Friday, February 4, 2011

Colliders, Postcards and BHAGs

Yesterday I joined a group of CIOs on a field trip to CERN.  Our mission was to see the world famous Large Hadron Collider that loops 27 kilometers through Switzerland and France.  We were also here to learn about the technology that runs it.  It was a trip through scientific imagination.  The facts and figures were incomprehensible.  Here are a few:

  • 27 kilometers with 9,600 super-cooled magnets
  • 120 tons of liquid helium coolant
  • Particles travel at 99.99999% the speed of light
  • 40 billion particle-packets pass a given point every second
  • A pixel detector camera takes 40 million images per second
  • A half-Yotta byte (10^24) of data stored each year
  • Over 60,000 parallel processors
For a group that is not easily out-tech'ed, we were impressed.

CERN's Data Center

The highlight of the trip was traveling to the far side of the Collider, and descending 100 meters underground to see the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), one of the largest experiment centers is located.

The CMS 30-foot end disk

Yet when all the magnificent magnitudes were said and done, what stood out for me was what one of the scientists said.  

We were standing in front of the CMS collider asking a dozen questions.  The scientist answered them all with patience and good humor.  "Why don't the particles travel 100% the speed of light?"  "The additional energy would be enormous; remember E=MC^2." "What about the vial of anti-matter?"  "Fiction!"

But when we turned to the question about the missing particle, the Higgs Boson, he got serious.  "We've had a theoretical model for over 30 years.  It's withstood mathematical scrutiny and every experiment run to date.  But it's missing one element.  With it, the model is proven; without it, we have to rethink the whole thing."

Thirty years!  And then the hopeful and confident statement: "We believe we will find it in the the next two years".  "That will tell us what the universe was like a nanosecond after the Big Bang."

"The anticipation must be palpable for everyone," I said.
"Yes, very!" he replied with a twinkle in his eyes; "We are very excited!"

The professors answer our questions

Later on the bus, I asked another professor about this audacious goal.  "It sounds like the Apollo team 40 years ago, racing to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade."  "Yes," he said, " "We all have that kind of shared vision, that shared goal."

It occurred to me just how powerful a singular, defining goal can be-- especially when it's shared in common by everyone in the organization.  Jim Collins called it a BHAG: a "Big Hairy, Audacious Goal."  The Heath brothers called it a "Destination Postcard."  When people buy into the vision, almost everything else pales in comparison.

I asked about how the Collider teams dealt with conflicts, and difference of opinions.  Two things: "we run an experiment; we build many small prototypes before taking it to a large experiment"; and "we appeal to the goal to move things forward; it's always there in the background, reminding us."

There's something else they do at CERN: they have two teams who are competing to find the missing particle.  They each have separate designers, engineers, approaches, and separate teams of scientists. One chose the acronym we learned above: CMS; the other chose the primordial Greek Titan with the world on his shoulders: Atlas.  Fitting.

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