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CERN Needs Help Captioning 250,000 Old Photos of Physics Stuff

The particle physics lab wants to know who and what is in an archive of mystery photos dating back to the 50s.
November 3, 2014, 7:30pm
Who is this dude and why is he so intent on cleaning that mirror? Image: CERN

This year, CERN—the world's largest particle physics lab, situated in Switzerland—celebrated its 60th birthday. And boy, how things have changed.

It's hard to believe that the Large Hadron Collider, no doubt the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the nuclear research lab today, only went live in 2008. The CERN of 1954 was very different.

A photo from 1966. Image: CERN

The differences—and similarities—are illustrated in a trove of early photographs that are being newly digitized and uploaded to the CERN Document Server. And in many cases, times have changed so much that even CERN officials aren't sure what's in the pictures. They're now crowdsourcing the job of providing captions for hundreds of thousands of mystery photos dating back from 1955 up to 2004, when images were first digitized.

A first batch of mystery images were released in the CERN Bulletin newsletter last month, and a second lot were just shared online today. Since that first release, the project has spawned something of an internet-wide caption contest that's reached far beyond immediate CERN workers.

Flame retardant cables being tested in 1970, but by which group? Image: CERN

Alex Brown, assistant multimedia librarian at CERN's Scientific Information Service, told me in a phone call that it all started with a bunch of negatives in the lab's basement archive. "The pictures have been taken around the site since the beginning, really," he said. "Since the early 50s, people have been taking pictures with and to and at and for the organisation, and they've just been collected over the years. We thought now would be a good time to get them digitized."

But when they started to work with the photos, they found that some had no captions, and others were lacking full details about who and what they portrayed. Brown said they all had reference numbers—"It's just that sometimes the records are a bit incomplete, or maybe slightly cryptic, because someone might have used an acronym which was in common usage in the time that's now meaning something completely different."

Anyone know who these inspectors are, captured in 1966? Image: CERN

In other cases, nicknames, typos, and mistranslations in French add difficulties. People are also often left unnamed, and while sets of pictures relating to devices often say what the object is, they don't go into detail about what the different images show. "Someone somewhere probably knows, and that's what we're trying to track down," said Brown.

Since the first release, Brown says he's been swamped with emails helping to add captions and has managed to identify every image in that bulletin. He got responses in six different languages, ranging from someone who recognised themselves to a person working in optics who was able to shed light on what one instrument was used for in his field. "That gives us a really good lead internally to know who the right person in the organisation is to ask about these things," he said.

What is this contraption? Image: CERN

One person who felt the need to share that one photographic subject looked just like his friend. The broader internet has been predictably more irreverent, though it's latched onto the game with enthusiasm.

"The people who are seeing it on reddit and Facebook and stuff, I think the number one joke has been 'flux capacitor,'" said Brown, "Which pleases me no end."

Some of the pictures have made their way onto the subreddit r/oldschoolcool, which has over 1.4 million subscribers, and r/whatisthis, which has over 100,000. But don't worry, there are plenty to go around: In total, Brown reckons there are 120,000 black and white images that go up to 1986, and about the same again in colour images. They're scanning a few hundred to a thousand every couple of days, and will continue to draw attention to those that are missing information.

Who are these guys and what are they doing? Image: CERN

As well as updating their records, it's a great project for outreach around CERN's anniversary, not to mention a fun little throwback. "One of the cutest things I've seen is just the progression of people's clothes," said Brown. "I'm looking at these pictures from the 70s and there are scientists in lab coats and flares."

With an army of CERN fans ready to play detective on each photo released, those trendsetters won't be able to avoid the fashion police much longer.