Schrödinger's Kitten

Irreverent Science for Everyone

5 Things I Didn't, And You Probably Didn't, Know About CERN

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I was lucky enough to go to CERN last week. Unfortunately I was there for work, which meant I couldn't harass particle physicists as much as I wanted to, but I did get to see the Compact Muon Solenoid (compact as in only 15 metres tall), and I did learn some things I did not know, despite being a particle physics/CERN fangirl.

Since I was very little I have known of CERN — my dad's best friend worked there — and since I read my first book on particle physics (circa 8 years old) I have wanted to work in it. So I was very excited. We're talking squealing, jumping up and down, planning my pillaging of the guest shoppe, etc. With my camera batteries fully charged I set off...

CERN is the law

I knew CERN was international territory — it straddles the border between France and Suisse, so when going round the site you need your passport. What I didn't know is that there are no definitive laws governing there. I assume if a violent crime was committed they'd call in the authorities (tossing a coin to decide which), but otherwise, as long as you don't break the speed of light or violate the uncertainty principle, you can do what you want. It seems to have worked pretty well, with at least one class of Feynman diagrams (the cutest in my opinion) owing their existence to the use of illegal substances.

There are no religious symbols at CERN

Photo taken by Arpad Horvath, used under Creative Commons Licensing, with thanks.

Or at least there weren't until 2004, when the Indian atomic energy authority presented the guys with this frankly lovely statue of Shiva in his aspect of Natarajah, treading on the dwarf of ignorance. I approve. Although they stressed it was art not religion, the fact that there was a god on site was somewhat contentious until everyone got bored with arguing about the issues and just accepted that, in the words of James Gillies, Mr. Communication-at-CERN, 'There never used to be any religious icons at CERN. But now there are.'

Personally I would have thought the fact that Shiva is the god of destruction — the Oppenheimer quote on seeing the first atomic explosion 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds', refers to him — would be more of an issue, what with CERN's rep as a black hole generating, world-destroying, Vatican-sploding machine. But hey.

It's not just the LHC

At some point, I presume, someone noticed that they had some spare high energy particles and made a list of things you can do with them. Quite a lot, it turns out. Among others, they fire speeding protons at nuclei to make exciting radioactive atoms for study purposes. They use the proton's evil twin, the antiproton — or is it the proton that is evil? I can never remember — to study the differences between matter and anti-matter. They're even doing climate research, firing muons (electrons' big brothers) through an old-school-style cloud chamber (does what it says on the tin: chamber containing lots of water droplets on the verge of condensing) to see how and if Cosmic Rays affect the formation of cloud cover.

It's a bargain

It costs about 600 million Euros a year to run, about the same as a large university — pretty much exactly the same as Oxford, actually. Some of that goes on salaries, some on admin, some on central buildings, and of course some on the super-exciting building projects. With regard to those, the LHC has cost all the countries involved a total of 6 billion dollars — less than 1% of a US bailout, and just under 8% of a British one. And we (that is, humankind) get to keep all the science produced, rather than watching some dudes swap, hoard and play tiddlywinks with our hard-earned beer tokens.

CERN defies management

According to the theories of management, CERN shouldn't work. It's got 7,000 people and minimal hierarchy. This is their structure: click for boring diagram.

Note lack of bureaucrats, middle management, etc. There's no seniority, perks or jockeying for position — all the offices are the same size, and no-one seems to be interested in trophy secretaries. Around the big ring there are four separate experiments, each with between 1000-2500 people. Each has a spokesperson and a resource coordinator. That's it.

This makes management people and professional organisers' brains explode thinking of reasons why it doesn't really work. Apparently there's no allowance in their models for the fact that people work harder if their work is stimulating, productive and important1.

Generally, CERN seems to be a really cool place... lots of people sitting round discussing particles over beer. I'd go and work there like a shot if it wasn't in Switzerland, AKA land of accounting, precise time-keeping, accordions and a notable lack of punk.

1. Or at least more important than 1000% volume increasing mascara.

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