It’s late at night, and here I sit in the control room for the H6B beam line at CERN’s SPS North Area facility. The light is harsh fluorescent, the air is redolent of espresso, and the room is thrumming to the sound of heavy machinery. I am on a night shift.
(An aside: If you thought particle physics stopped for the night — and particle physicists for sleep, ha! — please recall that we have accelerators that create light, and calorimeters that eat light for breakfast. Besides, as a world-spanning collaboration, the sun never sets on our empire.)
There’s a certain charm to working the night shift, or at least a comforting familiarity. One generally follows a similar routine:
[00:00] Arrive a few minutes early and catch up on events from the previous shift(s). Scan through the e-log, then start an entry of your own. Don’t forget timestamps!
[00:15] Follow some sort of start-of-shift checklist. Ensure proper data-taking in spite of your presence. Find the most comfortable chair around and settle in for a long haul.
[01:00] Time for coffee.
[02:00] Continue checking up on the detector at regular intervals, updating the e-log as necessary. Engage yourself with work, or entertain yourself with Internet. Now is a good time to tick items off your to-do-but-not-urgent list.
[03:10] Snap out of a daze that lasted for five minutes.
[03:15] Time for coffee. And lunch.
[04:45] Check email repeatedly in case some industrious person over in the States is still working. Be productive regardless: Your advisor is visiting CERN, and he may appear without warning at any given moment.
[06:00] Enter the night shift doldrums, and despair.
[07:30] Note when the beam shuts off for a planned intervention. Take this opportunity to run a couple of scans on your sensors, if only to break the tedium.
[08:00] Look back on the past eight hours and take pride in the amount of data you’ve helped collect! Finish writing up the shift e-log, make sure the control room is in order, then head home for sleep. Mind that extraneous step in front of your apartment building. Definitely do not trip on it.
Fortunately, this was a smooth and trouble-free night shift during which boredom was the biggest problem faced, but you can imagine how some shifts are made truly terrible: no (stable) beam, sensors failing for mysterious reasons, repeated software crashes, too many emails from industrious people over in the States, the dilemma of whether or not to call an expert at 5am for something that may incite their ire… Clearly, I lucked out tonight.
Oh, one last thing! Be sure to check your work from last night before submitting it for other people’s approval. (Really, “eat light for breakfast”??? It’s staying in, but only as an instructive example.)