Case study: computing
Particles of the future
Federico Carminati, computer physicist at CERN openlab, talks to Tushna Commissariat about career opportunities in high-energy physics and computing
C E R N
As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, the spotlight is on pioneering computer scientist Tim BernersLee, who developed the concept at the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva. He originally studied physics at the University of Oxford, but Berners-Lee is far from the only physicist to have had a fruitful career in computing. Just ask Federico Carminati, who is currently the chief innovation officer at CERN openlab. This is a public–private network that links CERN with other research institutions – as well as leading information and communications technology companies s u c h a s Goog l e , I BM and S i emens – t o i n v e stigate the potential applications of machine learning and quantum computing to highenergy physics.
With a keen interest in natural sciences from childhood – he begged his parents for a microscope, and wanted to study animals – Carminati’s interest in physics peaked towards the end of high school, thanks to his mathematical prowess. He graduated from the University of Pavia, Italy, in 1981 with a Master’s degree in physics. Strangely, there were no Italian universities offering PhDs in physics at the time. “So, I decided to start working immediately. My first job was at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where I worked as a high-energy physicist, on a muon-decay experiment,” Carminati says.
He spent a year working at Los Alamos, before his contract ended and was not renewed. “I began writing a number of letters looking for a job and, at the encouragement of my wife, I wrote to Nobel-prize-winning physicist Samuel Ting. Honestly, it was a very long shot and I didn’t think I was going to receive any answers,” he recalls. Luckily,
Data deluge Federico Carminati speaking at a CERN openlab quantum-computing workshop.
the eminent physicist found Carminati’s CV interesting and wrote to ask him whether he was “better” at computing or hardware. “I said I was better in computing. So he put me in contact with the California Institute of Technology,” where Carminati spent the next year, before being hired by CERN in a computing role.
Carminati has been at CERN since 1985, where he has held a variety of jobs, the first of which was at the CERN Program Library, which handles the organization’s data. The library essentially started as a collection of programs written for physicists at CERN experiments. “But it became a worldwide standard for computing in high-energy physics, “ Carminati says. “My task was to coordinate the development of this very large piece of code, and to distribute it. This was before the Web existed, so distributing it meant shipping large reel tapes of data.”
Later, Carminati became responsible for one specific part of this library – the GEANT detector simulation program. The idea here was to carry out detailed and precise simulations of the very high-energy experiments they hoped to run on actual detectors in the future. Carminati worked on this until 1994. “I then decided to join the small team that was set up by the CERN director and Nobelprize-winner Carlo Rubbia, who decided to start working on the design of a new kind of reactor that would combine the technology o f nu c l e a r - p owe r r e a c t o r s and o f h i g h - e n e r g y accelerators.” Carminati worked as part of this small team for the next four years, which proved interesting even though the team’s prototype never saw the l ight of day.
From 1998 to 2012, Carminati worked on the ALICE experiment, one of the four main d e t e c t o r s a t t h e L a r g e Had r o n C o l l i d e r (LHC). Among his roles was that of computing co-ordinator, which meant that he was in charge of designing, developing and coordinating the computing infrastructure for this experiment. “I was also very involved in the development of CERN’s computing gr id,” he says.
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