Friday, September 26, 2008

Bye Bye WaMu

Now I'm really wishing that we had LHC collisions this week to distract ourselves with... unfortunately, all eyes are on the U.S. economy. The latest shoe to drop is Washington Mutual, which just happens to be my bank! I'd been meaning to uh ... switch banks anyway ... right? Looks like JP Morgan Chase has us covered, for the time being at least. It's pretty surreal to be abroad during such a volatile time. Well, I hope Stephen Colbert suspending his show gives the economy the boost it needs. In case you need a laugh:

A bientôt!

P.S. On a personal note, Aunt Helen, I hope your surgery goes smoothly today. My thoughts are with you.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

LHC Delay

So, by now, I'm sure you've read about the LHC delay until April 2009 (if not, read the official press release, and then come back). Don't worry, we have plenty to work on until then! I was bummed at first, but I'm sure this will make first collisions even sweeter!

While they're trying to make the tunnel safe and warm up the magnet enough for the engineers to get in there and really assess the damage, I thought I would remind you all what we're dealing with:

These magnets are HUGE! And really complicated. And really cold (because they have to be superconducting...). I found a nice explanation:
To harness the powerful beams of protons and steer them around the ring, scientists have to create strong magnetic fields. This requires superconducting electromagnets, whose wire coils can carry large electric currents with virtually no resistance. For the wire to become superconducting, the magnets must be kept very cold—in this case at a temperature of -271 degrees Celsius, close to absolute zero.
And the meaningful part for me is that although other accelerators (like the Tevatron at Fermilab) have used superconducting magnets before, the LHC magnets are really pushing the current limits of technology. Plus, each magnet stores a lot of energy. What happened last Friday was a quench. That means that the magnet all of a sudden was no longer superconducting, so it released a lot of energy.
When a quench begins, the beams are shut down and power to the affected magnet is immediately cut. Then heaters fire up, quickly raising the temperature of the whole 14.3-meter-long, 35-ton magnet and dissipating the energy.
Usually, this procedure should mitigate the damage. But something went wrong this time (according to the press release, possibly a bad electrical connection), and caused a lot of cold Helium gas to fill the tunnel. No one was hurt, because no one is allowed in the tunnels when the machine is running (there are lots of strict safety procedures), but any sort of damage to the accelerator pieces in that sector needs to be fixed before we can start running again.

On a positive note, one journalist (Lewis Page, of the Register) jokes that the last time physicists at CERN had some downtime, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web :)

A bientôt!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

One week at CERN

I can hardly believe I've been here only one week (well, 8 days really). My days have been completely packed with work and paperwork. Plus, the wrench thrown in it all was that the apartment in Meyrin that I had arranged mysteriously fell through. The reason the lady gave me was:

I had to return a favor that I was given some time ago. So is life. Sorry.

So last Friday I started scrambling for a new apartment... these things go fast, so I went to see a couple apartments on Saturday during the day, and then Saturday night I called one of the landlords to tell him I wanted that apartment. We signed the lease and put down the security deposit yesterday. It's been a hectic few days! But I am comforted by the fact that I will have a place to live on October 1st and will no longer have to sleep on my very nice friend's futon (thanks Bryan!). The apartment is really cute too, fully-furnished (which is key for someone without any furniture) with a washing machine and dishwasher, and close to a bus stop in France. Although living in France is a bit quieter and more remote than Switzerland, I did not want spend 6 weeks looking for a non-existent Swiss apartment! It's super difficult to find something on the Swiss side, especially now since it seems like everyone wants to be here for the excitement.

I also got a sim card today... if, hypothetically, one were to unlock an iPhone (after perfectly legally cancelling a contract with AT&T), one should be able to put in a prepaid sim card from a European carrier and it should work... for the curious, I will let you know how this hypothetical situation pans out ;)

And, amidst dealing with foreign bureaucracy and cell phones, I'm actually trying to get some work done! I have spent my working hours battling ATLAS software and python (the programming language, not the snake), but that's kind of dull. So to inject some physics (and since I've been asked by almost everyone I know) I'll leave you with another very nice explanation of why mini black holes won't destroy the earth. The American Institute of Physics puts out a very nice News Update that you can subscribe to. For all of you physics fanboys, the articles are pretty accessible and cover more than just particle physics.

This particular article, called "Mini Black Holes No Danger", is dated September 9th, but it kind of got lost in all of the sensational "first beam" coverage. Here's an excerpt:

When the protons collide with each other inside the machine, one thing that scientists are certain won’t happen is the production of miniature black holes that gobble up nearby matter. A new study shows that the continuing existence of old stars in the sky is evidence that small black holes can’t swallow the Earth...

The article goes on to explain why, in a very clear and pedagogical way.

A bientôt!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

At Point 1

I'm currently at Point 1, in the buildings above the ATLAS detector.
I'm here for the video link to Brookhaven, which will happen in ~1/2
hour, so we're drinking coffee in the mean time. We're in the "Media
Room," one floor up from the ATLAS control room. We peeked into the
control room before coming up, and it was very crowded with ATLAS
physicists, including some friendly faces from my previous experiment,
BaBar. Today especially it seems like the world is a very small place,
with all of the attention focused here, at CERN.

Here's a photo of the ATLAS control room when I was there:

The video link with Brookhaven went well ... hard to imagine that they were just waking up when I'd been glued to the webcast for 7 hours already ;) Here are photos from the Brookhaven media day, taken by Peter Steinberg:

If you look closely you can see me on one of the screens!

A bientôt!

Protons in the LHC

Here is a photo that I took with my phone of a TV in Building 40, at CERN:

I also wanted to capture the Google homepage today:

CCW direction complete!

Wow, the LHC control room is packed. I'm still following the
webcast ... And now the counterclockwise beam, Beam 2, has made it
through the entire ring! Now both beams have completely circulated
through the entire 27-kilometer ring. This is a great achievement.
Congrats to all of the LHC engineers and accelerator physicists!

Around 4:30pm CERN time I'll be in the ATLAS control room to connect to
Brookhaven and celebrate with them for their media day. I'm thrilled
we have something to celebrate!

A bientôt!

(P.S. sorry about the messiness... I'm posting from my iPhone in the
CERN auditorium)

Beam 2 to Point 1!

Beam 2 Update

Beam 2 to Point 2! Almost all the way around the other direction... I hope we get to ATLAS again from the other way :)

LHC Beam 2

It seems like the LHC is ready to try out Beam 2. Earlier this morning, we saw Beam 1, which goes in a clockwise direction. Beam 2 will go in a counterclockwise direction.

12:30pm: The first step is to inject the second proton beam, also at an energy of 450 GeV, into the LHC at Point 8 to LHCb.

12:32pm: A cryogenics problem in Sector 81 has delayed the injection of Beam 2. This means that there is a problem with the cooling of these large superconducting magnets. We might be done for today, unless they fix it quickly.

12:34pm: Cameras focus on the cryogenics workstation, with several people staring worriedly at the screens. I feel bad for those guys! Can you imagine cameras focused on you as you're trying to debug a problem? Lots of pressure on them right now.

12:35pm: I'm heading to lunch! I'll check back later to see if the cryogenics situation has improved.

2:35pm: Sorry for the break ... Lunch and then getting a bus card. As I walk into the CERN auditorium, the beam is at Point 5 and they are giving CMS a few events.

2:40pm: Beam 2 to Point 3! The counterclockwise beam has made it through CMS and around 2 more sectors to Point 3.

First beam seen by ATLAS

I also wanted to share the first beam events seen by ATLAS:

(It's really just the beam smashing into the collimator just before the detector.)

The circular views are cross-sections of the ATLAS detector (so the beam is coming into/out of the page). Green indicates splashes of energy in the calorimeter (calorimeter = energy detector; think high school chemistry class with a styrofoam cup). In the second picture, the red dots are where muons crossed the muon detectors ("hits").

And, for a laugh:

A bientôt!

LHC Ready for Beam 1

I'm sitting in a conference room in Building 40 at CERN, watching the live webcast.

Here's the news so far:

Beam 1 will enter at Point 2 and start out going clockwise. They will do a few shorter tests, stopping the beam with collimators at various points and running tests before sending it all the way around. The picture shows the ring layout for reference.

9:26am: They are taking a short break to get ready. The conference room has filled up now, and we are enjoying the commentary. There's definitely a buzz, even as we laugh at some of the sillier comments...

9:34am: Lyn Evans gives the ok to inject from Point 2 to Point 3... this proton beam will be at 450 GeV. And there's the flash of the beam! It's about to be injected.

9:38am: They have removed the block at Point 2 and are about to send the beam through Sector 23. Success! The beam has gone 3 kilometers through the sector.

9:43am: The next step is to send the beam through 2 more Sectors to Point 5, where it will be stopped by a collimator just before CMS.

9:45am: We should be able to see the beam pass Point 4 on its way to Point 5... false alarm on the first cycle ... and now they see it pass Point 4. At this point the beam has gone 1o kilometers.

9:47am: Everyone chuckles as the commentator is corrected ... CMS is the 2nd-biggest detector, not the biggest ;)

9:55am: The next step is for the beam to pass through CMS to the beam dump just past Point 6. We're watching the screen showing just before the beam dump, waiting to see the beam make it through Sector 56. Ok, it made it to Point 6. The beam dump is the small straight section sticking out past Point 6 on the picture.

10:00am: Lyn Evans estimates that they'll take the beam the rest of the way around within the hour.

10:02am: They've dumped the beam now.

10:06am: The beam has been taken to Point 7. The next step is through Sector 78 to Point 8, which is where the LHCb experiment is located.

10:12am: The coverage is not so great at the moment ... we saw them clapping, but the commentators are sort of clueless right now ... clarification now... The beam made it to Point 8. There were some problems with the cryogenics in Sector 78 yesterday, so this was a big deal.

10:18am: The next step is through Sector 81. The beam made it to Point 1! It's just before ATLAS.

10:23am: The final leg is through ATLAS and Sector 12, at which point the beam will have traversed the entire ring. We're looking for 2 spots on the screen...

10:25am: There it is! The beam has gone all the way around ... applause on screen and in the conference room here. They are attempting a full turn (straight through) now.

They've declared success and people are dispersing now.

A bientôt!

Monday, September 8, 2008


Bye! I'm off. My plane leaves shortly, so this has to be quick. The LHC is all over the news (MSNBC). It's great to see that everyone is as excited as I am!

A quick plug ... there will be a show on the History channel tomorrow night at 8pm Eastern called The Next Big Bang. Here's the description:

"After 40 years of planning and construction, the biggest science experiment in history is ready to be tested. The "Large Hadron Collider" is an experiment created by the greatest minds in physics. It cost $10 billion and its resulting data has the potential to explain why we and the Universe exist. Their idea is to smash protons towards one another at the speed of light, trying to mimic what happened in the milliseconds after The Big Bang. Viewers will go on an amazing journey involving the struggles to plan and build the LHC, how it was constructed and what are its mechanics. Explore the future of what's possible through the geniuses of today."

And finally, the first single beam test will occur this Wednesday at CERN (between 9 and 10 am European time). Take note that this doesn't mean the protons are colliding, it's just the first time a single proton beam will go all the way around the ring. Fermilab's having a pajama party to celebrate, and Brookhaven is having a media day. There will also be a live webcast from CERN. Enjoy the festivities!

My next post will be from CERN!!

A bientôt!

P.S. No time for Twitter yet, sorry guys... I'll definitely up the blogging frequency though.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Quick update

Today is my last day at the lab before leaving for CERN, so of course there are still many things to do. But I thought I'd share a small morsel to tide you over ... I was interviewed by a reporter from Scientific American, and the article was published online yesterday! You can find it here:

How U.S. Researchers Are Making the Switch to the Large Hadron Collider

I'll look into starting a Twitter account this weekend... I'm sure I'll have to get used to updating my status all of the time, but I've been wanting to try it out. Thanks for the suggestion :)

A bientôt!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Kind of like rolling downhill

I'm leaving in less than a week! So many things have happened in the past week that I can barely describe them all. But here's what's been going on with me, in no particular order:

  1. The U.S. banking system is not set up for international transactions. At least not for the everyday consumer. International wire transfers can only be initiated from the U.S., in person, at a branch, which doesn't really help if you are elsewhere. And moving any sort of large sum of money, even for perfectly legitimate expenses like a 2-month security deposit on an apartment, is very difficult to do quickly unless you are content to carry cash.
  2. The good old USPS is the cheapest way to mail your stuff abroad, although they don't have any sort of "ground" (=boat) shipping. There is a neat trick for books: m-bags are the equivalent of domestic media mail for shipping copyrighted material internationally to a single address (see photo).
  3. My teeth are pretty sensitive and take a while to heal. I finally got around to testing out my fancy postdoc dental plan this summer (in grad school we had no real dental plan) because I wasn't sure about the European dental system... anyway, several fillings later, my teeth are finally back to normal. Now to kick that Diet Coke habit...
  4. Finding an apartment abroad while you're still here is tough. But I'm happy to report that it can be done, especially if you have friends over there to go take a look at it for you... I will be sharing an apartment in Switzerland with a very nice grad student from Stony Brook who also happens to be heading to CERN for the year. Assuming the security deposit part goes ok (see #1), we'll move in mid-October. I'll post pics later!
  5. Moving is hard, and furniture is heavy. I think we tend to block out how stressful and tough it really is because we're so relieved when it's over. Also, storage units are small. Consequently, the VVA on Long Island are picking up a very large donation today, and some local grad students are taking a bunch of furniture tomorrow afternoon. It's a bit traumatic for me to get rid of so much stuff, especially the huge bookshelf that I built myself when I first started grad school and the office chair that I sat in to write much of my Ph.D. thesis, but it's easier to let go knowing that someone will put it to good use.
Ok, that's all for now ... if this post seems haphazard, that's great, because that describes my past week perfectly. Speeding toward the finish line now ... 6 days until I leave for CERN.

A bientôt!

P.S. In case you haven't seen the LHC rap... the YouTube video has really caught on! (As of this post, over 700,000 views!) The "rapper" is Katie McAlpine, who is a journalist and works for ATLAS. It's quite entertaining (and accurate):