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September 9, 2008

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Big Bang’ boffins are comfortable in their work at the CERN collider centre

A British firm of ergonomics consultants played a big part in today’s history-making endeavour to recreate the ‘Big Bang’.

Scientists at the nuclear research organisation CERN, in Geneva, this morning switched on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which aims to smash sub-atomic particles together in order to find out how the universe was created.

The CERN site originally had four control centres but at the inception of the LHC project it was decided to bring these together into one central control room, where staff are responsible for generation of the ‘beams’ used for the scientific experiments and the safe operation of the plant as a whole.

Ergonomists from London-based CCD Design & Ergonomics Consultancy in London visited Geneva to interview staff, look at existing working practices, and plot out how the new centre would operate.

The new control room had to house 39 workstations, so CCD reviewed the functions of each of the various roles in the room, and who controlled the various sub-systems, which included ones for cryogenics, power, vacuums, water and electricity.

The CCD team developed alternative workstation layouts, taking full account of the extensive arrays of equipment to be housed on the workstations, as well as comfortable reach and viewing distances for the operators. Room layouts had to take account of the way in which CERN operators would need to work together — for example, when beams were being generated in one machine and inserted into another.

Said CCD managing director, John Wood: “One of our first tasks was to analyse the existing working practices of physicists conducting experiments at CERN, as well as the activities of staff setting up the machines.

“We analysed all the interactions that would take place in the future control room, including speech links, equipment-sharing, and team working. We came up with two alternative control-room layouts, which were then critically assessed to see how they worked under different operating conditions, including an emergency, in order to come up with an optimum layout.”

It is hoped the LHC experiment will answer a question that has always perplexed physicists: what is mass? Some experts have expressed concerns about the tests, saying it could open up a black hole and result in the eventual destruction of the Earth. At time of writing, 20 minutes after switch-on, all appears to be well. . .!

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