Case Study 6

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Client: ATLAS
Task: Design
Skills: Ruby
ATLAS is a particle physics experiment being per- formed with a special detector of the same name, in the Large Hadron Collider located at CERN, in Geneva. The ATLAS detector, used to study what hap- pens when high-energy protons collide, was critical for confirming the existence of the Higgs boson, which accounts for the origin of mass in elementary particles.


The ATLAS detector is one of the most complex machines ever built. It was designed by some 4,000 physicists, engineers and computer scientists hail- ing from 175 universities and research centers rep- resenting 38 countries. It has become an engine of cooperation, and as such, has required the develop- ment of an innovative system to manage the various specialist groups on the team.

Without an inventive organizational scheme, a proj- ect as complex as ATLAS would fall into chaos. The ATLAS team is organized according to an non-hier- archical system led by Spokespersons and Technical Coordinators. This structure has proven paramount for ensuring collaboration among various cultures and work styles, ensuring communication at each step, motivating each group, etc.

The ATLAS environment is grounded in the culture of science: seeking knowledge, never accepting
anything as certain, and considering the opinion of a doctoral student to be just as valid as that of a ten- ured professor. In every debate, all opinions are con- sidered, with the greatest weight assigned to those that have the strongest factual basis and the greatest support from the participating scientific community. All ATLAS members around the world can access most meetings, either in person or virtually. To simpli- fy such a complex system, the team employs simula- tions that enable them to visualize a given debate and interpret the results corresponding to each proposal.

Another hallmark of the ATLAS experiment is that technical problems that arise with the accelerator are solved through direct collaboration with the suppliers: highly flexible, medium-sized companies, many of which are start-ups. The capacity to work directly with the decision makers at each company has streamlined problem solving.

Based on its experience with the ATLAS project, CERN is endeavoring to become an innovation hub. It hopes to maximize the knowledge that has been generated from collaboration among the multidisci- plinary groups. Innovative ideas generated at CERN are not protected by intellectual property rights, but can be exploited to create new solutions and prod- ucts proposed by the companies involved.