Organized Curiosity

The CERN globe. Photo: PK Read

The CERN globe.
Photo: PK Read

Someone once described the work that goes on at CERN, the¬†European Organization for Nuclear Research that straddles the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, as a massive exercise in “organized curiosity”. CERN is the world’s largest particle accelerator laboratory, where international researchers have been collaborating to investigate the fundamental nature of the physical universe since the early 1950’s.

It’s where some of the largest scientific equipment ever built is used to peel back the layers on the smallest elements of what makes the cosmos.

Last night, we went to a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider. Thousands of people, an orchestra with a hundred-strong choir, and the Alan Parsons Live Project accompanied by the full orchestra and choir, took up residence out behind the CERN facility on the French side, in the middle of a large field.

The two official languages at CERN are French and English, but standing in the crowd, there was the likelihood of hearing Korean, Greek, Russian, Japanese and some I didn’t recognize, all spoken within arm’s length. At one point I was standing next to one of the senior scientists, and he said that one of the things he values most about his decades at CERN is the sense of collaboration and working towards a common goal on a global scale. Twenty member states support CERN, with numerous non-members participating in a variety of ways.

We often hear the question: Collaboration is nice, but what good does fundamental research do on a practical level? With all the money spent by various countries – tax money, public funds – what good does this kind of investigation really serve?

There is an objective and true response to this question. The exploration undertaken at CERN often requires equipment that doesn’t yet exist, leading to innovations in everything from computing to medical technologies to materials science and electronics.

But there is also another, more subjective and true response: This demonstrates us, as humans, at our most cooperative and inquisitive. 800px-CERN_international_relations_map.svg

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Harnessing Big Data at CERN

CERN map  Source: Symmetry Magazine via Duke Physics

CERN map
Source: Symmetry Magazine via Duke Physics

According to this playful map by Symmetry Magazine, we live somewhere in France between the Kingdom of CMS and the Canton of Alice. My regular running path takes me past a large access point to the CERN accelerator, which is 17 miles (27 km) in circumference. If it were shown on this map, I suppose it would be a large gate with a drawbridge.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest high-energy particle accelerator and arguably the largest microscope ever constructed, generates almost unimaginable amounts of data when it is running. Actually, it’s on a hiatus right now, but that doesn’t really matter much because there is so much data to process and examine before the LHC starts up again in 18 months. There’s a good article in Symmetry Magazine on how the LHC is a model for the processing of big data, a challenge faced all over the world in a number of sectors. Here’s a big infographic on big data.

Big Data Source: via

Big Data
Source: via

Collaboration strategies for big data are driving many of the open science initiatives today, not to mention commercial, artistic, military and government projects. For me, big data processing holds promise when applied to shared data that creates large, publicaly available collaborative projects like OneZoom (a phylogenetic tree project), or the LHC, or Wikipedia for that matter. Big data shows its teeth as well as its shortcomings with surveillance capabilities.

To get an idea of just how much data is ‘big’, another helpful illustration.

Big Data Comparison Source: Symmetry Magazine

Big Data Comparison
Source: Symmetry Magazine

Finally, here’s a short film on just how LHC manages to collect and process those massive quantities of information.




Symmetry Magazine article – Particle physics tames big data, by Leah Hesla

You can also view the CERN short film here.