A Fermilab pajama party

Starting at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, roughly 300 physicists, students, and science fans gathered for a Fermilab pajama party to witness—virtually—the startup of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), soon to be the world's most powerful particle accelerator, at CERN, the European high-energy physics lab that straddles the Franco-Swiss border. Fermilab’s staff didn’t mean “pajama party” in a figurative sense; many guests showed up in nightclothes, including lab director Pier Oddone and University of Chicago physicist Young-Kee Kim.

In the Wilson Hall atrium, physicist Herman White welcomed visitors to the home of Fermilab's own accelerator, the Tevatron, which White noted would hold the title of the most powerful such instrument "until three-and-a-half hours from now." Cookies, juice, coffee, and Mountain Dew were on hand to keep excited but sleepy visitors awake. Large screens showed a live video feed from CERN, keeping the crowd updated as the European scientists put their new machine through its paces.

The rivalry between Fermilab and CERN, the two top particle-physics labs in the world, is real but friendly; Fermilab built a number of magnets for the LHC and even installed a remote operations center where North American physicists could control the collider without having to fly to Geneva. Pajama-wearing scientists in the remote operation center applauded as their screens marked down each milestone in real time, culminating with success: a beam of protons barreling around the LHC's 16.6-mile circumference at 3:25 a.m. This first run consisted of baby steps, with a proton beam just energetic enough to verify that all the components worked. Within a few weeks, CERN hopes to run the machine at full power, seven times stronger than the second-place Tevatron.

After an early breakfast, scientists and visitors continued to mill about, some watching a live teleconference with the scientists, some still peering through the glass walls of the remote operations center, and some watching data come in on their laptops. As the hour neared 5 a.m., they started to leave by twos and threes, venturing out of Wilson Hall into the prairie dawn.

Benjamin Recchie, AB'03

PJ%20party%201_thumb.jpg PJ%20Party%202_thumb.jpg PJ%20Party%203_thumb.jpg

Photos (left to right): Richard Ruiz, ’10, works in Fermilab's remote operations center; Fermilab director Pier Oddone (center, in blue) and professor and deputy director Young-Kee Kim (red) monitor the experiment’s progress; The Wilson Hall crowd awaits news from CERN.

September 12, 2008