Thursday, November 4, 2010

A tour of the ATLAS experiment

I just realised that I need to get out of Amsterdam from time to time to appreciate how flat it truly is. You need to look for bridges to find slopes and there is nothing but buildings on the horizon. That probably explains why I was so happy to see mountains everywhere while my plane landed in Geneva. The mountains and a beautiful sunny day!

I’m at CERN for the 8th e-Infrastructure Concertation meeting organised by the e-ScienceTalk project. And before the event kicked off I had the opportunity to join a guided tour of the ATLAS experiment, the world’s most famous particle physics experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

ATLAS actually stands for A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS. The acronym seemed a tad farfetched, but when I started to look at the numbers I understood why they’re so keen to make a reference to the titan that carries the weight of the world. ATLAS is a collaboration of no less than 37 countries, involving 3000 scientists from 173 universities and laboratories, plus a score of engineering and technical staff.

The experiment took off in the Spring of 2009 and for the next 10 to 15 years the ATLAS detector will produce prodigious amount of data from head-on collisions of high-energy particles. The ATLAS data will allow scientists to learn more about the forces that shape the Universe, microscopic black holes and extra dimensions of space.

The visitor centre hails the ATLAS detector as the giant of physics - they are not kidding. It took months just to assemble the detector’s parts. From what I could see in the 3D video presentation, a fair amount of skill was required as well. You could feel the tension popping out of the screen as scientists watched 100 tonnes of technology craned down a shaft into position!

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