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Home > iSGTW 13 January 2010 > Feature - CERN School of Computing

Opinion - CERN School of Computing, at “the Mecca of physics”


A 1585 woodcut showing Göttingen as seen from the west. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons; click to enlarge. 

(Editor’s note: For decades, CERN has held an annual summer school of computing, with the latest one taking place in Göttingen, an historic German university town known as “the Mecca of physics” from about 1900 to 1935. Below, the school’s director describes what it was like to host this event at the same place where Enrico Fermi, Karl Gauss, Werner Heisenberg, Robert Oppenheimer, Wolfgang Pauli and Max Planck once taught.)

Never in the history of science has a single city attracted virtually all of the prestigious scientists in a major discipline at such a key moment in its evolution. Even those who did not work at the university, like Bohr, Einstein or Schrödinger, were frequent visitors to Göttingen to meet with their colleagues. To date, the University of Göttingen has had 45 Nobel prize laureates in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. In just physics and chemistry, Göttingen has won more Nobel prizes than the great Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It was therefore with considerable emotion that, as director of the school, I opened the 32nd CERN School of Computing (CSC) on 17 August in the historic Pauliner Kirche church.

To celebrate this unique venue, a special Göttingen physics history afternoon was organized on Saturday, 22 August 2009. A tour of the old town was organized to show the places where some of these famous Göttingen scientists lived and worked. More than 50 participants visited the original mansions of famous physicists in the Eastquarter, the Gauss graveyard in Albany Park, the Gauss Observatory and the old university library. The afternoon ended with a presentation about Göttingen’s scientific history, followed by a talk from the ministry of Science and Education
in Germany.

A young Enrico Fermi, a few years after he was at the University of Göttingen.  Image courtesy DOE, click to enlarge. 

A place for scientific computing

But the CSC is not about physics; it is about scientific computing. Fourteen lecturers delivered 49 hours of lectures and hands-on exercises, with the 50th hour consisting of presentations given by students selected after a call for proposals.

This year, the program underwent a significant facelift: more than one-third of the program was entirely new and the rest was significantly updated:

• Data technologies: this field is expected to be one of the major challenges in the coming years, not only in scientific but also in general-purpose computing. This theme tackled a whole range of topics, such as status and prospects of storage devices, storage architecture, models,  performance and reliability.

• Data analysis: Another new series, this focused on aspects such as visualization, Bayesian probability and multivariate analysis.

• Virtualization and cloud technologies: this was the final newcomer, addressing one of the current hottest topics.

This innovative program was complemented by our seven other tried-and-tested series, covering: physics computing, root, secure programming, security, computer architecture, software engineering and networking.

Like any academic institution, CSC has exams. This year, 69 students attended the school and 63 of them successfully passed the final examination and received the CSC Diploma as well as the Georg-August University European Certificate of Credits (six ECTS credits awarded). Since the creation of the examination in 2002, CERN has awarded this fully recognized CSC Diploma to 453 students.

It is 34 years since the school was last held in Germany. The German co-ordinating Committee for Particle Physics was approached and launched a national contest to select the hosts.

An unprecedented number of proposals were received (six in total), and following a shortlist and site visits, Göttingen was selected. Two German institutions (the Helmholtz-Alliance and Göttingen International) provided financial support for participants. This resulted in partial or total grants for 15 students: 10 from faraway countries and five from Germany. These contributions help to maintain the global dimension of the school, and this year the participants represented 31 different nationalities.

Participants in front of the Gauss Observatory. Image courtesy CSC, click to enlarge.

Physics and physical activities: a success story

Introduced a few years ago, the sports program of the CSC has been a growing success. The idea is to offer two- to three- hours of sports every afternoon to those who are interested — an opportunity for participants to discover a new activity or enjoy old favorites, offered at nearby facilities. Several of the lecturers acted as sports instructors or organizers.

This year we were delighted to see a dozen students take their first climbing lesson, another dozen start tennis, a couple of students try swimming, and ladies playing football (soccer) for the first time. Basketball and volleyball complemented the daily activities.

While optional, 95% of the students participated in the sports program during the first week.

In addition to this program, a special sports day has been organized since 2007. Participants could select one of five proposed activities, of decreasing physical difficulty. This year the choice was between rock climbing (highest level), river canoeing, the “skyrope” adventure park, biking,  hiking, or resting (lowest level) at a wellness center.

This sports program would not be complete without the traditional contests: a football match, a  mixed-doubles badminton tournament and — new this year — a tennis tournament.

The aim of the program is not only to provide a healthy work/life balance before the late afternoon working sessions begin, but also provide additional opportunities for interactions between students, lecturers and organizers.

After all, social networking is another goal of CSC.

François Flückiger, CSC school director, and Dan Drollette of iSGTW. A version of this story originally appeared in the CERN Computer News Letter. Information on applying for the next CERN School of Computing event will be posted in the “Announcements” section of iSGTW when available. For more about CERN, see the description in GridGuide.

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