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Rice University | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Life at CMS

So as my internship was drawing to a close (already…?) I was looking back on what I’ve been doing over the past month and a half… and a strange paradox made itself instantly clear: I feel like I still know very little (~nothing) about what is going on at the experiment, and yet if I were to travel back in time to a month and a half ago to talk to myself about what I had done and what I knew of the experiment, my past self would’ve been impressed at everything my present self knows. I guess that’s how you can tell how steep the learning curve is, and at CERN, when you’re working everyday alongside some of the most brilliant people in the world, qualifying the learning curve as “very steep” already sounds like a euphemism.

Yet learning isn’t the only thing I had going for me all this time. My professors would no doubt be relieved to know that I also did (some) work for the experiment, from taking shifts to mounting, installing and databasing (for lack of a better word I made one up) temperature sensors. You know you’ve got something good going for you when, as you’re fighting to get that sensor installed in the midst of all those high voltage cables and razor sharp scraps of hard nylon and metal (there is a mortality rate for undergrads at CERN… though that information is classified), some average Joe on tour of the experiment decides to take a picture of you as you’re working and even asks his kid to stand in the picture with you. I guess they should’ve given me a nametag with “the summer student intern in his natural habitat” written on it… (A “no pictures please, it bothers the animals” sign would’ve been nice too)

I also got some pretty interesting questions asked to me about the experiment. You get all sorts of people on these tours, but I really want to share an excerpt from a particular conversation I had with an anonymous man while touring my own father around the CMS cavern:

Visitor: “So I’ve heard that, if we discover this Higgs particle, also known as the “God” particle, then it will have proven the existence of the Divine Creator?”

Me: “Not exactly… only that there exists one particle that gives mass to all the other particles.”

Visitor: “But… that MUST mean that there is a God, right?”

Me: “I don’t know… is the Higgs particle mentioned anywhere in the Bible?”

(Imagine my shock when I learned that it wasn’t…)

And speaking of interesting people on tour, there was a very important official from the Vatican that came through the CMS experiment, and I heard that he asked where CERN kept its antimatter. We were also honored by the presence of Bill Gates at CMS, who, to my great disappointment, didn’t help us out with our software problems. Yet the greatest fiasco of all was the visit, in one day, of the presidents of Poland and Mozambique. That day, the farmer who owns the fields adjacent to Point 5 woke up with the sudden urge to spray manure all over his land, and, the wind blowing in the direction that it was, the whole place was a stinking mess for the duration of the tour of these two eminent visitors. I think next time the French will be pushing for EU subsidies for their agriculture, the Polish representative might have something to say…

Stinking-up foreign leaders aside, CERN is full of its own array of diplomatic incidents. Going into a physics group meeting, I didn’t expect to understand much, and I didn’t… at least, not physics. Because nothing, not even my professor’s constant references to the “heated debates” that took place within those meetings, could’ve prepared me for what I was about to witness: a yelling standoff between physicists arguing in favor of or against different theories (in keeping with my tradition of euphemisms, I chose to use the word “yelling“ to describe what was going on in that meeting…). To quote my own physics professor, Dr Padley: “It is interesting for you to go to those meetings not so much for the informational content they may have, but for the cultural experience as well.” I think I might disagree on the use of the word “cultural” there, though I will grant that I’ve never before heard so many curse words in all those different languages…

Yet that is what truly amazes me about CERN. It’s hard enough that they have ridiculously large amounts of data coming in, from different detectors, detecting collisions taking place in the largest scientific experiment in the world, operating at energies never before probed by man, but they’ve got to work together with scientists from all over the world! When this experiment finally operates at optimal performance, it will have been an achievement unparalleled in the scientific community, but also a tremendous achievement at the human level, and will confirm once more the resounding truth: that physics is universal, and though we may often disagree with the grammar, it nonetheless makes for one impressive international language.

Amram Bengio

 

 

 

 

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