Before our visit last week, I had been to Brookhaven once before: for the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider’s (RHIC) Summer Sunday, the machine’s community meet-and-greet. I thought walking around in the accelerator tunnel and seeing the house-sized detectors up close had given me a pretty good idea of the scale of the experiments. But this year, Nick and I visited RHIC in the middle of a run. I knew that hundreds of scientists work on the PHENIX and STAR experiments, but I didn’t appreciate the level of coordination and cooperation that goes into making that happen.
Everyone joked about how nothing in the run ever went smoothly — thunderstorms would cause power dips, they would lose the beam for seemingly no reason at all, the computers would react badly to humidity, and on top of all of that, the DOE wouldn’t even provide coffee cups. But despite many scientists’ sense that things were always going wrong (they had been doing this for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for nearly six months by then, after all), I was most impressed by how they always got things to go right again.
About half the year at RHIC is devoted to runs like the one we saw, and the other half is left for maintenance and analysis of the data. I always imagined analyzing physics data to be the hardest part of an experiment. The thought of sifting through information about millions and millions collisions looking for confirmation of what you predicted while still keeping an eye out for something entirely unexpected seems simultaneously tedious, exciting, and above all, intellectually taxing. But as we saw at RHIC, accumulating the data proved to be just as dramatic. John Haggerty, the run coordinator and our gracious host, compared it to “a TV show you’re not sure why you’re still watching, but you can’t look away from.”
High energy physics often seems as removed from the realm of our daily lives as science fiction. But physics labs are first and foremost collections of people, all in one place working toward the same goal. Being on shift at an experiment is in some sense like working at any office, with the same day-to-day dramas, social dynamics, and problem solving. Except that what you have at the end of the day is new insight into quark gluon plasma. Not bad for a day’s work.
For more on the science behind RHIC, check out my Fear of Physics column on the topic. A big thank you to everyone who took time out of their busy schedules to show us around PHENIX, STAR, Main Control, and the National Synchrontron Light Source (separate post coming soon!) — and special thanks to John Haggerty, who was described to us by several people as “the man who makes it all work.”