Interview: Inside CERN with an LHC scientist

We interview one of the physicists looking for the Higgs boson at CERN. He talks to us about what it's like working at the geekiest place on Earth -- stand by for science!

Jason Jenkins Director of content / EMEA
Jason Jenkins is the director of content for CNET in EMEA. Based in London, he has been writing about technology since 1999 and was once thrown out of Regent's Park for testing the UK's first Segway.
Jason Jenkins
8 min read

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is one of the most ambitious experiments of all time and following a year of shutdown, it's finally started to do its business again. So we thought we'd have a chat to someone directly involved in the experiments to get a sense of what it's like to work in geek heaven.

Dr Paul Jackson is a particle physicist from SLAC and Stanford University, based at CERN. He's working on the Atlas experiment, looking for the Higgs boson -- the so-called 'God particle'. Read on to find out whether he's about to kill us, what would happen to you if you stood in front of the LHC beam and what CERN's favourite snacks are. (Also see our definitive guide to everything you need to know about the Large Hadron Collider, CERN and the Higgs boson)

Will the LHC make a black hole in space that kills us?

"Yes, we might create black holes, but they won't be remotely dangerous. People are getting a bit nervous because scientists have said that, with enough energy, we might be able to create some microscopic black holes within the detectors.

"What this means is that you are creating an object that has the same properties in space as that which is formed when a star collapses, but the difference is that these are very tiny black holes that you create in the experiments and they would evaporate immediately.

"So the black hole would never exist for long enough for its gravitational effects to come into play, so it wouldn't start sucking things into it as it wouldn't exist long enough. There is no way to make one big enough with these collisions to have a dangerous effect on humanity."

Did people from the future travel back in time to sabotage the LHC?

"For me, it's nonsense to say that there are forces coming back from the future to stop the machine from working. It really is just ridiculous to think that is the case. If people could travel forward or back in time, why wouldn't they have done something better or worse for humanity than coming and twiddling around with the LHC?

"If it does destroy the world, there's no-one in the future to travel back in time to do anything about it. It's all a bit Back to the Future really.

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It's part of this whole mystery about the machine -- people are willing to believe anything. Physicists sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by not saying, 'We won't destroy the world with black holes,' because they work on probability. Saying, 'This won't happen,' is just not ingrained into them."

What would happen if you were standing in front of the beam?

"You would die. It would be a pretty spectacular death, and you wouldn't know a lot about it.

"We need to keep the beams captured and travelling around in a certain orbit so we can collide them stably. Occasionally, things go a bit wonky and we decide to dump the beams and start again.

"In order to dump the beams, the beam dump has to absorb the equivalent of 87kg of TNT for each of the beams when we dump it. So it would be the equivalent of having 87kg of TNT dumped into your body."

Are you exposed to much radiation working there?

"Airline pilots and medical doctors get exposed to more radiation than the workers at CERN do. That's why we keep the accelerators and detectors buried so far underground -- 100 metres."

What's CERN's favourite snack?

"People drink a huge amount of coffee, but there's a lot of chocolate. If you come into the control room in the morning, people have croissants. If you come in the afternoon, people have Swiss chocolate."

Have you tried to introduce the Kit Kat?

"Yes, the Brits have tried and it's in one of the vending machines, but it's not going down so well with the Swiss."

It must be a fairly geeky place to work. What does it smell like?

"It smells probably much like you'd expect -- a bit 'games-heavy'. The experimentalists and the theoretical physicists have a different odour. The excessive amount of soft cheese in the area doesn't add to the spring-time freshness of the site."

Are the people who work there into games?

"There is definitely a big gaming contingent, with a lot of talk of Dungeons and Dragons. There's a lot of roleplaying, World of Warcraft and console games, and there are those that balk against that because they don't want to appear to be so geeky."

What operating system do you all use?

"A lot of it is Linux-based for the actual control-room infrastructure stuff. There's a lot of coding that's easier to do in Linux, there's a lot of Java applications for the visuals. Operating system-wise, there are a lot of people preferring to use Macs rather than Windows."

Do you have an alarm that goes 'AWOOGA!'?

"Like John Fashanu on Gladiators?"

No, a red flashy alarm with a Klaxon.

"If you're in the tunnel, I think there's one of those, but in the control room, there's more voices and things that start blinking."

What was your first computer?

"Commodore VIC-20. Good times -- I well up when I think about the tape drive sometimes. My favourite game was a little scrolling, spaceship-shooting game, but the playability was fantastic. I could play that game for years and not get bored. I have never been able to find a game better than that."

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What's your typical day like?

"I tend to arrive at 9am, with lots of meetings and then working at my desk, essentially typical office work. The other part I spend in the control room checking up on operations and making sure the things I'm responsible for are still working.

"On days like we've had recently, you have periods when you have to do shift work, where you do an 8-hour period in the control room. We are basically monitoring parts of the detector, turning things off that make it look like they are not working properly and debugging things offline.

"You can be doing the graveyard shift from midnight until 8 in the morning, or you can be doing the day or evening shift. Those throw your normal schedule off and we end up working pretty long hours."

What is the CERN culture like?

"The main thing is trying to talk to the people that can help you get to the bottom of the problem you are working on as quickly as possible, so you end up having a lot of cups of coffee and a lot of chats. You get a lot done that way."

What are the main experiments?

"There are two experiments -- Atlas and CMS -- which are multi-purpose discovery experiments. They are both looking for the Higgs boson. They are also trying to discover the possibility of what's called supersymmetry -- a different symmetry in nature that would open up a whole new suite of elementary particles that we haven't yet measured."

How likely is it that you will find the Higgs boson?

"I'd put the chance we will find the Higgs boson or something similar to it at pretty close to 100 per cent. From a physicist's standpoint, if you don't find that it's almost more interesting, because it means we got it wrong and there is other stuff going on we don't understand."

If you don't find the Higgs boson, is that it for the standard model?

"The standard model works perfectly; the Higgs mechanism is tacked on to the standard model. It's a way of saying why the masses of all the particles are different. In the standard model, all the particles are massless. The Higgs mechanism is a means of generating mass for particles.

"So if there isn't something like the Higgs mechanism to make particles heavy, then there's got to be something else that does it, because we measure them and we know they're heavy.

"But the standard model will still be correct with its explanation of all the ways which particles decay and interact as the measurements all fit superbly into this model, but there is this missing piece as to why things are heavy that the Higgs mechanism will hopefully answer."

What have been your high and low points of working here?

"My high point was last September when we first got beams in the LHC. Everyone was very excited, and that lasted just over a week. It's not been built up as much this time, and there's a higher expectation that things are working well and there won't be another major catastrophe. My low point was earlier this year when the LHC had shut down and I was starting to get a bit fed up with physics."

What language do you all speak?

"The official languages of CERN are English and French, but it depends which group you're working in. There are around 3,000 physicists. You get an awful lot of German, Italian, plenty of Spanish, lot of Japanese, Russian, Australian (because that's not really English). There are people from all different countries and it's very common for physicists to speak more than one language."

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How do you get around?

"There are CERN bikes and cars you can borrow, but a lot of people drive their own cars to their own experiments."

What do you think of the coverage the LHC has had in the media? Do people understand what you're trying to do?

"In general, it has been very positive. I don't think you can belittle how many people now know what an elementary particle is or what a collider is or what a Higgs boson is than did a few years ago.

"CERN is still a mysterious place to most people and a lot of what goes on is over people's heads, so they tend to glorify the bad points more than the good points. In general, the coverage of the start-up last year was fantastic and the coverage of the shutdown over the past year has become, rightly, increasingly negative. Now it's back up and running, I think people are generally pretty excited about it."

What's it like to do this kind of thing?

"It's great fun. You work relatively long hours, but you can pick your hours and take your holidays whenever you like. You don't get paid badly and the work is really interesting.

"You get to define your own involvement in the experiment you're working on. If you come up with an interesting idea that no-one has thought of and you convince the right people, you can do that and make a career out of it. That's why most people don't mind being at work most of the time."

Has Twitter and Facebook impacted your professional world much?

"They make it much easier to disseminate information. We have working group Facebook pages for the Atlas experiment and CERN was updating its Twitter feed constantly when beams were being put back into the machine a few days ago. It gives you the opportunity to stay in touch with people in a very easy way."

Is there a robot dog like Battlestar Galactica's Muffitt at CERN?

"If there is, I haven't seen it, but you can't rule these things out."

Paul Jackson in control room