by Amy Elizabeth Dusto. Published: 29 September 2011

Making detector adjustments, analyzing data, calculating the subatomic world’s exotic properties -- these are some of the things a physicist at the Large Hadron Collider is used to dealing with. Sharing the control room with a group of teenage students? Not so much.

On Friday Sept. 23, students arrived at control rooms for the LHC and its detectors throughout the evening in groups of five to 10. For the second time, members of the four largest experiments at the LHC at CERN were participating in Researchers’ Night1, a Europe-wide event in which members of the public from more than 320 cities spend an evening alongside scientists in action.

ALICE Control Room - Researchers' Night 23 September 2011

At ALICE, students were given a tour of the experiment and taken through the visitor center before going to the control room to meet and talk to shift workers on the job. “It’s difficult to explain to the kids what we do, but it’s a good exercise,” French Ph.D. student Nicolas Arbor said. “I’m surprised because the young people ask very precise questions – for example about the link between matter and energy – for being 13 or 14.”

Arbor had driven in for the evening from his home in Grenoble to help guide the French-speaking groups. “It’s good to have a young person who speaks their language,” said ALICE’s Despina Hatzifotiadou, herself a mother of two teenagers.

One group got lucky enough to actually send a request from ALICE to the LHC, said physicist Ombretta Pinazza. “They were on the right console at the right time,” she said. “They are much quicker than we are.” With the click of a button, the students for a moment truly became part of the experiment.

Pinazza, who hails from Italy herself, spent the later part of the evening showing an enthusiastic group from Milan around the control room. Slightly older than most of the students that night, they met up with Hatzifotiadou in the room next door afterwards for a more technical discussion of the physics.

While most of the Researchers’ Night participants came from the surrounding Swiss and French countryside, others came from as far away as Poland and Germany. So too do many of the experiment’s shift workers. ALICE researcher Ralf Averbeck spends most his time in Germany but travels to CERN two or three weeks of the year for his turn at the controls. He had just finished a few weeks of outreach for a travelling LHC exhibit in his hometown. Although he finds this work a bit time-consuming on top of his research, he still thinks it’s a fun and important part of his job. After all, he said, “In the end, [the public] pays for it.”

For some students, visiting ALICE was their first real introduction to particle physics. In school, he has yet to explore energy levels smaller than the atom, said Douglas McAllister, 14, from the Swiss town of Coppet.

Just because the students had not delved far into particle physics textbooks did not mean they asked only easy questions. McAllister asked Averbeck about whether the LHC would create black holes. Other researchers answered questions about the implications of the latest neutrino results. “It’s nice for the kids, but also for us,” Pinazza said. “We see what they’re interested in.”

In addition to picking researcher’s brains about physics, some students wanted advice about careers and education. “I was especially satisfied because there were so many girls, and they saw that here there are many women,” Pinazza said. “Physics is not just a job for men.”

By midnight, the last teenagers were on their way back to CERN reception. Arbor got ready to drive the two hours home. He, for one, said he’d do it again.

  • 1. More photographs from Researchers' Night 2011 at ALICE can be found on CDS.