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Paul Jackson | CERN | Switzerland

View Blog | Read Bio

The Auld Enemy

Competition is a common thing in High Energy Physics. Whether it be between two individuals, working groups or
full collaborations, competing for money, time and prestige, we tend to measure ourselves against others and be
spurred on to try and beat someone else to the punch.

Visiting CMS. Your humble narrator (left), with unidentified ginger man.

Visiting CMS. Your humble narrator (left), with unidentified ginger man.

As you are likely aware, the LHC is home to two large multi-purpose experiments, ATLAS and CMS, with LHCb and Alice the two other experiments with slightly more specific charges. It is almost natural therefore that ATLAS and CMS are in competition. Currently, before data taking has begun, it remains a healthy rivalry, but once the gun is fired and we are (hopefully) inundated with stable beams from the LHC the gloves may, proverbially, come off. Competition will exist throughout the whole lifetime of these huge collaborations, but it is down to the physicists, and management, to keep it healthy. What helps keep this spirit alive is the friendships developed across the collaborations, after all, no-one is going to fight a friend are they!! As far as I’m concerned competition merely represents a challenge to improves ones own work and ensure you are doing the best science you can be and, as long as this remains friendly, then it remains healthy, and the research is the winner. In recent times CDF and D0, and BaBar and Belle (or going back to the LEP days and further still!), have inspired each other to make the most out of the data they collected in order to produce competitive results whereas, without each other it is likely the data may not have been mined so intensively and successfully as they were. This can be seen at the LHC already. With the startup operating energy lowered from the design energy of 14TeV, and a likely reduced intensity to begin with as the LHC team get to grips with operating their complicated machinery, physics analysts and detector performance experts are forced to be cleverer in order to optimize their work and invent new ways to understand the physics produced in their detectors. It is a fascinating time and the added challenge of producing measurements with very low luminosities is clearly spurring on the teams at both ATLAS and CMS (this is surely true at the other experiments also, whom I must not neglect so freely!).

CMS, ready for beam!

CMS, ready for beam!


I am a member of the ATLAS collaboration, having first started working on the experiment in 2004 and have remained active, with a brief hiatus, until the present day. Recently though, I had the opportunity, thanks to a friend of mine, to be shown around the CMS detector and so I jumped at the chance. It was, unsurprisingly, impressive to look around the detector and control room of CMS. As the engineers are frantically running around below, group after group of observers come in to get a peek of the detector and try to dodge the film crews and spanner wielding crew members. The sight of these monumental apparatus striking and with each detector I see I am always struck with a similar thought: how can that possibly work! It’s probably a bit skeptical to think this way, but it is more a reflection of the awe with which such human endeavors are held for me, than a cynicism about the detector, staff or project management themselves.

Benefiting from a knowledgeable tour guide helps (thanks Matt!) and I got a few pointers regarding the layout of the experiment and some great pictures of the detector to boot. I felt slightly guilty for missing a couple of hours of work at first but soon realized that this was a much better use of my time than trying to debug my latest piece of C++. There was an obvious lesson in it for me, one I learned many years ago but I would say comes and goes from the forefront of my working mind: get to know your detector! Not that you need to buy her flowers or take her out for ice-cream, but more understand what makes her tick, what she is (and isn’t) good at, and how you can help her be at her best, even when, like the rest of us, her performance starts to degrade with age. The more you know about the experiments you work on, the more you will be humbled by their complexities, challenged by their abilities and, ultimately we hope, excited by their results.

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