Greenwich Chapter - CERN visit

Students collide with science!

A Disk For The ATLAS SCT Endcap In Its Testbox At NIKHEF

Image info:

An exciting request

The requests received from Chapters are varied from £20 for snacks for a Guest Speaker evening, £200 for pizza (the most popular student food source) to the more ambitious plans. A request of the latter kind was submitted to BCS last August when the enthusiastic new Chair of the Greenwich Student Chapter, Will Cole-Jordan, reached out for contacts at the - "Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire" (CERN) as he was planning a trip for the Chapter. Naturally, at BCS we were keen to support this visit.

Why were the Greenwich Chapter going to CERN? - as a group with a shared passion for science, a major site for scientific research was the perfect choice! Also, the Chair had been offered an in-depth, behind-the-scenes tour of the server farm for the group from his existing contact who works on CERN's Data Infrastructure. If the above reasons hadn't been enough, the impassioned words in Will's trip proposal would have persuaded anyone;

"The group of students who are attending all have a passion for technology and science and we are all extremely excited to go![...]There are many advantages for students who do wish to go - learning about the forefront of modern day science at the source, seeing the machines and devices that are used there with our own eyes and getting an experience that very few people can say they have! Also, a trip like this is a great way to bond with and meet people that under normal circumstances you would not have had the chance to build a relationship with. A trip like this offers CompSoc members a great opportunity to build these relationships - and what better place to do it than a pioneering laboratory where they smash particles together at nearly the speed of light!"

The trip begins

Fast forward to Saturday 25 November 2017 when 15 intrepid students boarded a plane to arrive in the city of Geneva. What was the first port of call on this trip? - after settling into their hostel, somewhere to get a Kebab - of course! Then it was a quick stroll to view the city's landmark, "Jet D'Eau", one of, if not, the world's tallest water fountain.

Sunday involved taking in some of the city's culture. The group discovered ice rinks in a nearby park and were lucky enough to see an ice hockey game in progress. Once their eyes (and feet) had absorbed enough of their surroundings, they had a meal before finishing off their evening with a drink and a game of pool.

And so, to Monday, the day of the visit to CERN. Bleary-eyed, the students boarded a tram from Geneva's central station to take them on a 20-minute journey to the site. The tram rolled out of the station passing by mountains peaking over the tops of city buildings, giving way to a rolling landscape surrounded by snow-capped alps and mountains.

The scenery was a sight to behold but it was nothing compared to the student’s excitement as CERN came into view. They disembarked the tram to begin their tour.

The tour

The group were greeted at reception by Stephanie Hills, European Communications Officer, based at the CERN press office for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Whilst planning the trip, a contact at the STFC had introduced us to her.

Stephanie had been incredibly helpful and many aspects of the trip wouldn’t have been possible without her. BCS and the students are very grateful to her and the STFC for their support.

For the first part of their tour, they met Dr Paul Laycock, Data Preparation and Reduction Physicist. Until recently, Paul was the Data Preparation Coordinator for the A Toroidal, Large hadron collider ApparatuS (ATLAS) experiment.

Paul led a presentation about computing for physics, his role at CERN and the direction and vision of the whole site. The talk was very interactive and the students could ask questions at any time.

The group were next met by Dan van der Ster, Storage Engineer at CERN and Will’s original contact. Dan led them on a 15-minute walk to the Data Centre (Will’s reflection on the vastness of CERN was that it seemed the size of a large village!).

When they had arrived at the Data Centre, Dan gave a short talk with another chance for questions before leading the students to the formal presentation area to demonstrate the work done by the Data Centre and its significance. The presentation came to a dramatic end when the wall being projected onto was revealed to be...a window! The students were stunned to be overlooking the vast site of the Data Centre with its many processors and servers.

See the Data Centre on board a drone

The presentation had been fascinating and filled with intriguing stories. It was mentioned that in CERN's earlier days when computers weren't as advanced, a person with Savant Syndrome (Savants are on the autistic spectrum, usually exhibiting excellent memory alongside exceptional abilities such as lightning calculation) was employed to solve mathematical queries as they could do them better than any computer of the time.

Will reported there had been impressive artefacts in the room, such as the 2nd ever web server to be connected to the internet, invented by Tim Berners-Lee during his time working at CERN.

The talk also covered the day to day running of the Data Centre mentioning that its staff wear protective headphones due to the extreme noise from so many fans and servers.  Also, an incredible 15 hard drives get thrown out each day as they get worn out and need replacing.

CERN runs studentship programmes, please see the careers section of their website for more information

Following a lunch break in the CERN restaurant, the tour continued as the group met with a scientist who showed them around the ATLAS experiment. The lower part of this area was off limits as an experiment was in progress. However, the students could view the experiment live as it was being streamed onto screens above.

ATLAS is an immense structure, similar in weight to the Eiffel Tower and positioned 100 feet underground. The scientist went into detail about the machine in the dark space it's situated, using lights to illuminate the parts as they were being discussed.

The group also saw the first version of a collider which, instead of smashing two particles together, spins one particle very fast before firing to a fixed point.

This concluded the groups’ incredible tour of CERN. For the final part of the trip, they enjoyed the morning in Geneva before travelling back to the UK.

CERN has left an inspiring impression on the students. This was a very worthwhile trip, enjoyed by all and to be forgotten by none. The Greenwich Chapter are very grateful to BCS for being a sponsor to the trip. The only regret they have? - Not bringing more comfortable shoes for all the walking!