My summer with ALICE

Rabia Aslam

My contract at CERN as a summer student 2011 recently ended and now that I am back in Pakistan, I would like to say that being a summer student at CERN was indeed an honour for me; an achievement I will always take pride in telling.

Rabia Aslam, ALICE summer student in 2011.

Our CERN student family was great with a diverse combination of engineers, computer scientists and physicists from all around the world. I worked in ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) and did my analysis work for K-zero produced in proton-proton collisions at 7 TeV (Teraelectronvolts) energy. I looked at some of its properties, verified its mass and life time and showed its multiplicity dependence.

The analysis work was certainly not easy. With no specific background in particle physics and with an unavoidable hatred for programming, I started off my work. I spent time in understanding basics of ROOT and AliROOT (the software I used). I spent time in freaking out over C++. It takes some time to run jobs and get results, so I found myself waking up at night, putting my code to run, and then waking up in the morning and checking results. And once it all started, I was always running codes, exchanging emails with supervisors (Jean-Pierre Revol and Adam Jacholkowski) about every small error in my code and then getting ecstatic to get some peaks in histograms. My supervisors really made it do-able for me and I must say it was because of them that I feel like saying programming is not that bad either.

About the lecture series, each and every lecture was great in itself. The interesting bit about them is that they made me change my future plans on a regular basis. The day we had this basic particle physics lecture, I decided to pursue my further studies in particle physics and then come back to CERN again. Then we had this really interesting lecture on anti-matter that I planned to start making anti-matter. Then the series of lectures on medical physics started and in the evening I was looking for some universities with a good program on biophysics. The story continued till the end of lecture series with more accelerators and detectors coming on the way.

Also we had these guided tours to some of the experiments and detectors. It was wonderful to see the precision with which the apparatus was installed, the huge machinery weighing tons being lowered into the tunnels taking into account many other issues and constraints, the measurements which had to be really exact to get the expected result; so you hear about the exciting physics and then see the enormous scale of the enterprise. And believe me; unless you see it you just cannot fully appreciate the magnitude of the effort and the achievement.

Being at the border of France and Switzerland gives you the benefit of being at the dream destination of tourists. So after strenuous work on week days, my weekends were all busy in sight-seeing around the place with friends. This includes the famous snow clad Alps and Jura mountains, serene lakes, mystic castles, clean cities and diverse landscapes in Switzerland, and then compelling arts and spectacular sights with the world's largest and renowned museums and Eiffel tower in Paris that mesmerize everyone.

So all in all, it felt enormously wonderful to be very close to the detectors I always saw in pictures and youtube videos, to be around Nobel laureates I only read about in the restaurant, to make a lot of friends from all around the world in that short time; to be in an awesome place like CERN (purely a physicist's dream world) with a feeling of being a part of the set-up which answers some of the BIG questions of the universe including interactions and forces among elementary particles, structure of space and time, Higgs mechanism of generating elementary particle masses, extra dimensions, supersymmetry, dark matter and facts about the early universe and the big bang; and then to be in the best tourist spot of the world. My internship was truly amazing; an experience worth sharing, knowledge worth gaining and fun worth having. I can say beyond any doubt that these summers were the best summers of my life so far!

Alice Matters