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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

View Blog | Read Bio

Saturday night on shift for ATLAS: might as well make the most of it!

As the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) shuts down on Wednesday morning for its annual maintenance, hundreds of people will breathe a sigh of relief. It takes dozens of people on call for each experiment at all times to maintain smooth operation. Plus shift crews staff the control room 24 hours a day to keep an eye on everything.

Taking shifts gives us great opportunities to meet people working in completely separate areas, especially those who work from their home institute. The ATLAS and CMS collaborations both have more than 3000 physicists. ALICE has more than a thousand and LHCb about 700 members. With such large groups, it is difficult to know all of our collaborators. For example on ATLAS, most of them work from one of the 173 affiliated institutes located in 38 different countries.

We all volunteer for shifts. ATLAS currently needs a team of 13 people to staff its control room. All experiments are operated non-stop 7 days a week during data-taking periods, typically from March to December.

Even though this comes on top of our other duties, given we only take 12-15 shifts a year, this is a small task compared to the demands put on experts, the key people who are on call. Shifters often come here from their home institute to take a series of shifts, attend a few meetings and discuss face-to-face with some colleagues before flying back home.

I volunteered ten days ago for the weekend shifts as a way to pull my own weight. But being on shift is quite pleasant. For those of us not involved in day-to-day operation, we get a chance to contribute and appreciate all the efforts involved in maintaining a high data-taking efficiency.

When it is busy, time flies really quickly. But the first night was an extremely slow day. Not much to do given the LHC team was plagued with a series of minor issues that prevented them from delivering much data. We only got 20 minutes of data Saturday night, which was still better than none at all on Friday! Sunday, things proceeded smoothly so at last, our efforts were being rewarded with lots of data.

Being the shift leader, its my duty (and a real pleasure) to talk to everybody in the control room, to ensure good communication and coordination. On my team, there were people from ex-Yugoslavia, Greece, Denmark, Italy, India, Portugal, Belgium, USA, Poland and Canada. Six of us were women out of the 13 people in the room.

One was there for her first shift and she coped with her stress by being extremely conscientious. You never know what to expect. Each problem tends to be different and you need to use your judgment a lot. And fast. Each second counts when we are collecting data and we must act as fast as possible to prevent data loss. Fortunately, there are numerous experts on call, one for each sub-system and every aspect of running. They are the real heroes and sheroes of the data-taking operation, answering odd questions at all times of the day and night.

During a lull, I joined two other women and we started sharing our experience about working in a field still dominated by men, soon to be joined by the others. We all had had very different experiences, depending on our age, nationality or where we studied.  We ended up having lively discussions while keeping an eye on the many computer screens and wall displays, often interrupted by sound alarms or having to rush back to our workstations when screens were being filled with error messages. Everybody was working in a very cooperative way and soon the whole place felt much more human.

It was by far the nicest shift of the year, thanks to the company of all these women and the diversity of the whole team. It reminded me of International Women’s Day on 8 March 2010 when all the experiments and LHC control rooms were staffed by women, just to show the large number of women scientists working on these experiments.

Now a whole different set of people are about to get extremely busy in the coming months, going into the LHC tunnel and opening the detectors, trying to fix all parts of equipment that failed during the year. It is their turn to race against tight deadlines to make sure all will be ready for another successful year of data-taking in 2012.

Pauline Gagnon

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Half the shift crew in the ATLAS control room: From left to right: (sitting) Maria Emilie Dano Hoffmann, Serena Psoroulas, (standing) Irena Nikolic, Judita Mamuzic, Martine Bosman and Pauline Gagnon.