Accelerator physicist – a weird job

By | 16 september, 2015

I haven’t written anything here for a while. I have been busy working, but as I was working I was also thinking and I have made a conclusion – to be an accelerator physicist is a weird job.

Firstly, accelerator physics seems to be the combination of all physics. Many people that have the same education as I say that they are not using most of the things they learned. They mostly talk about the ability to solve problems and critical thinking when asked about what they learned in their education which they have use for afterwards. Not me. I use all of it. There are so many things I thought were useless when I studied them which I now suddenly realize is important. My view on my education has really changed. Also, many of the things I considered boring is now fun when they are put in the context of building an accelerator. I never thought that I could find the construction of a concrete floor exciting, but suddenly I do. I found these quotes in one book that describes this:

”The physics of particle accelerators is a microcosm of the whole of  physics.”

”An adequate understanding of the construction and control of particle accelerators and the behaviour of their beams requires the application of the deepest knowledge of many of the established branches of physics and technology alongside the more topical.”

So, apparently accelerator physics ”requires the application of the deepest knowledge of many of the established branches of physics and technology alongside the more topical”. Great… You have to be an expert in many fields, and an engineer and physicist at the same time. This is clearly impossible unless you are a superhuman. So an accelerator physicist is both an expert and a novice at the same time. It is truly fascinating when I come into the control room and find the people I consider to be the source of all knowledge sitting there trying to figure out how to save the things on the screen and this is essential for a successful commissioning of the machine. We had a meeting and the most important question was to get the tool to save all the machine parameters to work. No question is a stupid question if you are an accelerator physicist because there is always something you don’t know and have to learn from someone else. Also, it is very interesting every time I explain something to my supervisor. He is close to a superhuman, but suddenly there are some things that I know better. Last week he called me an expert. Strange feeling.

Then it is the machines. An accelerator is a man-made machine and therefore you might think that you should know how it works. But no. I have been doing some measurements on a machine that has been running for many years and there are so many unknown things. I think I could spend my entire life measuring on this machine and still never fully understand it. An accelerator is a machine with is own mind. Sometimes it just does things because it wants to. I have now started to consider accelerator physicists as accelerator tamers rather than accelerator builders.

Also there are many things that you are supposed to do as a researcher. Posters presenting your research is one of them. When I finished high school I wanted to become a veterinarian. To be accepted to veterinary studies then (now they have modified the system) you had to have the highest grade in all subjects. I had that except in physical education and art. For some reason your PE grade didn’t count when you applied to university so the only reason that I became a physicist and not a veterinarian is my lack of the highest grade in art.  Now I am sitting there at my job trying to put together nice looking posters. That is irony.

But the most weird thing of all is that you get payed for this job. Some days I just sit at my desk trying to figure out something while I produce a large pile of scrap papers. Other days I lie in my bed, staring at the ceiling and talk to myself about electric potentials trying to understand how to derive them from the Hamilton equations. Sometimes I also produce a lot of meaningless numbers that I later delete when I realize they are wrong. And I get payed for this. Also those days when I don’t produce anything useful at all. That is a very weird job.