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Burton DeWilde | USLHC | USA

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The Sound of CERN

I recently had an encounter with an unusual reporter. He had been roaming about CERN in search of a story, and by chance that brought him far afield to the test beam control room at CERN’s SPS North Area where I was spending the day on shift with a colleague. Because of technical difficulties (or was it a worker’s strike?), the beam was off, and our devices under test weren’t taking any data, so when the reporter came by and asked to speak with us, it was an emphatic “Yes, but I need coffee first.”

Now, to be fair, it wasn’t the reporter himself that was unusual, it was the story he sought: “The Sound of CERN.” Um, what? This gentleman had been taking field recordings all over in hopes of piecing together an aural representation of the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, and now he wished to speak with us. After seeing — hearing! — so much of CERN’s infrastructure and equipment, all of it humming whirring beeping pulsing clicking, he had decided to widen the scope of his project to include the scientists inhabiting this soundscape. Sounded reasonable to me.

After my colleague rather eloquently explained the work we were doing at the test beam and why it mattered in the grander scheme of things, our conversation moved on to the reporter’s work. Why sound? Well, it’s awfully difficult for people to relate to fundamental physics on a visceral level, and intellectually isn’t much easier — there’s a reason we spend so much time in grad school! But understanding is facilitated whenever you can associate a concrete bit of sensory information with an abstract concept. What sound does a Higgs boson make when it decays into two W bosons? What color is an electron? (No, I’m not talking quantum chromodynamics…) If you could reach out and touch a proton, would it be soft like a plushy, or hard like a billiard, or squishy like a hard-boiled egg?

Or, in this reporter’s case, What does CERN sound like? Well, I will give you some hints — in words, until I acquire the means to record the audio myself:

  • like a room full of computers, fans blowing hard while merciless physicsts bang on their keyboards
  • like a 1.6 Tesla Morpugo magnet thrumming softly while a beam of 180 GeV pions passes through it at close to the speed of light
  • like a flock of sheep grazing in a field 100 m directly above the low-energy end of CERN’s accelerator complex, the bells on their necks chiming pleasantly
  • like the coffee machines in R1 dispensing liquid energy to tired grad students
  • like the electronic tone emanating from television screens once every forty seconds, indicating when the SPS is spilling beam your way
  • like water cascading down the inside of the ATLAS cooling towers at Point 1 on the LHC
  • like two people chatting excitedly as you pass them by, “… saw good agreement in the high-pT tails, but something strange …”
  • like this, maybe

Until next time — keep your eyes open and your ears tuned!



5 Responses to “The Sound of CERN”

  1. Tona Kunz says:

    Who was the reporter? I’d love to listen to his piece.

  2. Luboš Motl says:

    Was the reporter at least able to find out, after this complicated journey and laborious research, that the interior of CERN sounds awfully much like Lady Gaga, especially at night? ;-)

  3. Burton DeWilde says:

    @Tona: Good question! I would also love to hear what he puts together. I believe he was with BBC, but I will try to find out more.
    @Lubos: Strange, she didn’t come up in the course of our conversation… but maybe his mic picked her up somewhere.

  4. peter cameron says:

    steer your reporter to the beam instrumentation group there at cern. they have audio of the beam itself

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