Sheldon: Sorry? I’ve been dreaming about going to the Large Hadron Collider since I was nine years old.
Leonard: Yeah, well, I’ve been dreaming about spending Valentine’s Day with a girl since I was six.
Sheldon: Shame on you! That’s no dream for a scientist!
- The Big Bang Theory, The Large Hadron Collision
AS REGULAR READERS will know, last week I achieved Sheldon's dream with a trip to CERN, organised by Blue Yonder, the predictive analytics company that originated there.
You can read our interview with the founder of Blue Yonder, where he talks about the gulf between the machine learning he works on and the scope for artificial intelligence.
I wanted to share my thoughts about what it was like to achieve one of my, and many other science nerds', IT dreams.
I think a lot of my perceptions of the place were shaped by an over-repeated Channel 4 sitcom. If you know your TBBT (as we fans call it), you'll remember that this is a place so "cool" that Sheldon wants to take Penny there for Valentine's Day.
In fact, the reality is a little different. It was a long, gruelling day and, although it was an amazing experience, I think Sheldon would need to manage his expectations a little.
CERN has been around since the 1950s. It's like a United Nations of boffins. Needs and cash have dictated its growth, but instead of the gleaming high-tech steel skyscrapers with touchscreens in my imagination, there is instead a ramshackle collection of office buildings and portacabins, many of which haven't seen a coat of paint since 1973 at least.
But in a way this had its own sense of charm and wonder. I felt at times like an extra in an episode of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, about to be chased down a corridor, walls covered in green hessian, by a monster summoned from a pit beneath the ground. Probably someone after an Equity card covered in egg boxes.
One of my favourite sights during the day was this cage:
It acted as a grounding testament to the fact that not only are these hallowed halls a place of detached science, but a place where people from all over the world connect, live, work and laugh. I was surprised by just how much personality the place had.
It was 33 degrees Celsius in Geneva on the day I visited and the heat was often stifling. I was quite envious of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which operates at -271 degrees Celsius - as close to absolute zero as possible.
It was a theme through the day. The temperature was almost absolute zero. The particles travel at almost the speed of light. Particles in the proposed new collider will travel ever so slightly faster, but not quite at the speed of light. The conditions were almost those of the Big Bang. Most of the particles being accelerated would have 'near miss' collisions.
For poor Sheldon, whom watchers of the show will know likes everything "just so", it would set his teeth on edge. But that's science. You can't achieve the absolutes on matter that has mass. And all matter has mass at some level. Physics, innit.
And then perhaps the biggest subversion of expectations. We weren't able to see the LHC. I can't deny I was a bit disappointed.
"Why?" I asked our tour guide. "Because you might die," he retorted, making me suddenly realise that perhaps I wasn't that bothered about seeing a bloody huge drainpipe full of magnets anyway.
You need protective equipment to visit the actual collider. Hard hats are just the start. You also need a dosimeter to check your personal exposure to radiation, and a "personal rescue kit" - breathing equipment consisting of pure oxygen or bio cell crystals so that, if there is a leak of matter at absolute zero, you're not simultaneously suffocated, burned and frozen alive. Oh yes, and sturdy shoes.
You also have to complete several online training courses, an induction, and seek specific permission with a start date, end date and a reason. It's all just such a faff. And it's not even sunny down there.
Understandably, CERN seemed a little reluctant to lend us all that, and then have us descend 100m into the Earth. So instead we were taken to see the maintenance wing and I found a nice section of LHC pipe under maintenance to be grumpy next to. It's good to stretch your boundaries.
But, despite all this, it was enough to just be in the place where the World Wide Web was invented. Where particles at almost the speed of light were colliding beneath my feet. Where legendary scientists from all over the world had walked the corridors. Where every piece of data that had been saved from CERN experiments was available on tape.
Yes, it's true. CERN still uses tape archiving. Lots of it. And, although there are improvements all the time, it seems amazing to me that this most esteemed and stunning facility was subject to the whimsy of such a vulnerable form factor.
What is quite cool is that it's all sorted by robots, and if you need some archive data, it triggers a team of fairground claws to go and get it for you and load it into the machine.
Anyone with permission can access the data from anywhere in the world. "Surely that must take ages?" we ask our tour guide. "Oh no, it's pretty quick now. Usually, they get the information they want in under half an hour."
It was a bit like discovering that the Wizard of Oz is really a little old man pushing levers behind a screen. And, frankly, it worries me.
There is so much data from so many years in the CERN database and it's all on flimsy vulnerable tape - basically the same stuff that got chewed up in my Walkman repeatedly in the 1980s.
For all we know, CERN has the answer to life, the universe and everything hidden on those tapes (it's not 42, by the way - they've checked) and it feels so fragile.
Come on flash storage makers. Let's help CERN out. I'm sure you can afford to lose 300-odd petabytes of storage to help mankind? Let's get these guys upgraded, OK?
I won't moan about the flight home being delayed. It's not relevant. And I'm definitely not trying to put a downer on what was an incredible day. But visiting CERN was a revelation to me.
The biggest thing I learned from the day was that this isn't a glamorous palace of science. It's a global community of an amazing hive of people, working to timescales and budgets and often on threadbare carpets to make a better world.
Conversely, at the Windows 10 launch earlier this week, the DJ was using a console that looked like something out of Minority Report, a glass touchscreen desk with data projected on to it. That's how I imagined CERN, and probably how Sheldon does too.
That's not what I saw at CERN. But what I did see in its sometimes ageing corridors was even more amazing. µ
Much a (dil)do about nothing
Neither the time nor the face
The tiny tweaks are coming thick and fast now
Gitting more secure