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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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History in the making

The past few days have been very successful for the LHC. Not only has it collided protons at 2.36 TeV (similar to TeVatron energies) for quite some time, but at 900 GeV the experiments have now gathered a large number of events – ALICE has seen over a quarter of a million, and with this much data the physics is starting to take shape. Data-taking will continue in the new year, and that’s when the really exciting stuff will come, but now, a few days from CERN’s winter shutdown, it is clear that not a second has been wasted.


The prestigious "Castillo Ygay" wine: 1985 (left) and 1991 (right)

A few nights ago, to celebrate the historical achievement of LHC collisions, the ALICE Collaboration had a very joyous Christmas meal, but on the same night my supervisor, Orlando Villalobos Baillie, decided instead to gather the Birmingham ALICE group at CERN for a more intimate gathering. To explain, I need to take the story back a while.

Almost exactly 24 and a third years ago in Solihull, England, I decided to pop into the world, about 8 weeks earlier than intended. At around the same time, in Logroño, Rioja, Spain, a wine bottle that was roughly twice my size and almost exactly my weight was being filled with “Castillo Ygay”. This bottle was bought by Orlando in a London Airport in 1990, and tucked safely away in his cellar. At this time I was probably learning some interesting words to spell with my Grandfather. Years later, another bottle of “Castillo Ygay” was being brought into the world, at around the same time that I was carving “Zoe 1991” into some wet cement with a stick while my Dad was laying slabs in the garden.

In Spring 1993, the ALICE Letter of Intent was written, and inside it was a small passage about a trigger. This is how the Central Trigger Processor started life, and the Birmingham group began working on the project, writing a more detailed (and remarkably close to the modern day) design overview in the 1995 ALICE Technical Proposal, which was published exactly 14 years ago today. This was two years before my brother Connor was born.

In 1999, the second bottle of “Castillo Ygay” was bought by Orlando in Frankfurt and taken as a gift to Anton Jusko of Kosice’s ALICE group, to celebrate their joining the CTP project. Early the following year, CERN announced “compelling evidence” for a new state of matter in Pb-Pb collisions at the SPS. This was the year I first found out about CERN, and was one of only a handful of students in my school deciding to do Physics at A Level the following year. By the end of Sixth Form in 2003, there were only two of us taking the exams. I visited CERN a few times as a University of Birmingham undergraduate, and got to see ALICE close up, from the Silicon Pixel Detector in its clean room before it had been installed, to the huge solenoid and dipole magnets. In 2006 the CTP was finally built and moved to CERN. This was the year I wrote a critique on the findings of RHIC and the possibilities of ALICE, learning in more detail about the quark-gluon plasma and colour-deconfinement. It was also the year I worked with BABAR and learned about CP Violation, and decided that research was definitely for me.

In summer 2007 the CTP was moved down into the pit, just under the Muon Arm of the ALICE detector. It was a few months later that I joined the ALICE Collaboration as a Birmingham PhD student. The following summer, when the progress of the LHC had been so dramatic it seemed collisions could happen any day, I moved out to CERN to begin working with the “first physics” group. Orlando handed me a bag with a heavily bubble-wrapped bottle inside and asked me to move it to France and look after it. “To celebrate first collisions”, he said, mentioning that the wine was as old as me. Of course, 2008 brought great developments for the LHC but it also brought the terrible accident we know so well. Collisions never happened, and the wine had sat in my fridge on its side for a year and a half…until finally, this year, the LHC at last began colliding protons, and the CTP was finally selecting events.  It was time to celebrate.


The Birmingham ALICE Group at CERN (missing a few on shift or abroad)

So that pretty much brings us up to speed. A few nights ago, the Birmingham ALICE group gathered to sip mature wine (surprisingly and lingeringly delicious!) and ponder the history gone by and yet to come. Some colleagues prepared Italian and Slovak food (more goulash than we could finish, even in the coming days!), I brought a home-baked chocolate cake, as is my own tradition. It was a wonderful night, and it inspired one member of the group to cook Mexican food for us tonight. I look forward to it, because I am moving out of my flat on Thursday, back to the UK, so I am otherwise currently surviving on the leftovers in my freezer!

The night got me thinking about how life is just a series of interactions, and they are so fleeting but they mean more than we often realise. (This is much like a high energy collision but I really don’t want to make that pun! The “strong couplings with theorists” incident was bad enough!) I have been offered the opportunity to take part in a project next year (as has another QD blogger) called the3six5 project, in which I will be one of many making a small contribution to a sort of year long diary from the perspective of many. As an LHC physicist, I can appreciate that to be a small part of something huge, and to be able to see the big picture and where you fit into it, is a fantastic feeling. Not only that, but you really can’t tell where life is going to take you and that’s quite exciting. By the time I write my contribution, in August 2010, I will be planning the next steps of my career. I think it will be a really interesting blog to follow. Keep your eye out for it.


Goulash - yum!


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