Monday, July 5, 2010

Day 1 at CERN: settling in and getting lost among the batiments (and townships)

In my other blog, I will be writing about my first impression upon arriving in the little township of St Genis-Pouilly. I would have written yesterday except that I was feeling out of sorts and trying to orientate my way around via the Internet. But here, I'll say a little about how it was like to be at CERN for the first day and the first time of my life

Today is both eventful and non-eventful. Eventful in the non-intellectual sense but as I spent the whole day on administrative and general matters (including getting lost around the rather haphazhardly numbered buildings, even though that got a little easier in time as in I get a little less 'lost'). I took a taxi from my hotel in St-Genis Pouilly which is near the French site but too far away from the Swiss end of things which is where I have to be if I am entering there for the first time. I was planning to take the bus but the thought of carrying a heavy bag and walking for 20 minutes to get to the bus stop (in the very strong heat, yes even IN this part of the world) and then not having the loose change in euros to board the bus made me decide to pay 20CHF + 10CHF in tip (that taxi-driver was pretty slick in this, since he spoke French so fast I felt embarassed to say no and that I only half-understood what he meant. Maybe I should have been more thick-skinned and demand back that 10 CHF and tip as I will and I would probably do that the next time or bring smaller change with me).10 minutes later, I got to the reception and managed to use my rather rusty French to get myself a 2-day access card pending my actual user ID which I would be applying for the very same day. I was met by the person in-charge of the US LHC communications (who is the contact person for the Duke-ATLAS people) and she furnished me with a huge press packet and also helped me register my computer for access. On top of that, she helped me identify some of the main important buildings that I am likely to be going by today. To cut the long boring details out, I got my schedule and list of people at CERN that I could meet with. However, this had to wait while I went to queue up for my user ID and then later, to a different building (this can be another rather tricky attempt). After getting my photo done and access card readied, I venture off to look for the ATLAS secretariat to physically register my computer account. While there, I found out that I had been pre-approved for a user computing account but it seems that the email they sent me never arrived (bummer) so they had to reset the original password to a new one (since more than 5 days had lapsed since they've issued me the original one). On top of that, I had to go through a training-quiz in computer and personal safety and security before I could be confirmed as a user.

The ATLAS secretariat is rather abuzz at the moment because of the large number of students milling about the place, besides the usual year-round denizens. It was there when I grabbed a quick meal of french loaf, cheese and bread. There is a sort of strange sulfurous smell emanating from the toilet and I am not sure if it has to do with the ventilation of the place (or lack of) or some leaked pipe somewhere, because I would be smelling the same thing at different other building sites. I spent much of the time doing that training-quiz, finding out how my account (particularly the email account) works and then finding a long list of emails sent to me in the 2 months I did not manage to access my account (but, yipee, I am in now, as in I am now an IN the grapevine). Then it was off to a lunch-meeting with the other members of the Duke community from Duke and also those based at CERN to discuss on a meeting-retreat they're planning on having this week.

Then, it was just a lot of time spent on running around trying to figure out a different mode of transportation for myself and also attempting to get a Swiss sim card (but I got to the post office too late so will have to try again tomorrow) and then checking out the library (and some books. As a CERN user, you have the privilege of borrowing materials from the site's library as long as you return them by due date). It has a pretty good collection of physics (and some non-physics) books, including ebook collections that you can 'check' out for two weeks on any part of the world once your member id is activated (mine is still in the process, it seems, but I hope it would work by the time I had to leave CERN for this first time). Some of the books are technical but there are a number which highlight the other side of the physicists who work there, the more philosophical and historically-inclined side. I managed to organize some meetings for this week, as well as checked out some lecture timetable (might just join some of the summer students there in educating myself on the technical details of the work going on).

CERN is itself a very European infrastructure (it in fact reminds me very much of the other parts of Europe I've been to, and not American at all. I may one day write about how certain cultural preferences and outlook does influence the architecture, design, layout and even the running of such an organization) inspite it's supposedly international standing, seeing that it is funded by very many nations (I am too lazy to check on the latest number right now that my reference book is not within reach). The people there are varied and one can hear all sorts of languages being spoken when one is in the common area, and preoccupation with the sciences. Even then, if the notice boards and even over-heard conversations are to go by, people who work in CERN are not merely brilliant geeks but are into arts, culture and politics. CERN itself is like a big neighborhood, a select neighborhood if you like. Now that it's in the heat of the summer (most parts of the buildings have neither air-conditioning nor fans), people could be see hanging around and talking, students and working professionals alike. In the evening, one could even see some young people kicking around a ball (they look rather young so it is likely that they may be offsprings of some of the CERN personnels, rather than graduate students. However, it is also possible that some may be undergrads, since a number of the graduate students had gone to CERN as undergrads and that probably inspired their later graduate work).

Tomorrow I begin my real intellectual work, with all the rather annoying details having mostly sorted out. I should be preparing for my day but seeing that I have a free morning, I will do so then. Too tired now, having been jetlagged.

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