I’m part of a collaboration that built and operated a particle detector at a collider which finished taking data in July of last year. I wasn’t here to build it by a long shot, but I did run and repair part of it during last two years of data taking. Now I’m only analysing data for my thesis, not doing any hardware work anymore, and I’m finding its a mixed blessing.
When I first moved out to the lab, I had three tasks: One was making sure that the trigger worked, one was making sure the QCD data looked like it should, and one was doing my analysis. The last two are great jobs. Creative, challenging, and you can sleep until 11 and work on them whenever you feel like it. The first one was pretty awful. Creative, challenging, and sometimes made you get out of bed at 3am and go to the experiment hall when its 3°C and raining. You see, if the collider is making collisions, and we aren’t recording them, its a huge waste. It’s really expensive to make them, but the collider group didn’t stop when one experiment was down because there were two more on the ring that were (probably) working. The collaboration wasn’t worried about losing money so much as losing data. There are of people working here that sift through ten years of data for a few dozen special events. Every minute of collisions matters to these folk. Therefore, when I was on call in a movie theatre, and the phone rang, I left. When I was on a date, the waiter put our plates on the table, and the phone rang, I left. When I had just fixed something at 4am, left the hall, and just gotten back into bed, and the phone rang, I left. These all happened more than once.
The special thing about my lab is that it’s in the city. Most colliders are in(ie under) the suburbs, or out in(ie under) the countryside. We had week-long on-call shifts, but because I could get to the experiment by bus quick my life didn’t have to go on pause. 90% of my favourite bars are within an acceptable response radius of the hall. No one at CERN or Fermilab or SLAC can boast of that, unless they only have one favourite bar, and its in their desk. All this is over now: I dismantled my component personally in September, and haven’t been to the hall since. No more on-call phone, no more running out of movie theatres. Now, when I’m at work at 3am its by choice.
I tried to go to the hall last week, but they had taken my radiation badge away, and posted a sign that said you can only go in if you’re part of the dismantling work. This stung a bit. Apart from the interruptions to my drinking schedule, I kind of miss the life. Night shifts with random collaborators from interesting places, the sound of 600 cooling fans like a swarm of bees, power meetings with all the component experts. All those blinking lights. The pressure of a fresh fill, time wasting, and a haunted VMS crate. Getting a nod of respect from someone after a quick repair.
Then again, when I’m at a store, and someones phone rings, and it has the same ringtone as the old on-call phone, my blood still runs cold….