Sept. 10, 2008, Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, home to the remote operations center for the CMS experiment at CERN's Large Hadron Collider.
2 a.m. US CDT Herman White, Fermilab scientist and host for the night, steps up to the microphone in front of a crowd of about 400 scientists, technicians, journalists, politicians, and students--many sporting pajamas or the odd nightcap. With our host mid-sentence, a counter appears on the screen streaming video from CERN, the European high-energy physics laboratory on the Franco-Swiss border. A group countdown begins.
Fermilab scientist Vladimir Shiltsev had received a message earlier in the night from friends at CERN telling him the firing of the first beam through the Large Hadron Accelerator would be delayed by about an hour while they cooled a sector to the appropriate temperature. Shiltsev wonders if the process will take longer than anticipated. "When they talk about an hour, usually multiply by Pi," he says.
Representatives at CERN announce the delay in French, then English.
"French is the first language of CERN," Shiltsev says. "Engineers speak French. All scientists speak English." The LHC project has pulled researchers and students from across the globe, many of them work remotely from Fermilab.
2:15 a.m. Jim Kerby, who works in the technical division at Fermilab, searches for familiar faces on the video feed. He returned last month from a year in Switzerland working as leader of the US LHC Project. No one can predict exactly how the test beam will work, he says.
"Even if individually, all those pieces are relatively well understood," he says, "you can take individually very simple things then put them all together, and you get a very complicated thing."
2:34 a.m. "We got beam!" the announcer says on the live feed. The researchers at CERN plan to guide the beam gradually around the accelerator ring, blocking it briefly at several stopping points before letting it pass.
2:40 a.m. The video feed displays a bright circular blotch on a black background, evidence that the beam has hit one of the absorber blocks.
A group of 10 students bearing a slight resemblance to the seven dwarves--in fashion sense, not stature--mill around the atrium of Fermilab's Wilson Hall. They're wearing identical white sleeping caps with the letters LHC on them to show their pride in Virtual QuarkNet, an online collection of students and teachers that learn about high-energy physics by partnering with researchers and national laboratories such as Fermilab. QuarkNet groups, supported by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy, have existed at universities across the country for more than half a decade, but the virtual chapter was created a little more than a year ago.
This field trip united students from Indiana, Virginia, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and New York. The girls in this group outnumber the boys seven to three.
Summer Blot, 18, of Virginia, met Danica Bybell, 17, of Massachusetts, for the first time this morning after months of discussing physics on the QuarkNet blog.
"We ask any questions that come up about physics," Blot says. "We answer each other. Sometimes physicists or grad students answer. It's a really good way to connect."
The students are writing blogs about their experience at Fermilab and plan to continue blogging about physics through college.
2:57 a.m. For the first time ever, the test beam has made its way through the Compact Muon Solenoid detector, or CMS, in Cessy, France. Previous test beams stopped short of the CMS detector, which is located at the fifth of eight points on the ring.
The US CMS team is the largest national group in the 3000-member international CMS collaboration. The US participation in CMS consists of 431 physicists, nearly 200 graduate students and about 300 engineers, technicians, and computer scientists. Researchers monitor the results of the CMS detector remotely from Fermilab.
3:06 a.m. The beam passes through point seven, the sixth on its way around the accelerator back to point two, where it was injected.
3.13 a.m. "This is going quicker than any of us anticipated," the announcer on the video feed from CERN says. She tells us the "masters of the beam" are laughing in relief as they come close to christening "the world's biggest experiment." The beam has just passed through point eight, just one point away from the ATLAS detector, the last it needs to pass before coming full circle. The announcer declares that the beam will not pause at ATLAS before zipping through the finish line once it is unblocked.
3:17 a.m. CERN completes its first circulation of a proton beam! "There it is! There it is!" the CERN announcer shouts. "Congratulations! This is astonishingly fast."
Scientists from Argonne National Laboratory wearing ATLAS hats applaud in the audience. "This only happens once in 20 years," says James Proudfoot, Argonne scientist and ATLAS collaborator. He and two of his colleagues will travel to CERN at the end of the month to help with the LHC's first collisions.
3:43 a.m. Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the next director general of CERN, appears on the video screen. "I never would've expected such a smooth go-around of the beam," he says. "I think we can all look forward very much to the first data, hopefully coming towards the end of this year and to the exciting science, which we will have in the next 10 to 15 years, I think. And I'm also looking forward to close collaboration between CERN, Fermilab and all the other labs around the world."
3:53 a.m. Host Herman White raises a glass in toast to the LHC. "Oh," he says after taking a sip. "I thought that was apple juice." Nothing but the real deal for Fermilab. Breakfast is served.
Photos courtesy of Fermilab Today