This is a question I’ve received recently from a couple of my friends in the theory community. Theoretical particle physicists are pretty smart people, and they do know a little something about particle detectors — so if they’re wondering, then I’m sure some of you will be curious too! This is also a chance to see a snapshot of my psychological state at the end of a night shift: I wrote all of this to explain what I was doing between 6:20 and 6:45 in the morning a couple weeks ago. My only edits are two places where I wrote something incorrect and replaced it with a new explanation in brackets.
To summarize: I’m busy this week and getting an easy entry out of cutting and pasting from my gChat log.
Again, the question was (more or less), “Why are you still doing night shifts when the accelerator, and large parts of the ATLAS detector, are off?” Here’s my answer:
06:22 calibrate the detector
the pixel detector has 80 million channels (i.e. pixels, 400 x 50 microns)
06:23 they actually live, physically, on about 1700 modules, which talk to various hierarchically-organized computers
06:24 [to transmit the data the 100 meters to the counting room without high voltage or repeaters] we have optical links for transmitting the data from inside the detector until it gets outside
thus we need lasers to turn digital signals into optical light, and then we also need to convert the light back
the lasers have to be timed and powered correctly, as does whatever reads the information
06:25 at the moment, the ATLAS pixel detector isn’t using some fraction like [3%] of its modules, because they aren’t set correctly. in some cases, they may be impossible to set correctly until we can open the detector and replace components — which may be many years
but in other cases, the automatic-setting didn’t work, and we have to take a closer look.
06:26 some experts were in here today to try to recover a few such modules by taking that closer look; now I’m running scans that tell us if they were succesful or not.
06:27 that’s only one example of the kind of thing we do. there are a lot of things you can set on every module, and we have to get them all set right.
06:38 [My friend asks why we run all night, and if we run all the time]
06:43 me: yes, we have finite time, and lots of work to do
and clearly more people than pixel detectors.
06:44 once the cooling goes off, in a few weeks, we have to turn the modules off. then there’s only a few kinds of calibration scans/studies we can do
It’s worth noting that now, two weeks later, all the optical links are working well, except for a very few that are hard-core unrecoverable — thanks to the work of the experts who looked at the tuning and the very small contribution I made by running scans for them overnight. Our night shifts continue, with a few nights each from over a dozen people in this month alone. Although the details of the work at the moment are different, but the overall plan is the same: to have our subdetector, the last one installed, be as ready as the rest of ATLAS when data finally arrives next year!