I'm an American graduate student working on one of the major CERN projects (ATLAS) and living in Geneva. Ask away!
Edit: it's dinnertime now, I'll be back in a bit to answer a few more before I go to sleep. Thanks for the great questions, and in many cases for the great responses to stuff I didn't get to, and for loving science! Edit 2: It's getting a bit late here, I'm going to get some sleep. Thanks again for all the great questions and I hope to get to some more tomorrow.

Edit 3: There have been enough "how did you get there/how can I get there" posts to be worth following up. Here's my thoughts, based on the statistically significant sample of myself.

  1. Go to a solid undergrad, if you can. Doesn't have to be fancy-schmancy, but being challenged in your courses and working in research is important. I did my degree in engineering physics at a big state school and got decent grades, but not straight A's. Research was where I distinguished myself.

  2. Programming experience will help. A lot of the heavy lifting analysis-wise is done by special C++ libraries, but most of my everyday coding is in python.

  3. If your undergrad doesn't have good research options for you, look into an REU. I did one and it was one of the best summers of my life.

  4. Extracurriculars were important to me, mostly because they kept me excited about physics (I was really active in my university's Society of Physics Students chapter, for example). If your school doesn't have them, consider starting one if that's your kind of thing.

  5. When the time rolls around, ask your professors (and hopefully research advisor) for advice about grad schools. They should be able to help you figure out which ones will be the best fit.

  6. Get in!

  7. Join the HEP group at your grad school, take your classes, pass exams, etc.

  8. Buy your ticket to Geneva.

  9. ???

  10. Profit!

There are other ways, of course, and no two cases are alike. But I think this is probably the road most travelled. Good luck!

Comments: 1298 • Responses: 37  • Date: 

EnragedAlbinoYak252 karma

How well does "I'm a scientist at CERN" work when trying to pick up chicks?

cernette637 karma

I've never tried it, being a chick myself. But I think it works pretty well for the more socially apt guys, especially when they're in the US.

minherva117 karma

Yeah women scientists!

cernette125 karma


Zer0n1c214 karma

What are you basic daily activities? And if you get to timetravel can you give me a note that I need to think of better questions for 1 december 2011?

cernette361 karma

Most of the time I'm writing code to analyze data. We get lots of numbers out of our detector, but we need to reconstruct those numbers into things like "well, it looks like we have an electron here, and its energy is 15 GeV, and if you pair it up with that electron over there then maybe you have the decay products of something interesting..." There's also lots of meetings (so many meetings!), so we spend a lot of time listening to what other people are doing, and documenting our work to present to our co-collaborators.

There's also lots of work on the machine, seeing how it's performing, calibrating it, testing parts for upgrades, that kind of thing.

There's also a lot of talking. Which sounds a little weird, but I can't think of a better word for it. There's so much expertise here, that if you want to learn about something, you just look up the resident expert and email them to see if you can buy them coffee and ask them questions. That's one of the most fun things, the random but totally fascinating conversations that you strike up chatting with people. And you make super-cool friends that way.

Definite high points are lunch and dinner. Lunch is usually a full hour, and the cafeteria is pretty good, and you get to just chill with your friends and enjoy the mountain scenery. Often at the end of the day, around 6 or 7, you meet up with your friends again for beers.

Time travel note: I sent it yesterday.

mahade74 karma

So, except for awesome science, what's actually going on there? What makes it worth the investment? Anything specific that will come out of this? Exciting new technologies that you think can become viable in a few decades of time due to the research done there?

I love that you guys exist and do all this - thanks for existing!

cernette363 karma

The web was invented in the hallway underneath mine, which blows my mind every time I walk down that hallway on the way to lunch. These days, the big project is not data distribution, but parallelized data analysis--so when I need to run a computing-intensive job, I use processor farms all over the world to parallelize the work and make it go faster. Accelerator physics, and accompanying advances in medical physics, is also a hallmark here.

FWIW, I've heard that every dollar that goes to CERN returns threefold in research advances. CERN also holds no patents, so everything they invent here is open source.

richworks24 karma

But here it says otherwise : http://technologytransfer.web.cern.ch/technologytransfer/en/FAQ/Page1.html :/

or does "taking" patents mean something else?

cernette50 karma

Ah, then I think it's that they don't charge to use them. Good catch.

It's interesting, I was talking to someone high up in the (US) government lab system and she said they don't patent anything and it's kind of a problem, because if you're interested in seeing if some technology exists so you can use it for your invention or whatever, the first thing you do is search for a patent on it. So maybe CERN got a little smarter.

TrappedInATardis65 karma

Who are the most interesting people you have met through CERN?

cernette125 karma

There are so many people here who are stunningly good at what they do, and by that I mean that they have amazing insights into the way these (extremely complicated) machines work, or they can distill the essence of the physics and why it's interesting, or they can build a piece of code that will knock your socks off.

There are enough of those people here that, while I appreciate them on a daily basis, after a while the most interesting people here are the ones who do things outside of physics. I'm thinking the hardcore hikers, the guy I know who was in the Army in a former life, the amateur chefs and downhill mountain bikers and weekend movie directors.

cernette158 karma

The real question is, where's the Mountain Dew machine? Because I could really go for some.

Lamza125 karma

Have you met Gordon Freeman?

cernette109 karma

I met John Ellis once and had a nerdgasm. (He's the guy that John Oliver interviewed when he came to CERN a few years ago). Does that count?

singhajay08101 karma

Fuckin' magnets. HOW DO THEY WORK?!?

cernette308 karma

Tide comes in, tide comes out. YOU CAN'T EXPLAIN THAT.

[deleted]80 karma

In all seriousness were you or any of your colleagues just a little scared some of your tests might create some kind of black hole and the end of the world? Edit: In case I sound like an idiot (which I'm sure I do) I know literally nothing about physics.

cernette156 karma

If they were, I didn't hear about it. I mean, it's true, you're messing with physics in kind of a crazy way here, but the thing is that the atmosphere is bombarded with cosmic rays all the time, and some of those have MUCH higher energy than anything we make here. So if something funny were going to happen, well, it probably would have already.

swishcheese69 karma

  • Does every guy at CERN try to flirt with you (or act awkwardly around you)?

    • What the hell do you guys do ALL day... it sounds like a lot of sitting around and waiting.
    • What's a misconception about physics you commonly hear that annoys you?
    • What are the hours like at CERN?
    • Does the subject you study ever make you feel so small (for lack of a better word) in the universe?

cernette128 karma

  1. Not really, some do. Everyone here is pretty into science, though, so they're usually interested in talking about how their code is segfaulting or whatever.
  2. Most of the day is writing code and going to meetings. The people who are actually running the machine, sitting in the control room, do have a fair amount of waiting (for example) for the accelerator to turn on. But they're mostly working on their "regular work" when they're there, and then pay attention to the detector during critical points, and then periodically check in to make sure everything is still ok. We're definitely not sitting around very much at all though.
  3. Hours are longish, it mostly depends on your boss and his/her expectations of you. It's funny, with so many Europeans here, you become aware of how work hours are very cultural--like for example, you might be expected by an Italian co-worker to be in a meeting from 6-8:30 PM, but you might also be expected by the same person to just take off for 2 weeks in August.
  4. Feel small? Good question. When I sit back and think about it, yes. But I'm also amazed that I have a brain that can understand how small I am. The fact that we (as a race) figured out quantum mechanics? Or how big the universe is? Amazing.

name9911 karma

You missed

  • What's a misconception about physics you commonly hear that annoys you?

cernette5 karma

Thanks. I'm not a that into the idea that physicists are all geniuses. We're not, I would say we're reasonably smart people but "physicist" comes from being interested in understanding how the universe works, and always trying to think of ways to figure out more stuff. Plus, I always feel really awkward when I get "ooh, you must be so smart!" I just don't really know what to do with that.

AcutelyObtuse68 karma

What is it like waking up every day knowing your job is to look for a hypothetical particle that could resolve the inconsistencies in the Standard Model of particle physics? I wake up, go to class, then make pizzas every day. I couldn't imagine being trusted to be part of conducting one of the most important experiments in human history.

cernette74 karma

When you put it that way, it's awesome :)

I think you get used to it, most of your job is doing slightly-more-interesting-than-average programming. But you're coding up plots that are trying to answer interesting questions, and those moments when you really get something cool running--those are unforgettable. Even if it's something a little lower-profile than the Higgs, like studying some subatomic interaction or particle decay pattern, it's really cool to know you're the first person to see something so tiny and complicated (and potentially important, who knows, right?)

ComplexManifold50 karma

Can you give me a "for dummies" explanation of how faster-than-light neutrinos would enable time travel? I think I get the bit about special relativity and how time goes slower the closer you get to light speed. Thx in advance!

12.4.11 THANK YOU ALL (esp Cernette) for a fascinating & v helpful discussion :-)

cernette93 karma

I think you've actually gotten most of what I would say. So time does go more slowly as you travel faster, and it stops entirely when you're moving at the speed of light. (Think about that for a second--if you were able to ask a photon, and it could talk back, it would tell you that the big bang happened an infinitesimally small amount of time ago. So cool!) So the thinking goes that if you keep going past the speed of light, you can move backwards in time-- there's lots of problems with this scenario, but the fact that it's even a question that is sensible to ask is the reason I got into this field.

dumanyac68 karma

if you keep going past the speed of light, you can move backwards in time-

wouldn't you go forward in time?? let's say you are travelling with a speed close to light. so time slows down for you. you travelled 2 years (your time) but other people felt it like 50 years because time is faster for them. when you stop you will see that people are 48 years older than last time you saw them. so you went 48 years to the future

cernette36 karma

Right, so this is when you're going very fast but still slower than C. The question is what happens when you get to C, and faster.

rick_204745 karma

You say you have a degree in Engineering Physics, so do only people with some sort of physics background get in? I am pursuing a degree in electronics and may do a masters in either signal processing, embedded systems or Control systems. Is there any place for people like me. Also how about more core degree holders like mechanical or material sciences.

cernette57 karma

There are definitely a lot of engineers here, and one of the postdocs in my group (for example) did his undergrad in computer science. One thing that I should point out is that they do things here other than big particle physics experiments; there's also lots of accelerator physics, parallel computing, neutrino studies, etc. I think that most of the ATLAS work now is on data analysis, but a few years ago when it was development and building, I think there was a lot more work on materials.

So I would say that you need some physics background to understand the analyses that they're doing here, but a lot of the work is building/maintaining/understanding the machines.

cernette26 karma

So thing #1 is that there are thousands of people who work here, and if you want to be more engineer-y, a few physics courses will serve you well but you can probably get most of what you need to know from reading papers. But you won't be able to follow all the ins-and-outs of "here's the reason why supersymmetry has 5 Higgses".

If you want to work in physics, assuming you're in school, find a physics professor and ask to work for them. If they say no, ask another one. That's how all the best learning happens--on the job, so to speak.

Allegro8742 karma

Do you consider it possible that neutrons can go faster than light? And if so, can you test it at CERN?

cernette154 karma

Neutrons, no. Neutrinos, maybe : )

It's a tricky question. On the one hand, as they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. On the other hand, you don't want to say it's impossible "because everybody knows that's impossible." You miss the best discoveries that way! There's lots of people who know a lot more about that than I do, and they're studying it now, and I'm trying my hardest to keep up with all the results.

As for testing it, neutrinos interact only very weakly with matter so you need very large detectors with lots of stuff (often water, or scintillator) to see very many. CERN mostly has other kinds of detector. But they can make neutrino beams here, and the "faster than light" result from a few months ago was from a CERN-generated beam that traveled through the earth and was detected primarily in Italy.

That having been said, if neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light, that makes you wonder what other weird physics might be out there if we look in the right place. Which I think is a spot-on job for CERN.

schnaebelisepp40 karma

  • How did you get the job, considering that the US have their own labs (e.g. RHIC) and are not contributing money-wise to CERN?

  • What was the feeling amongst the people working at CERN when they started the LHC again in March this year?

  • What's your "goal" after your studies?

  • How is it living in Geneva, Switzerland compared to the US?

cernette57 karma

Getting a job: I went to grad school. All the schools I applied to have teams of professors, postdocs and students, so once you're at the school, you join the group and you say "send me off". There is a fair US investment in CERN, through things like NSF grants to groups that work here. The Department of Energy labs also have groups here (Fermilab, SLAC, and Brookhaven are a few I can think of off the top of my head) so that's a very direct investment of money and expertise too.

Starting up: I got here in April, so I don't know. But I was in the control room when they started running on ions a few weeks ago, which is a little bit similar maybe, and it was a blast. All these people came in at like 6 in the morning, and we're standing there ready to get the go-ahead from the LHC that they're done playing with the beams and we can turn on the most sensitive equipment. The shift was ending at 7 so we were just hoping that we would get to see it on our shift. When it started, at like 6:45, everybody stood watching the big event displays for the first ion collision. It was one of the coolest things I've seen--ion collisions especially make awesome event displays, so the whole detector is lit up like a Christmas tree.

Goal: not sure yet. I like what I'm doing, I'd like to continue, but I think a lot in contingent on what we find and whether there is still the money and popular support to continue with big experiments like this.

Geneva: expensive, yes. Extremely pretty, the food is good (fondue ZOMG), but oh god how I miss burritos.

I'll agree with matthewhughes.

Prog37 karma

Is it true that CERN has a time machine, and if so, do you have a Reading Steiner to tell when you move world lines?

Also, do you enjoy Dr. Pepper?

lazlovision12 karma

(Reference: Anime called Steins;Gate about time travel and CERN)

cernette18 karma

Thanks, that was like the 3rd question like this and I was so confused what people were talking about.

Dr. Pepper: who doesn't?

FarFromAmusing37 karma

How long till the Higgs-Boson shows up?!?!

cernette50 karma

I wish I knew, but we're closing in on it. If there's a Standard Model Higgs boson, I'd be surprised if it took more than another year or so to find it. The numbers being created are very small, though, so it takes a long time to get enough statistics and to sift the tiny signal out of the giant background.

Deleos27 karma

Recently watched a interview of Neil deGrasse Tyson, he tried to explain the Higgs boson as being the reason behind why things have mass, does that explanation coincide with your own understanding?

cernette93 karma

Yep. And even if it weren't, I defer to Neil deGrasse Tyson as a general rule.

s1cko37 karma

Have you met Brian Cox?

cernette45 karma

I haven't, but I know a lot of Manchester people. Sounds like a nice guy. And I think it's important that people like him are out talking about what we're doing.

cernette10 karma

I wasn't. So many comments make so much more sense now!

LeCoeur26 karma

How often do you hear "Super-collider? I hardly know her!" in a given day? Every time I see mention of CERN, that jumps into my brain. Is it just me, or is that really a thing?

LeCoeur29 karma

Or the "Particle Physics Gives Me a Hadron" line? Please tell me you guys are just sick of cheesy science-y jokes.

cernette76 karma

I've never heard "super-collider" actually. Might have to drop that one at lunch. "Particle physics gives me a hadron" is one of those lines you think of when you've been working in this field for like 3 weeks, and you think you're the funniest person alive for thinking of that, and then you realize the joke is older than you are.

doktorgonzo23 karma


cernette56 karma

Smarts help, it's definitely true. But experience and work ethic probably mean more. Funnily enough, I think smarts might be more important in getting to this point, surviving the undergrad and grad classes so you can get to full-time research. So all you aspiring physics nerds out there, sweating your first E&M class and thinking you're not smart enough, don't give up just because it's hard!

Bzzzzzzzzagemann20 karma

I am in a study-program that emphasizes technology and science, and we are trying to save up some money to go to CERN next year. How do you think your colleagues will welcome us, do you like visiting groups wanting to see the facilities and how your work is?

cernette25 karma

Cool! CERN works a lot on outreach, you can contact the visits service about lining up a tour (I think they fill up fast though, so plan ahead). I work as a tour guide sometimes and it's really fun, one of my favorite parts of the job. We have a lot of visitors show up and we try really hard to at least show them the control room, and point them toward the exhibits, so if anybody happens to be wandering through Geneva sometime, come say hi.

YeaISeddit12 karma

Is it better to wait until "Higg's Hunting Season" rolls around again before booking a tour? Or is it basically the same when the scientists aren't conducting experiments.

cernette18 karma

It's always Higgs season. But if I were you, I would go sometime after March-ish, since the machine will be down for a few months for work starting in a couple weeks (and to save on electricity). After that will be a long shutdown, to fully repair the magnets that broke in Sept. 2008, but maybe that means visitors will be able to go down into the cavern again and see the actual detector. Crossing my fingers on that one.

g002771718 karma

I am so awed by what CERN/humanity has done here. All my respect to you and your colleagues. Sometimes when i want to feel amazed or optimistic about humanity I look up CERN.

Now for something completely different: here's an opportunity to rant about being female in science! How is it and why aren't more young women going into either basic science or engineering -- is there still a gender gap in graduate studies? What's that about?

cernette16 karma

Thanks, it really means a lot actually. The hours are long and the pay is meh, and sometimes the work isn't even that interesting, but I'm pretty sure I'm living the dream here.

Oh gosh. I'll try to stick to more objective and first-hand observations. The gender gap exists, definitely, but it's a lot less pronounced in Europe than in the US (and I think the statistics back this up). Which is one of the things that makes me think it's more of a cultural effect than a biological one, but people get all excited sometimes when you say things like this so I'll just keep my big mouth shut. I haven't had any really bad experiences, although I know people who have, so it can definitely be a problem. And I think it's a field that is not especially well suited for people who want to have a family (long hours, not the best job security), which affects everyone of course, but probably women somewhat harder.

I'll end by saying this though: I work with some fantastic women. Truly amazing.

broconsulate17 karma

Could you tell us a little more about the project you're working on?

cernette25 karma

I'm working on a few things, like most people here. I'm doing a Higgs search, and working on the silicon tracker that makes up the innermost layers of the detector. Plus lots of little things--working in the control room running the detector, reading/commenting on papers, helping other people in my group with their work.

CaptainJeff14 karma

What did you think about the CERN rap that was all the rage a few years ago?

cernette11 karma

Pretty funny--I'd buy them beers.

SleepyEel13 karma

What did you do your undergrad?

cernette26 karma

Engineering physics, at a big state school. I knew from high school that I wanted to end up here, though, so I was able to start in research early and that got my foot in the door when grad school came around. The engineering was mostly computer science, since a lot of what we do is data analysis, pattern recognition, those kinds of things.

matthewhughes11 karma

Also, OP... What bars do you frequent in GVA?

cernette13 karma

I used to go to pub quiz on Monday nights at Lady Godiva's. I also need to get to Le Chat Noir one of these days...

Aewawa10 karma

We know everything about your time machine conspiracy to take over the world and create a dystopia, hope you will never be able to achieve this.

cernette25 karma

Once the damn code finishes compiling, you're all toast.

Agrajags8 karma

How hard is it getting a job at CERN, especially as an American? How many interview and tests did you have to do? I am a mechanical engineer student and I want to work there either as an internship or after I graduate. Also, can you get a job with a bachelor's degree or do you need a master's or doctorate?

cernette7 karma

I work for an American institution, so it was as hard as getting into physics grad school. Which is not easy, exactly, but I don't think those are the kinds of interviews and tests that you're talking about. This happens to be something that I know almost nothing about, sorry.

negative_epsilon6 karma

How did your graduate studies get you to the leading project in particle physics today? When are you on track to get your Ph.D? Were you just at an amazing Physics school for your undergrad and got a lot of connections or what?

Is Antonio Ereditato a complete tool in person? Because he never seems to grasp what's going on.

Do you read XKCD?

Who's your favorite researcher there?

Describe an average day for you.

cernette20 karma

  1. All the schools I applied to had programs in it. As soon as I got into grad school, I could basically declare my intentions and ask my coach (read: advisor) to put me in the game. I'll be out in a few years, it's far enough that I don't really know. My undergrad was a big state school, solid but not Ivy-League or anything. The professor that I researched for gave me some connections, and a lot of good training, which was what I needed.
  2. I don't know him. Most of the people I work with are really good folks, a few are less so.
  3. Yes. I ruv it. We all do!
  4. 7: wake up 9: get to work, answer emails, see if there will be any interesting talks or papers to investigate 10: coffee, then write physics code for a couple of hours 12: lunch 1: more code, maybe read one of those papers I found in the morning 2: test some electronics components, try out a new software package, format the output from the code I wrote in the morning 4: meetings 5: find Higgs boson while not paying attention in meeting 5:05: find bug in code 6: go grocery shopping (all the stores here close at 7 PM) 8: get home, eat dinner, try pathetically to learn some French

achoj3 karma

Do you have your Ph.d?

cernette9 karma

Not yet. I will in a few years.