On Shift at ALICE
Over the past week I finished up my training and started shifts at the Data Quality Management (DQM) station in the ALICE control room. Though the LHC run has not yet started, ALICE has started shifts both to make sure detectors are properly calibrated and to discover any bugs that may have cropped up during the last round of changes to the system.
I arrived in the control room to discover that I was the only person in the room who did not speak Italian. I suppose there are a fair number of Italians at ALICE, but the number is disproportionate in the control room, and I immediately had to become fluent in Italian or fail to relate to anyone there. Well, that is a lie, they all speak English (certainly better than I speak Italian), but I found it amusing that I literally was the ONLY person who wasn't fluent in the language.
James Ross on shift at the DQM station in the ALICE control room
For my first shift not much was going on, just a few technical and cosmic ray runs. This left only one or two things to check every ten minutes or so for my station, and even less to do for everyone else. However, Run Coordinator Gilda Scioli was in the room, so things could hardly be boring. Gilda is what most people would describe as a bundle of energy, but really "a force of nature" is more appropriate. She's got a fantastic sense of humour and a huge personality, so she sort of infuses energy into whatever she's doing. She played Vivaldi loudly on her computer and cracked jokes with all and sundry, mostly in Italian, at least I assume they were jokes because everyone laughed. This was of course interrupted whenever something needed doing; she is quite attentive to her job.
The man in charge for the run this month is Period Run Coordinator (PRC) and Electromagnetic Calorimeter expert Jiri Kral. He is in charge of making sure that the run goes smoothly and implements ALICE policy in the control room. Generally PRCs try to avoid ruling with an iron fist, but on occasion Jiri will threaten to shoot you. Well, actually he threatened to just shoot me, so it may be a personal thing. Aside from the occasional death threat, he is an easy going, sociable person with a good sense of humour. At least that seems to be my only hope for survival.
On top of everything else during the shifts, I seem to have stumbled my way into a job at the zoo, as one of the animals. Several times a day tour groups would come through the ALICE control room and tour guides would explain in numerous languages (mostly Italian) what all the stations are. I enjoyed it because, though I had to look busy for their benefit and click on random histograms, I did get some small measure of attention. Mostly these were high school trips visiting CERN, but we did get a group of VIPs from Thailand who had recently joined the collaboration. This is not typical of shifts during the year, but during the shutdown period tourism is big at the LHC.
So between physicists attempting to waltz to classical music, tour groups rampaging through, visits from VIPs from Thailand, dodging bullets from Jiri, and checking to make sure that I knew where everything was, I only had about five hours with which to try to find some way to stave off boredom. Later on shifts will require actually doing things regularly, but not yet. I spent the time between checking the histograms working on my thesis or applying for jobs.
On my shifts later in the week I had a trainee every day (being the first shifts of the run, this is normal) so I had a bit more to do. Between training them and DQM expert Francesca Bellini being in the control room, I came to know everything quite well, except for one particular little gremlin that had to reveal itself before I knew what on earth was going on... But I'm afraid I can't go into detail on that. I've been sworn to secrecy.
A typical DQM shift in the control room involves keeping an eye on a number of histograms to ensure that everything is going well with the data taking. If there are any major problems, the shift leader is informed and the relevant experts are notified so that steps can be taken to correct the problem. Usually, however, the DQM shifter can handle the minor issues that crop up, and there is an extensive instruction and troubleshooting section of the ALICE Twiki to help. Recently the DQM shift was merged with the offline data migration shift, adding a few more things to keep an eye on. However, there are not too many, so it is easily manageable.
All in all, my shifts went very smoothly. Experts are still in the midst of getting everything calibrated and there are constant changes happening, but it will come together by the time the LHC starts up the beam for the run. Until then, its sit back, relax, and let the cosmic rays frolic with the detectors.