Thursday, 23 August 2012

There and Back Again

In my last post I wrote about a fortunate series of events which saw me landing up at CERN. I would like to dedicate this post to my experiences there.
CERN was not at all what I expected. The main site located in Meyrin ( a  fifteen minute drive from the airport ) is quite a large enclosure shaped somewhat like the bough of a ship. Once inside, I was somewhat surprised to see the buildings. Quite a few of them are pretty old and so are no more than concrete blocks. The buildings are not numbered serially so first timers are often confounded when they see building 500 next to building 2 behind building 32. But it doesn't bother you as much once you get used to it. One structure that really does catch your eye as you enter is the Globe, a spherical building located just by the entrance.
CERN is located right at the border of Switzerland and France. The border cuts through CERN and so a typical day involved unknowingly crossing the border a number of times. In fact, because of this Switzerland bought a piece of land in France to build a restaurant ! ( the prices for the same food might have been different otherwise ). There is usually no check when you cross the border, so it isn't really inconvenient or anything but it sure was interesting!
When I first arrived at CERN, I went to the building of the IT Department to complete some formalities before going to my workplace which was in another building. The IT building is really cool! On the ground floor there is a small museum with many objects behind a glass cupboard. All of them have some historic significance. There are some old chip wafers and ancient machines and magnetic tapes etc. The most interesting one by far is this old black CPU with a worn out paper stuck to it on which you can make out a slightly faded message. The machine was the first server used by Tim Berners Lee and on it is written ' This machine is a server. DO NOT TURN IT OFF' !'. Imagine that! The internet shuts down because the cleaning lady wanted to conserve power!
CERN has a rich and incredible history. Even before the Higgs announcement, before the LHC, they were at the forefront of science and technology for quite a while. Walk around for a bit and this becomes more and more apparent. Right from the plaque in front of a room in the building next to mine which reads ' The Internet was invented here. Once the office of Tim Berners Lee.', to the lawn outside the restaurant with first bubble chambers sitting under the sun for all to see. 
Every year CERN invites around 200 students from around the world to work on an internship there over the summer. These include scientists and engineers from various fields. One of the highlights of my trip was mingling with this diverse international crowd. You have to understand that this was my first trip outside the subcontinent and it was overwhelming  to see so many people from so many different cultures and backgrounds all in one place. There were people from China, Japan, Brazil,  Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Macedonia, Lithuania, Greece, France, Italy, Romania and.. well you get the picture. It is just brilliant to see so many people from so many parts of the world just getting along with each other so easily. Makes you wonder why politicians crib so much.
At this point I think I'd better mention the 'elephant in the room' so to speak. The question most people want to ask when they find out you've been to CERN. Did I see the LHC?
First of all, the LHC is not this huge tourist attraction with a water park build inside it or anything. The whole ring is underground and no one is allowed near it when it is running because of the amount of radiation it emits. The only places where you might get close to it is at the site of the detectors. The four major detectors that collect data in CERN are Atlas, CMS, LHCb and ALICE. The 'big' ones which announced the results on the 4th of July were Atlas and CMS. These are more general purpose as compared to LHCb and ALICE which are smaller in size but meant for more specific purposes.
On the night of the 3rd of July, right from around 11 p.m. or so, you might have observed a queue slowly forming outside the main auditorium. It was the iPad release of the scientific world. By 4 a.m on the 4th of August the queue was huge. At 6 it was apparent that the limit had been reached. When the announcement was made at 9 a.m. the entire auditorium was full and abuzz with excitement. Unfortunately, I was not in the auditorium at 9 that morning. I was in another building far away watching the live webcast while attending an Intel TBB workshop where no one paid quite as much attention as they should have. Besides, I don't think I had it in me to wait through the night. I don't know much about particle physics either so I doubt I would have got much anyway.
The day of the big announcement was, believe it or not, just like usual. There were no processions on the street; no champagne parties;  no one shouting 'Hallelujah' from the rooftops. It was business as usual. I'm not sure if the people actually involved in the discovery had a big party planned or anything, but the entire student community ( who pretty much had nothing to with anything ) went out to the pub in a town nearby and celebrated the Higgs.
A typical week saw me working diligently all day at CERN and sitting peacefully under this large tree on the lawn with the other students from the hostel. The hostel itself was located in France next to a French village called St.Genis. I use the term village here because that is what I was told it was. But you would often find expensive cars zooming down the streets as you passed by these large villas in the corner of town. Its proximity to our hostel was perfect because it meant we had a supermarket 10 minutes away and pretty much anything you needed you could find.  On the weekends there was always something to do. You could hike up 'Le Reculet' in the Jura mountain range, or go canyoning in a valley not fat off or go paragliding if the weather allowed it. If the physical activities started to get tiring I would go down to Geneva for a music festival or just to stroll around the clear blue lake.
The best part of being in Switzerland in the summer time is that in July you can go down to Montreaux to catch the annual 'Montreux Jazz Festival'.( In case you were wondering where you heard the name, listen to 'Smoke On the Water' by Deep Purple again)
 Montruex is a beautiful place to see. The city is architecturally impressive and is built in levels that peter down to the lake in the middle. Standing by the lake, you could look up and see all the buildings at various steps going higher and higher until finally the green of the mountains take over and climb all the way up into the sky. With the summer sun shining down we settled down on the grass in the park to listen to some incredible music of different types and genres played by some of the best bands from across the world. The music in the park and the jazz cafe are free and you can hang around all day without getting even remotely tired. At night some well known artists play good jazz in two large halls located just as you enter. These are paid concerts and can cost anywhere from 60 - 300 swiss francs. The two days that I went the concerts were sold out, which was understandable considering the artists playing were Bob Dylan and then Hugh Laurie the next day. Maybe next time.
For me,  this was by far the most incredible summer ever! I am extremely grateful to all the people at the CERN Openlab and the people in charge of Google Summer Of Code 2012. If not for their quick replies to all my questions and their enormous patience in answering all my questions and requests, this summer might have just passed me by like any other. Instead, now I can tell people that for two years they were searching for the Higgs, and a fortnight after I went there, we found it.
Too much of a coincidence, don't you think?  ;)


  1. Brilliant post TB! Sounds like you had a helluva time at CERN, congrats again!

  2. It was really nice reading your post. Thank you!

    Why don't you make some posts about your work did over there?

  3. Thanks irfan!
    I plan to elaborate on my work there, but first I thought I'd make a quick post or two about GPU computing to give some reference...