How CERN Works

Analyzing CERN Data: Now That's a Big Job

Smashing particles together at nearly the speed of light is one thing; interpreting the data from those collisions is another. Particles collide in the LHC nearly 600 million times a second [source: Sakai]. The information spewing out of those crashes can tell us volumes about the inner workings of the atom and the forces that hold the atom together, but we certainly can't record all of the information from the detectors. If CERN did, ATLAS, for example, could fill 100,000 CDs with data every second. Instead, ATLAS, like the other detectors, can record only a "smidgen" of info, roughly enough to put on 27 CDs per minute [source: ATLAS].

While that number is only a portion of the available information, it's still an overwhelming amount. The detectors transfer what they find to the CERN Data Center, where technicians and researchers use computers to digitally reconstruct each collision. During reconstruction, scientists put their theories of how particles behave to the test. They compare computer-simulated collisions to the actual collisions. A disparity between the two might signify new science, something that had gone unexplained [source: Sakai].

Each day, the data center processes one petabyte of information. It would take 223,000 DVDs to hold all the information in a petabyte [source: McKenna]. To make things more difficult, scientists pore through 30 petabytes each year, which makes new science incredibly difficult to find [sources: CERN, McKenna].

Given those staggering numbers, CERN's data hub can't crunch such numbers all by itself. Instead, scientists rely on the planet's largest computing network, the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid, an association of 170 computer centers in 40 countries. The grid is touted as the "most sophisticated data-taking and analysis system ever built for science." It runs more than 2 million jobs a day and can transfer 10 gigabytes of data from its servers every second. Without the grid, the Higgs boson might have gone undiscovered [source: WLCG].

As for Einstein, he'd be rocking in the grave if he knew what was happening at CERN — that is, if his friends hadn't spread his ashes on the Delaware River in 1955.

Author's Note: How CERN Works

I reference Einstein not because I understand even a grain of what he's taught the world, but because today's scientists pretty much try to build upon Einstein's work. One of the things Einstein spent a lot time studying was how atoms and light behaved. His theories ultimately led to the existence and discovery of the Higgs boson.

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