Dumpster Diving at the World’s Largest Particle Accelerator
The sign beside the dumpster warns us that we are in a radiation zone, but someone in our group has made a Geiger counter. It says levels are safe. And there’s nothing I want from that particular dumpster anyhow. We move on.
We’re at CERN, Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or the European Council for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland. It houses the Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle accelerator in the world. It’s 17 kilometers long and is housed underground. The various particle accelerators and colliders at CERN help scientists study the basic constituents of matter – the fundamental particles- by making them go close to the speed of light, then colliding them. Exciting stuff.
I’m with a group of scientists and engineers who build their own scientific hardware, so dumpster diving at one of the largest physics research centres in the world seems like an obvious group activity. We’re united for GOSH2016, the Gathering for Open Science Hardware. Hardware is a vital part of the experimental process and environmental monitoring. Open Science Hardware is open and free; anyone can obtain, study, modify, distribute, make, share, and sell the design for the hardware. Open Science Hardware holds the potential to increase access to experimental tools and ease their customisation and reuse while lowering costs, but more importantly, it can also help democratise scientific practice, increasing the diversity of people with tools to perform research for knowledge discovery and for applications such as education, technological innovation and civic action. The people at GOSH who are part of the Open Science Hardware Movement are scientists, engineers, artists, developers, entrepreneurs, hackers, and citizens. Most of us have accredited training in science, but some of us do not.
One of the reasons we have fifty Open Science Hardware geeks gathered at CERN is not just for the excellent dumpster fare. In 2011, CERN developed the CERN Open Hardware License, which allows scientists to legally license their hardware freely and openly without patenting it:
In the spirit of knowledge sharing and dissemination, the CERN Open Hardware Licence (CERN OHL) governs the use, copying, modification and distribution of hardware design documentation, and the manufacture and distribution of products.
Many of us build the equipment in our own laboratories if we are scientists. Others of us make inexpensive, do-it-yourself monitoring tools, such as Sean Bonner of Safecast. After meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11, 2011, Safecast emerged within days to provide citizens with radiation data. Safecast build a do-it-yourself Geiger counter “and began monitoring, collecting, and openly sharing information on environmental radiation and other pollutants, growing quickly in size, scope, and geographical reach.” Soon, they had mapped most of the streets of Japan and are now the go-to source for accurate data about radiation– all because of open science hardware (and a healthy dose of social organizing, of course). Sean is the person in our group with the Geiger counter making sure our dumpster diving is radiation-free.
CERN is a good fit for our group. The culture of sharing, building, inventing, and repairing your own technology at CERN is reflected in their attitude towards technological trash. No one bats an eye as we root through bins of discarded equipment. I’m assured by our guide that this is normal.
So what does trash at the home of the world’s largest particle accelerator look like?
I came away with a fan. I need one to build a new incubator for my research on marine plastics. Someone at GOSH has offered me a design I can modify for my own lab.
Since practices of wasting, repair, and scavenging in scientific and engineering contexts is understudied, I performed an impromptu interview with fellow dumpster diver and biophysicist Andrew Pelling from Pelling Labs in Ottawa, Canada, “an openly curious and exploratory space where scientists, engineers and artists work in close quarters. […] By physically manipulating and re-purposing living systems the Lab has discovered an astonishing ability of cells to deliberately adapt and respond to highly artificial and unusual stimuli. The activities in the Lab are heavily informed by the biophysical and biological sciences, DIY and a culture of manipulation.”
Max (aka Dr. Liboiron): Are you a regular scavenger?
Andrew (aka Dr. Pelling): Oh, yes.
Max: What sort of things do you scavenge?
Andrew: Anything electronic. Or anything that looks interesting, really. We have a huge storage space where we can put things.
Max: What role does waste and scavenging play in your lab?
Andrew: It’s part of our practice. It’s a chance to be creative, and just make stuff. It doesn’t even have to be useful. You can figure things out that way. We built something to give Twitter hugs– we spent three days on it. We had a pile of crap, a blood pressure cuff, sensors, a monitor… You could tweet the pressure cuff and it would squeeze and give you a hug. We had to do a lot of trouble shooting. It was a very creative process. The process is the point.
Max: What is your favourite dumpster find?
Andrew: CD ROM drives.
Andrew: Motors! Lasers!
The last stop on our tour is the local CERN recycling center. Alas, it was closed for lunch. The official recycling website is strangely silent on electronic and research waste even though scavenging is a normal activity. Though this gap is hardly surprising; recycling does not benefit scavengers like us, and the processes of recycling and reuse are miles apart, materially and politically. Recycling is an industrial practice that crushes, shreds, and pulps heterogenous materials into their constituent parts. A computer becomes bits of pulverized glass, wire, and plastics. The recycling process uses energy and virgin materials like water, and because the bits of recycled materials are rarely as pure as they were before they were reclaimed, the raw materials recovered from recycling are used in “downcycled” objects that are less robust than their predecessors and are not usually recyclable themselves (polyurethane plastics, for example, are often turned into asphalt or other end-of-the-line objects).
For us, reuse, scavenging, and refurbishment are the greater goods, not recycling. Open Science Hardware is a value-added activity. People like Andrew Pelling are looking for the lingering legacies of previous uses in his materials. He wants to negotiate with his objects, figure out what they have to offer. This is where the creative process foundational to science, fixing, and hacking come together. Rather than making more of the same, whether it’s in science or technology, the scientists, artists, and engineers at GOSH push boundaries, exceed norms, and open up possibilities. Trash is one avenue towards that goal.
Nature News covered part of the GOSH conference: “‘Open-hardware’ pioneers push for low-cost lab kit” (Elizabeth Gibney, March 8, 2016).
Read more about GOSH: Why GOSH?
Max Liboiron is an activist, artist, and Assistant Professor in Sociology and Environmental Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Liboiron is founder and director of Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), which creates DIY, citizen science technologies and protocols for environmental monitoring of plastic pollution. Many of these technologies are made of trash. All of them make good science.
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