Electrons, protons and Commodore

desy_thumbHaving studied nuclear physics, news about discoveries of fundamental particles like the Higgs boson is always something that capture my attention. News like this becomes even more interesting for me, when I find out that some of the breakthroughs in particle physics were made possible with the aid of Commodore’s PET and C64 computers.

More specifically, I’m referring to the research at HERA (Hadron-Electron Ring Accelerator), a particle accelerator at DESY (Deutsches Elektronen Synchrotron) in Hamburg, that started construction in 1984 and began operating in 1992. At HERA, electrons or positrons were collided with protons and it was the only lepton-proton collider in the world at the time. HERA closed down in 2007 but it had produced a remarkable suite of results that changed the way physicists think about the interiors of subatomic particles. It provided the first detailed view of the proton and showed how the proton is much more than a simplistic collection of three quarks. Results from HERA have also helped in planning analyses for the LHC, which would yield the biggest discovery to date, the Higgs particle.

desy_c64A scientist at HERA running simulations on the Commodore C64

The Commodore computers in operation at HERA were a range of PETs and C64s. They were used to validate certain detailed calculations that the mainframes produced based on the energy measurements in the HERA ring. They also proved invaluable in providing predictions on the outcome of experiments as they would be fed simplified formula’s that would describe the experiments in the particle accelerator and hence produce estimated outcomes, which would later be confirmed by the measurements and calculations done by the supercomputers. Furthermore, the C64s in particular were easy to use and could plot their results and graphs quite rapidly without the need for complex algorithms or programs to be developed.

So just like at NASA, Commodore computers were being used at the forefront of technology!

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