by Ian Randall. Published: 24 June 2011

This fortnight, ALICE Matters spoke with Pierre Zelnicek, a computer scientist who hails from Leipzig, who works on the ALICE Collaboration Database.


Pierre Zelnicek

ALICE's Pierre Zelnicek, hiking on Le Saleve

How long have you worked with ALICE?

The time that I've been around Geneva is two years; but I started working for ALICE - with the High Level Trigger (HLT) project - four years ago.

What do you do at ALICE presently?

At the moment I'm responsible for the maintenance and development of the ALICE Collaboration Database (ACDB), and the author list. The author list is generated from the ACDB; this is the human resources database of ALICE which keeps track of employment, when people enter the collaboration, when people leave the collaboration, etc.

The most important thing is that rules exist as to who is to be on the author list and who is not. This is the highest value that ALICE can give to scientists. When people ask ‘what is the outcome of science, of the projects that we do here’ – it is knowledge. Knowledge is represented by papers and speeches - this is how knowledge is given from people to other people.

To be on the author list is, in many universities and countries, a measure of how effective a scientist is – of their scientific career. For example in Germany, when you want to become a professor at a university, then a committee looks at the whole of your standing in the science community. This is measured in different ways. One way, for example, is how many projects you have; how many PhD students you have advised.

Another method of evaluation is done by seeing how many publications you have and how important they are. The publications are rated by how often they are cited; some of the journals have higher prestige than others. ALICE, CERN, etc, have a very high impact rate on publications so many people really want to be on papers, and thus on the author list.

How is it determined whether someone should be on the author list or not?

There are strict rules set up by the ALICE collaboration board. These strict rules have to be enforced - or checked - by software. This is the ACDB.

What are the rules?

To be on the author list, one has to have been a member of ALICE for at leat one year for PhDs and Senior Engineers, or six months for PhD students; one must also be a member of a collaborating institute in good standing, as determined by the Collaboration Board.

The ACDB has some problems. First, it is extremely slow - it's an IT problem, in the way that it was developed. It also lacks a lot of features that are now needed, because they have changed the way publications have to be submitted.

One new requirement, for example, is that the author list has to be shipped as xml - a special description language file - because you now need to include the native name and the special ID, which distinguishes between scientists with the same name.

So, you are working on an improved version of the database?

Yes. At first I thought that I could just take the old code and develop it further, but three to four months after I started to really get into this, I saw that it was easier to replace it than to develop it further. So now I have two tasks - the maintenance of the old system, and the development of the new one.

For the first few steps I thought 'Hey, this will be easy to do', but then I discovered that problems are often small and overlooked.

For example, one big problem is foreign languages. The new version has to support and store information in native languages - which involve, for example, Chinese and Korean letters. You can imagine – as I have a German keyboard on my computer, and an English development language - how hard it is to develop and test this.

On the website, when you log in as a user, you can see your data - which team you belong to, your team leader, who else is in your team, your contract dates, and so on. In the future, I also want to hook this into the CERN single sign on system - so that it will be well integrated with all the other CERN systems.

Also, there is the Shift Management System. In future, this could be more tightly covered and maybe, in the end, integrated into the ACDB so you can see how many shift points a certain person has, and so on.

When will the new system be ready?

We are still developing it, but it should be ready in a few months.

How many people are in the database?

Around 1300-1400; it’s not only a simple database, either - it also keeps track of all the changes. So, then, if someone were to query something afterwards, you can go back into the ACDB and check the database as it was.

How is the database maintained?

Each team leader is responsible for maintaining their team - for making sure that the dates, status and every detail about his team members are up to date.

So, how did you end up at ALICE in the first place?

It was through my PhD studies, in computer sciences, at Heidelberg - I got involved with the HLT project through my professors. I've never studied anything in the way of physics.

How did you get into computer science in the first place?

I started at the age of seven. In the former Eastern Germany, we had special development programs for children - for example, many people know about the special sports schools - they also had them in other, technical areas. So, I went, at the age of seven, after school to the university, for computer science classes.

So, it's a lifelong love?

Yes! It's my work, my hobby and my life. Only one thing counts computers out - my wife!

Incidentally, my wife is a teacher in a clinic school in Germany, where children with long term illnesses, like cancer, are receiving education. She has visited CERN on many occasions, too. One day, we saw the nice ‘ALICE and the soup of quarks and gluons’ comic, and we asked the ALICE secretariat if we could buy some.

Now, this comic, together with one of the CERN public relations videos and some additional brochures, are used to teach English, and some very basic things about matter and the origin of the universe, to the children in the clinic. It's wonderful to see the children enjoy learning so much and forgetting about their illnesses for some time.

So, what else do you do in your free time?

Hiking, and running. Last year it was quite a busy time with the HLT project, so I had no time to do sports as much as I wanted to - but this year it looks much better.

I have lots of sports and training to do, to get back in shape for marathons. All of the years before last I have attended at least two marathons a year - London, Berlin, Munich and so on.