Robots with lasers are protecting my collider

Also at the Guardian.

I have just finished my first ever set of shifts in the ATLAS control room, and now I feel like a proper physicist.

I did three eight-hour shifts. The first two were boring as hell as we had no beam, but this was probably a good thing as I didn’t take the shadow shifts that I was supposed to do, and so arrived in the control room on Friday morning with almost no idea what I was going to do.

The ATLAS control room.

ATLAS control room, taken by my long-suffering colleague David Miller.

I loved my shift today. There is a laser that is supposed to fire all the time into the calorimeter so that we can constantly measure how it responds to the deposited energy. The light from the laser is split into a zillion (ten thousand) fibers so that it can be sent to the whole detector at once.

I had to turn the laser off today because it was misbehaving. All I did was click a couple of buttons, but they were the most exciting buttons I’ve clicked in quite a while.

ATLAS’s rival detector, CMS, also uses lasers to check that its calorimeter isn’t behaving badly. The friend I am staying with works on CMS, and she just told me that they send it to individual parts of the detector separately.

I interpret this as a robot that nudges the laser into bunches of fiber optics. She tells me that this is not actually what happens, and that it is something much more boring, called fiber optic switching.

She also just said that we have to wait a while before we make apple crumble because she has just made fishcakes and needs to “get the fish out of her head” before moving onto crumble. I take this as evidence that my robot explanation is less mad than she is suggesting it is.

If you have just read this and don’t immediately want to do a physics degree then I haven’t fully explained how totally amazing that was. Robots with lasers calibrating a machine the size of a church that is trying to work out why we exist.

I wish I could move to CERN and just do shifts all the time, but I can’t. I have to go back to Chicago tomorrow and do some maths and housework.

P.S. I was eventually allowed to make apple crumble, but my technique was amateurish. Apparently the butter is supposed to remain cold while you rub it. I said three times “I went to a comp” but did not get any special treatment.

Making apple crumble

“If I have to any add more flour to that bowl I’m going to stab you in the face.”

About lilyasquith

I am a particle physicist working on sonification of the data output from the ATLAS detector at CERN. The project I'm working on is called LHCsound and is funded by the STFC. It is based at University College London where I have just finished my PhD on the search prospects for a low mass standard model Higgs Boson. I have now moved to Chicago to start an ATLAS postdoc with Argonne National Laboratory.
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