So you want to be a Scientist? – by Octavia

And the new Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator in CERN has got you all excited, even though you’re not quite sure what goes on there? (Hint: see here.)

But if, like most of us, you’re separated in time and brain power from the boffins at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and it’s new baby, the 27 kilometre, 100m underground LHC, then don’t despair! You can still take part. And you don’t even have to go underground to do it – because let’s face it, one stretch of LHC tunnel probably looks very much like another.


The people at CERN have come up with a programme called SixTrack, which simulates the particles that travel round the LHC. It maps their positions in order to study the stability of the particle orbits. These little particles zoom around pretty fast in real time – it only takes 10 seconds for a particle to travel that 27 km track about 100,000 times. What SixTrack does is to simulate this on your home computer, via BOINC software (the same software used on the SETI@home programme). Instead of simulating one particle around the track, however, SixTrack, on your computer, simulates 60 particles at one time as they loop around the ring. The usual amount of loops is 100,000, but can go as high as 1 million.

The reason CERN needs to map out the stability of each orbit is that if a particle gets into an unstable orbit, it goes off track and crashes into the side of the LHC. And that could mean temporarily shutting down the entire LHC for tiresome – and expensive – repairs. So by simulating the progress of the particle beam, and by repeating it thousands of times by distributed computing, it’s possible to find the way to make the beam stable and continue on with the experiment… without breaking the largest particle accelerator that has ever been built.

If you want to use your computer to help out at CERN, got to:


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