CERN Hack days

Martin Akolo Chiteri bio photo By Martin Akolo Chiteri

CERN Hack days, September 2013 and February + March 2019

CERN is a Casino! … for Physics … Wanted to be a little dramatic at the beginning of the article and could not really think of a better form of entry than that :)

A pipe from the LHC accelerator outside cafeteria 1 at CERN - 16th February, 2019
A pipe from the LHC accelerator outside cafeteria 1 at CERN - 16th February, 2019

On a more serious note, CERN houses the largest and most complicated Scientific experiment ever carried out by human beings. Someone else had likened CERN to an airport and the analogy also fits quite well with what goes on at the facility. Essentially what is made available is infrastcture (runways, air-traffic control systems, ground staff, tight security equipment & procedures and so on) to carry out high-energy Particle Physics experiments (non-commercial flights) at energy levels that are not attainable yet in other laboratories around the globe. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a 27 KMs circular tunnel dug 100 metres deep underground in which protons stripped away from hydrogen nuclei (mostly) are accelerated at close to the speed of light. The actual figure is 99.999999% of light speed (0.99999999 * c). Every once in a while, the beams have their paths crossed over and a collission occurs at an average rate of 40 - 60 million times every second. The energy produced by such activities is so intense that really tiny points heat up to be hotter than the core of our Sun, in effect becoming the hotest points in the observable Universe. At the same time, new particles are created and for those few fractions of a second that elementary “daughter” particles (rarely “candidate” particles) come into existence, Physicists can get a glimpse of what the Cosmos looked like moments after it began to rapidly expand in a phase that is now referred as the “Inflation”. Amazing!!

This is in essence necessitated by the fact that there were durations when the early Universe was not transparent to light. An implication of this fact is that telescopes can only observe so far back into the very beginning of Time, excluding about the first 300,000 years of its life from what is visually perceptible. It is these kinds of simulations into origins of Time that prompted the creation of the distributed hypertext / World-Wide Web system at CERN. So much data is collected by giant detectors at collision points run and maintained by various experiments (ATLAS, CMS, ALICE, LHC-b and TOTEM) for later analysis by disparate Scientific collaborations consisting of at least 10,000 individual Scientists and Engineers in total coming from over 48 different nationalities. That fast became a source of regular frustration for the organization to keep track of what was going on and when / where / by who. The inventor of the document Web, Sir. Tim Berners-Lee, decided to focus on this problem and do something about it. Later on it was reported that CERN only hoped to change the way it works internally with the new tool that had been created and ended up changing the rest of the world for good.

Fast forward to 2013 AD, approximately 13.7 billion Earth years after the Universe had started to expand …

Inside the Universal line-mode browser 'War room' at CERN - 19th September, 2013. From the top of the table going left: John Allsopp(Australia), Remy Sharp (Britain), Lea Verou (Greece), Jeremy Keith (Britain), Craig Mod (USA / Japan), Sotirios Boutas (Greece), Silvia Tomanin (Italy), Brian Leroux (Canada / San Francisco), Martin Chiteri (Kenya), Angela Ricci (Brazil / France) and Kimberly Blessing (USA). Standing at the back of the room: Mark Boulton (Wales) and Dan Noyes (Britain).  Picture credit: Brian Suda
Inside the Universal line-mode browser 'War room' at CERN - 19th September, 2013. From the top of the table going left: John Allsopp (Australia), Remy Sharp (Britain), Lea Verou (Greece), Jeremy Keith (Britain), Craig Mod (USA / Japan), Sotirios Boutas (Greece), Silvia Tomanin (Italy), Brian Leroux (Canada / San Francisco), Martin Chiteri (Kenya), Angela Ricci (Brazil / France) and Kimberly Blessing (USA). Standing at the back of the room: Mark Boulton (Wales) and Dan Noyes (Britain). Picture credit: Brian Suda (USA / Iceland)

I had been living in Kenya, one of the countries that make up East Africa’s region, since birth for a little over 30 years before then. For two years prior to 2013, I was involved in the organizing of a Science event known as “Science hack day” locally in the country’s capital city, Nairobi. The main aim of Science hack day is to bring together scientists, artists, developers, designers, mathematicians, musicians, engineers plus all sorts of awesome people into the same physical space for a period of 48 hours so that they could build even more amazing stuff together. At the end of April 2013, I had seen a post on CERN’s website making an announcement that the free and open Web had been in existence for the past 25 years which called for a celebration of sorts. I was thrilled at the news and decided to leave a comment using an e-mail contact placed at the bottom of the article expressing my excitement and wishing CERN’s Web team good fortune in restoring the website of the first Web server and parts of the server environment for members of the general public. I also mentioned briefly what I did to earn a living (Computer Programming) as per the request on the post. I must have been the very first person to write and got a response from CERN a few minutes later sounding equally bubbly about my feedback to their (We)b-log post. In addition, the writer got in touch later and made a polite encouragement directing me to hand in an application to participate in a project to restore the Universal Line-mode browser, the second free browser authored by an intern, Nicola Pellow, in 1990 at CERN. That was on the first week of June 2013 and honestly, it was one of the highlights of my year and probably a peak in my natural life too.

A month later in mid-July 2013, another communication was made via an e-mail message by the Web manager at CERN heartily congratulating me for being one of a handful of people who had been selected to participate in a Hack day at CERN in September 2013. The goal was a restoration of the original website and parts of the first Web server. That piece of news was so unbelievable to me that for the next two months, I literally ended up checking the web page with the list of participants skeptically each morning before leaving bed for confirmation if my name had been struck-off from it and hopefully followed by an apology from CERN giving an explanation that there had been a truly random “clerical error” made in the whole selection and announcement stages of the project. I kid you not!

Eventually, I showed up in September 19th - 20th 2013 after going through the whole Schengen VISA application process at the Swiss embassy in Nairobi. It was intimidating to say the least to be in the presence of such incredibly talented Web designers and developers from all over the world at the premiere particle Physics laboratory in Europe. My sense of “impostor syndrome” consumed me so strongly such that saying that I felt wildly out of place would be a gross understatement of my sentiments during the hackathon. At that time, my task was to carry out research into parts of the Web’s early history and eventually publish the content into the story-telling website that would accompany the Universal Line-mode browser’s emulator release that was built in just two days of Web development by the rest of the team. The final output was quite decent and is publicly available.

CERN hack days 2019

This time I was in Canada and had completed graduate studies at the University of Alberta. My research group was in the UoA’s Simulations and Modeling laboratory for Construction Engineering and Management practices where I worked under the kind supervision of Dr. Simaan AbouRizk from January 2016 to May 2018. CERN had the intention to rebuild the first Web browser ever and a prototype to the current distributed hypertext system that had been written by Sir. Tim Berners-Lee in about four months on a NeXT machine from March 1989, the WorldWideWeb browser. The people concerned in planning for the project - - CERN & society foundation with the U.S mission in Geneva - - had figured out that it would be much simpler to reunite the team that had worked in 2013 on the Universal line-mode browser’s emulator back at CERN to perform a similar task like on the previous occassion. I jumped fast at the opportunity, only that this time I felt more confident about my abilities to effectively contribute to the project as compared to our previous visit. Also, we had been invited for a slightly longer period, five days, and over the Valentine’s day week which to me symbolized a gift of love and appreciation from the entire Scientific and Technology community!! As usual, we were given one task and left with absolute discretion as to how to go about it.

The WorldWideWeb (Nexus) browser rebuild gang at LHC's high perfomance computing data centre - 15th February, 2019. From left: Jean-François Groff, Jeremy Keith, Martin Chiteri, Craig Mod, Kimberly Blessing, Mark Boulton, John Allsopp, Angela Ricci, Brian Suda and Remy Sharp. Picture Credit: Craig Mod.
The WorldWideWeb (Nexus) browser rebuild gang at LHC's high performance computing data centre - 15th February, 2019. From left: Jean-François Groff, Jeremy Keith, Martin Chiteri, Craig Mod, Kimberly Blessing, Mark Boulton, John Allsopp, Angela Ricci, Brian Suda and Remy Sharp. Picture credit: Craig Mod.

Most of us performed similar tasks to what we had been engaged in during the 2013 visit. My role was to work on the story-telling website again only that this time, I got to write some bit of mark-down “code” for the static site generator we were using for the project, Eleventy. I also helped out in connecting to the replica of the NeXT machine that had been borrowed from the Science museum at Laussane for us to work with on the project over a wired ethernet network. Kimberly Blessing and I managed to get a copy of an earlier version of the WorldWideWeb (later renamed ‘Nexus’) browser from a copy of Sir. Tim Berners-Lee hard drive that has been preserved on a Compact Disc. Had to install a light-weight ftp server on my laptop, connect the NeXT machine to the network and assign both the NeXT machine and my laptop static I.P addresses inside CERN’s local area network so that we could transfer WorldWideWeb setup / UNIX binary files copied from my machine to it for installation.

Kimberly and I working on transferring WorldWideWeb browser's compiled UNIX binary files via ftp to the NeXT box for setup. Craig steadily hacks away on the foreground ... - 12th February, 2019. Picture credit: Jeremy Keith
Kimberly and I working on transferring WorldWideWeb browser's compiled UNIX binary files via ftp to the NeXT box for setup. Craig steadily hacks away on the foreground ... - 12th February, 2019. Picture credit: Jeremy Keith.

Our day started off with us watching a video of someone who had a running copy of the WorldWideWeb browser on an actual NeXT machine while giving a walk-through of the process from boot-up to shutdown. We also got to talk to and work with some of the Web pioneers, namely Jean-François Groff and Robert Cailliau. Some other highlights from our stay include;

  • A visit to a restaurant downtown to eat the best Swiss fondeu besides lake Geneva.
  • A guided tour by Dr. James Gillies of the SynchroCyclotron (SC), the oldest accelerator at CERN dated 1957, now the star of a really cool projection show at CERN.
  • We also did all our coding from CERN’s main computer room and had a breath-taking visit to the extremely high perfomance computing grid which collects data produced by all Physics experiments when the LHC is fully operational.
  • Last but not least, we had a brief tour of the Low Energy Ion Ring (LEIR) experiment after completing our project at the end of the week’s hackathon.
The oldest particle accelerator at CERN, #SynchroCyclotron (SC) from 1957 that could accelerate protons to 80% the speed of light (0.8c). The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) gets to *99.999999% the speed of light. Our nearest star system, Proxima Centauri, is 4.37 light years away. Light / a photon from SC arrives there less than 2 seconds earlier than a proton from LHC’s acceleration chambers. An original quote by Dr. James Gillies during a tour of the SC on 15 February #CERNHackDays 2019
The oldest particle accelerator at CERN, #SynchroCyclotron (SC) from 1957 that could accelerate protons to 80% the speed of light (0.8c). The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) gets to 99.999999% the speed of light. Our nearest star system, Proxima Centauri, is 4.37 light years away. Light / a photon from SC arrives there less than 2 seconds earlier than a proton from LHC’s acceleration chambers. An original quote by Dr. James Gillies during a tour of the SC on 15th February #CERNHackDays 2019

Web @ 30 celebrations

This event occured on the 12th of March 2019 to mark 30 years from the time that the original proposal for the World-Wide Web system was authored by Sir. Tim Berners-Lee. It was a fairly colourful day attended by pioneers of the Web technology and leading thinkers in the field. The host was CERN’s current director general, Fabiola Gianotti. The guest of honour, Sir. Tim Berners-Lee and his close collaborators from the early days expressed some form of disappointment with the current state of the system and urged participants from all over the world to consider the original intentions of his invention, then work towards restoring it to its ideal state. The Web had its initial design as being purely decentralized, free of surveillance and exploitation (for-profit), has real privacy, beneficial to all people regardless of physical location and status in society and totally collaborative when first conceived.

The World-Wide Web system's 30 year anniversary celebrations at CERN's main auditorium - 12th March, 2019
The World-Wide Web system's 30 year anniversary celebrations at CERN's main auditorium - 12th March, 2019

In summary

Similar to the way Physcisits get to peek at early conditions of the Universe, we engaged in a “Digital archaeology” exercise at the same laboratory where the technology came from 30 years ago. The main aim was to recreate an experience of the World-Wide Web system as what it was at its inception for many people who did not have the opportunity (luxury in real sense) to do so first hand. That for many of us is an eye-opening experience to view how such a simplistic (now) piece of technology has had a profound impact on many spheres of our lives as human beings and still continues to do so well into the foreseeable future.