to reduce to 17 persons with the goal of reaching steady-state operation with a 10 person shift crew by 2010. The counting house is laid out accordingly, but at least for 2008 and most of 2009 it will get very crowded.
Now ALICE is a big collaboration with more than a 1000 Ph.D.’s at this moment, so these resource requirements should be easy to distribute across the whole collaboration, right ? Well, even with so many people the number of eight hour shifts for each individual Ph.D. are still daunting. My institute, Wayne State University, is one of the larger U.S. participants in ALICE, but even with four Ph.D.’s our responsibility comes up to only 0.882% of the total shifts. Still with a total shift allotment of 17,490 shifts in 2008 and 16,185 in 2009, each of our four Ph.D. needs to take around 40 shifts per year, and assuming we take one shift per day we will be at ALICE at least around 1.5 months per year.
Graduate students will carry a big load of these shifts in the coming years, but the early startup phase will likely have to be covered by the existing Ph.D.’s. This is a major commitment which requires substantial travel funds and time allotments for university folks like myself. It is definitely not cheap to do physics abroad. Besides the bad exchange course of the American dollar, the housing situation in and around Geneva is a major headache for many of us. A whole trek of people will steadily have to commute between the U.S. and Geneva from now on. The total commitment of the U.S. institutions to the ALICE shift total is presently around 5%, which is equivalent to about 850 shifts in 2008. But I would assume the shift load for the U.S. in ATLAS and CMS is considerably higher.
For many students this is a great opportunity to see the world and learn about different cultures besides just doing science within an international community. But all of it needs to be well planned. Apartments need to be rented, transportation needs to be provided etc. etc. So it takes a BIG effort to do BIG science, and if you do it from abroad it might even take a little more.