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Early CERN Computer Network Was On-line Bicycle

September 22, 2008 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

Well, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is offline again after an accident, but I managed to uncover some good bike history in the process of trying to figure out whether we were going to be here to see our bicycling future.

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, was founded in 1954, before the internet and before high-speed internal networks (even before intranets). [The Large Hadron Collider is relatively new, but CERN is not.] So how did scientists move data from Point A to Point B back before the internet? According to this CERN FAQ page, they moved data by bicycle:

Fact 26) In the 1960′s CERN’s main data network was the famous bicycle on line. Tapes of data were loaded into a basket on the bike and then rushed over to the computer centre.

In a book called How the Web Was Born, we get a few more details. CERN used to be outfitted with massive mainframe computers. At least one set of them would be for data collection, and another set would be for data processing, and they were in different physical locations. So:

Physicists would take the tapes off their data acquisition computers and rush them over to the computer centre on their bikes, where they would load them on one of the big number-crunchers for analysis. ‘It’s a hell of a bandwidth, that, when you work it out,’ laughs Gerard. The central computers would process jobs at different priorities, and the bicycle online priority came top of the stack. By 1975, however, both OMNET and FOCUS were becoming overstretched, so the laboratory decided it was time to build a general-purpose data communications network and put an end to the on-line bicycle, leaving physicists to get their exercise elsewhere.

The Physics department of CERN apparently has a free bike rental program (conditions), too. Nice.

It seems the worlds of physics and bicycles keep overlapping. The now-infamous CERN rap includes some choice bicycle lyrics:

Now some of you may think that gravity is strong
Cuz when you fall off your bicycle it don’t take long
Until you hit the earth, and you say, “Dang, that hurt!”
But if you think that force is powerful, you’re wrong.
You see, gravity – it’s weaker than Weak
And the reason why is something many scientists seek
They think about dimensions – we just live in three
But maybe there are some others that are too small to see
It’s into these dimensions that gravity extends
Which makes it seem weaker, here on our end.
And these dimensions are “rolled up” – curled so tight
That they don’t affect you in your day to day life
But if you were as tiny as a graviton
You could enter these dimensions and go wandering on
And they’d find you…

And we know that those brainy types like to get around campus on two-wheeled vehicles:

CERN staffers use bikes to travel through the Large Hadron Collider's 16-mile tunnel. The LHC is the largest particle accelerator ever built. When the machine is running, particles taken from hydrogen atoms will zip both ways around the loop at close to the speed of light. CERN

CERN staffers use bikes to travel through the Large Hadron Collider

I guess it’s not possible to make too many wrong turns once you’re inside the 27-kilometer (17-mile) radius that is the O-ring responsible for accelerating the particles. Nonetheless, I’m sure our physicist friends support our petition just the same.

This page tells us, “Weather permitting, bikes are a ubiquitous and favored form of transport around CERN.”

The Exploratorium Museum website has a Science of Cycling section that tells us, among other things, about how energy efficient bicycles are. When you look at the chart, below, it’s pretty astounding how much more efficient riding your bike is than every other form of transportation:

This fact has been stated many times in many places, but that chart really drives the point home.

Well, maybe the CERN physicists are looking to replicate the success of previous physicists in more ways than one:

All of this physics talk reminds me of a project I did back in the day: the old bicycle wheel/gyroscope/spin-it-on-a-string routine. In the following video, Professor Walter Lewin of MIT is pretty energetic. This is Lecture 24 from his “Physics I Classical Mechanics” course at MIT, now part of MIT’s OpenCourseWare Project (free online classes/course materials). If you’re interested in the physics of bicycle wheels-in particular, angular momentum, pure roll, torque, mass, gravity, radius, friction, f=ma, tension, omega, procession, frequency, and net forces and torques-then this video is for you:


The physics demonstrated in the video go towards explaining why turning on a bicycle works the way it does: non-intuitively (to turn to the right, start by turning left).

And in case you’re wondering if the LHC has destroyed the earth yet or not, you can find out here and here.

2 Comments to “Early CERN Computer Network Was On-line Bicycle”

  1. Seriously you should retake 4th grade

  2. farmville giles says:

    Quite an interesting post;I agree with most of the information your trying to put across.


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