A bird's eye view of the owl shift
The Main Control Room in the Accelerator Complex at Fermilab. Photo: Reidar Hahn
Editor's note: Operators-the people who run the accelerators-work in three shifts throughout the day. There's morning, evening and owl. Here's a snapshot of a recent owl shift.
All was calm. The alarms were quiet, while the "All-Okay" alert sounded consistently.
The evening crew chief, Darren Crawford, and the owl crew chief, Dave Ifversen, chatted while passing the baton of monitoring the accelerators.
"No more double-dog dares," Crawford said.
He recounted a previous shift where it seemed everything had gone wrong. When Ifversen took over the next shift, Crawford dared him that the owl shift would be nothing compared to what they had gone through that day. That night, a lightning strike knocked out the power.
"We can get a little superstitious," Ifversen said. "No one is allowed to say it'll be a calm or quiet shift."
At the start of the shift, the crew worked in stretches of contented quiet, focused on their individual console monitors. The silence was punctuated by friendly quips.
It was 1 a.m., and a blip appeared on the screen of a console in the Main Control Room. Somewhere at Fermilab, something wasn't working properly.
Cindy Joe and Dennis Barak, two of the operators on duty, hopped in a cherry red truck and drove into the darkness to investigate.
Outside of building AP10, where the blip indicated a problem, the two operators speed walked through the rain to the front door. After they ducked inside, they spoke about what they might find.
"It could be anything," Joe said. "You never know what to expect."
The air filled with the smell of burnt plastic.
"Sometimes we even walk into a room full of smoke," Barak said. He opened a set of double doors, which intensified the stench, but the room was clear. "Or sometimes it's just a weird smell."
Joe and Barak identified that the blip was caused by a problem with the Antiproton Source's kicker, but they couldn't fix it. They called Dave Peterson, the Engineering Group leader in AD for the Antiproton Source.
Peterson arrived with a bag of tools, and darted around with the energy not typically found in someone who was called in from bed at 2 a.m.
An awful buzzer sound erupted, the result of Peterson pushing a button. He attempted to yell over it. Joe shrugged her shoulders at him. He lifted his finger. The buzzing stopped.
"It makes a noise!" Peterson declared. "It shouldn't make that noise."
Peterson and Joe took turns pushing the button and looking for the source of the racket. Eventually, Peterson spotted something unusual.
"It's arching!" Peterson exclaimed. Several silver tanks, filled with oil, lined the wall behind thick spools of cables suspended from the ceiling. On top of each tank, sat two silver plates with four black cables plugged into each one. One of the cables lit up like a Christmas tree when the button was pushed.
Peterson powered the cables down and cut open the insulation to investigate. An out of place metal hose clamp caused a spark, which resulted in a burn through the rubber, through the copper braiding and through several layers of aluminum foil. Peterson peeled away the burnt pieces. By the time he was done, there was a clean divot in the cable.
Peterson decided to call in Jim Budlong, a system analyst, to assist in the repair.
While Peterson worked and waited for Budlong to arrive, Joe snapped photos of the ruined part for the operations log book. The more detailed the notes, the better the operators can understand the particular problems faced by their counterparts that day.
Peterson finished fixing the destroyed cable around four a.m. He brought the pieces into the Main Control Room for everyone to see. Joe took more photos, now that the damage was laid bare.
It was about this time that Richard Jones, one of the operators on shift, disappeared from the Main Control Room. Fifteen minutes later, he walked in with a platter of stir-fried vegetables for the crew.
"They're great with olive oil and some spices," Jones said.
Barak took a forkful, and nodded approvingly behind him.
The crew gathered to share the snack, while keeping a watchful eye on the monitors. They chatted and discussed the events of the day, as the rest of the laboratory was just beginning to rise.