Farewell to a magnetic year at CERN

For the past four years, successive teams of Indian technical engineers have been spending a year each at CERN to test magnets for the LHC. As the operation approaches completion, three individuals tell us their experiences away from home.

Some of the Indian technical engineers in the SM18 test hall.

On a dark autumn night, a special celebration took place inside a small room in the vast test hall of SM18, the magnet test facility for the LHC in Saint Genis Pouilly. This may well be the last time this particular soirée at CERN will be juxtaposed with the tranquillity of the French countryside. Inside, beautifully arranged candles flickered with a warm glow to illuminate the faces of jovial guests. Welcome to Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights. For the past four years, there has been a community of Indian technical engineers at SM18. They brought with them their families and traditions, adding an Indian flavour to CERN's cultural mix.

The SM18 community celebrated Diwali with a party, and lit candles to represent the remaining magnets still to be tested. Diwali takes place on the date of the new moon, between the months of Asvina and Kartika on the Hindu calendar (usually in October or November).

India collaborates with CERN as a non-member State. As part of an agreement to contribute to the LHC machine construction, they provided trained specialists to carry out a large proportion of the cryogenic magnet tests. The laborious operation of testing what will be a total of 1706 superconducting magnets takes place in three shifts around the clock. When it finally draws to a close, the project would have seen a total of 90 Indian specialists through the operation, most of them working on the magnet tests. Each Indian spends exactly one year at CERN. As the remaining number of magnets to be tested descends into double figures, the Indian community is gradually shrinking in size with its members returning home.

To fulfil their roles at CERN, the technical engineers, all specialists in their own fields, had to take a leave of absence from their regular jobs. In India, Praveen Deshpande designs instruments for accelerators and lasers, while Sampathkumar Raghunathan and Charudatta Kulkarni work on the research and development of nuclear instrumentation. For Praveen, the best part about working at CERN was the interaction with different people, 'I'm exposed to many people and agencies here, which I don't get to at home working in a small design section.' The logistics of implementing large-scale projects was an eye opener. 'We were all amazed by the way things are planned. The template approach with documentation and foresight is important in a big job like this,' added Sampathkumar. Charudatta agreed, and further identified excellent leadership skills as an important lesson he learned.

Although the job of testing magnets is essentially repetitive, it is also surprisingly challenging mentally. They were able to contribute ideas to improve the operation, which were taken on board and implemented. The procedures are therefore being continuously upgraded. The technical engineers were also able to use their free time to further their own knowledge. 'Vinod Chohan (the SM18 operations team leader) initiated a secondary line of activity, as long as this did not interfere with our main job,' explained Charudatta. 'Everyone was given the name of someone at CERN who works in a similar field to contact, if we wish. This is for our intellectual development. Because we work in R&D, it is important that we are up to date with new developments, so we are not left behind when we return a year later.'

On their days off, the SM18 community organised group visits to tourist destinations. They also celebrated Indian festivals, such as Diwali, and even formed teams for cricket matches. Many of the technical engineers brought their families over, and some of their children attended local schools. For example, Sampathkumar's wife, two children, and his mother moved to Switzerland for nine months. His seven-year-old daughter attended a French school for a full academic year. 'They all enjoyed living here. My daughter also learned a lot of French. It's an added asset. She likes the practical way of teaching and learned all sorts of activities.' Despite the favourable contrast to an academically focused education in India, the language barrier can present problems for everyday life. Praveen's six-year-old son would bring home documents from school in French, which he needed help in translating from French speakers, such as their CERN colleagues. The rotating shift work made it difficult to learn the language formally, as Charudatta pointed out, 'I very much regret not having been able to learn French.'

At the end of a remarkable year, the technical engineers are looking forward to returning home, enriched by their experiences. Memories of the CERN work culture, new friendships, and the natural beauty of Switzerland will echo fondly in their minds. They hope to incorporate what they have learnt at CERN into their work, in particular the methods of coordinating and managing large-scale projects. However, the experience extends far beyond a professional level. 'I very much admire the interpersonal trust here, not just at work, everywhere. This is a good humanitarian quality. I would like to do this back home,' said Charudatta.

The magnet test has facilitated international friendships and even reunited lost ones from home. Praveen met friends he knew from 13 years ago when he was undergoing training, but had since lost touch with, as well as colleagues who work for the same establishment in India he has never met due to the size of the organisation. Some CERN employees who also took part in the magnet tests have already arranged a group visit next year to India. Charudatta was encouraged by the sense of camaraderie, 'I was able to make good friends with my European colleagues. Now I realise that all humans are equal and similar, even though there are small cultural differences. So I feel I can freely interact with people. This is the best education.' Energised by a new-found confidence, he declared. ' You really feel like you are out of a small pond, and the world is your limit.'