by Polly Bennett. Published: 28 October 2011

“I like being the centre of attention.” James laughs as he gets up to give me a demonstration of East Coast Swing. It seems somewhat odd to watch him mark out the steps of such an energetic dance in this bleak and empty office, but James Ross is American and therefore full of that disgustingly healthy enthusiasm that only they can seem to muster. His enthusiasm can be forgiven however because he is a CERN baby, having only arrived a week ago.

“I’m here from Creighton University in Nebraska to work on my MS thesis in high energy particle physics. Basically I’m just learning at the moment, but it’s a tremendous experience to be at CERN.”

James Ross

ALICE student James Ross

Originally from Washington State, James moved to Southern California for his undergraduate degree in physics and then to Creighton University in Nebraska for his MS. “I wasn’t ready to apply for a PhD yet and it was difficult to find a job after my undergraduate degree in such a bad economy. A friend of mine did this same MS and I was jealous that he got to come to CERN. I pushed quite hard to come for the experience and,” he grins, “the CV boost.” His close proximity to mountains for most of his life has given him a passion for skiing and hiking that he is looking forward to fuelling here. “I can’t wait to join the ski club. And also the dance clubs” he adds, as he next demonstrates the steps of West Coast Swing.

I asked him why he chose to study physics at all. “I always wanted to be an astronaut. That’s my flat-out easy answer. I was always interested in space and stuff.” I suggest he must be a massive sci-fi geek and he laughs, “almost my first sentence had to do with Star Trek. I was raised on Star Trek. I also like big, shiny expensive machines and ALICE is the biggest one I’ve ever been around.”

James’ thesis is on rho particle production. “These particles are a type of subatomic particle produced during heavy ion collisions” he explains. “I barely understand what it all means myself, but then that’s why I’m here.” He goes on, “I’m studying this type of particle production as a function of multiplicity, which is basically the total number of particles produced during a collision, such as ALICE produces with lead. I am figuring out how many rho particles are produced relative to how many total particles.” James scribbles diagrams on a pad of paper to explain the types of collisions that occur. “It’s good to sort out what different particles arise after a collision and how many of each there are. This way the ALICE experiment can figure out what the specific conditions were after the Big Bang.”

We rendezvous a few days later for a trip to point 2, the site of the ALICE detector just over the Swiss border in France. He is with his postdoc Bjorn Nilsen, a 13 year veteran of ALICE, and fellow student Gabriel De Barros. Bjorn takes no prisoners. Barely have his students got out the car before he’s quizzing them about the ALICE detectors. They’re here for training on ALICE’s electromagnetic calorimeter, or EMCal, and they look a little scared. They get drilled on the correct procedure for dealing with the detectors, shift staff in the control room and the coffee machine. In the midst of one particularly tough round of questions, shift leader Marek Kowalski lifts his head from the corner of the room, looks at Bjorn and laughs, “you are a tough guy. You’ll have a hard time with him” he adds to James. Even I suddenly seem to be included in the grilling about control room procedure. James starts to look excited as we head upstairs to the EMCal control computers. He scribbles furious notes as Bjorn goes through each and every button controlling the EMCal systems on the computer. James later tells me “since I will be sitting on call shifts as an EMCal expert in the future, a general overview of the system (especially in context with shift taking) was extremely helpful.”

I asked him, finally, what he hopes for with the time spent at CERN. “To survive my MS and to learn as much as I can about particle physics. To enjoy the food and wine. Basically I want to come away with a solid understanding of particle physics and how it’s done with ALICE. And a MS degree.”

James has begun writing a blog about his experiences at CERN which can be read at jamescern.blogspot.com.