Thorsten Wengler can still remember exactly where he was when the Berlin wall fell in November 1989: on night guard, sitting atop a pile of arms and ammunition in the woods outside of Potsdam, Germany, alongside three of his fellow East German soldiers.
Well, in truth the other three were asleep, and Thorsten – a trained radio operator – was tinkering with a radio that was intended only for East German radio stations, trying to pick up his favourite West Berlin channel – the one with the best music.
“I was half asleep and at some point they interrupted the programme to say, ‘the wall is open, thousands of people are crossing,’” he recalls. Convinced it was a hoax, he began racing through the other stations, only to hear the same news wherever he tuned. His watch-mates didn’t believe him when he woke them, but when the take-over patrol didn’t show at 7 a.m. the following day, they knew something was up.
“Even though this is East Germany, it’s still the German army,” he jokes. “People are punctual. They show up on time, every time.” Apart from a lone food package slung over the wall from a passing army vehicle, no one did show up for another full day.
If it weren’t for that historical event, Thorsten almost certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunities that have led him to be at ATLAS today. But even though he was in the army at the time, drafted in two months earlier at the age of 19, he says the fall of the wall came completely out of the blue for him:
“I had absolutely zero, zippo, no idea that was going to happen. Thinking back now, I’m asking myself how I could have missed it, because I think the demonstrations in Leipzig were already happening,” he says. “[The political leaders] were preparing for conflict though, you could tell. If you grow up in this country, you learn to interpret what they’re saying.”
Thorsten says growing up in East Germany was a happy time for him though. With his father employed by the church, his family had less money than others around them, but he doesn’t recall being particularly aware of the fact. In any case, as the youngest in a long chain of brothers and cousins, he was the lucky final recipient of “supercool” worn-in Levis jeans from West Germany, and the envy of his classmates.
“I couldn’t say that I really suffered too much, even up until the wall came down,” he considers. “I think I was just a bit too young. The real impact on my life would have come after that, in terms of career stages.”
Having said that, he had already had to make some tactical decisions in the pursuit of further education. As the only member of his class not to sign up for the Communist Youth Organisation at age 14, “not for any particular reason other than that I was a teenager and liked to have an argument”, he unwittingly marked himself out as someone who was “politically incorrect, by definition”. This is a problem when only two or three students from each class of 25 – those with the best academic and ‘political’ records – are admitted to high school at age 16.
To get around this and make certain that he got to university, Thorsten opted for a vocational route instead, training as a machinist in a coal factory for three years. “That’s just about as unpopular a profession as you can go because it’s super-dirty and your life expectancy suffers somewhat,” he explains.
The skills he learned there have come in handy as an experimentalist, where resourcefulness and an ability to visualise mechanical set-ups has earned him respect and straight-talking from technicians and engineers. “It gives you a totally different outlook on technical problems, especially given that this was the East German version of a technical profession. It gives you a lot of experience in improvisation.”
Thorsten and the rest of his army Unit were all due to go to university following their obligatory service. When he joined up, his plan had been to go to Zittau to train to become an engineer at a nuclear power plant, but this all changed when the wall came down. After befriending many maths and physics specialists in his Unit, and enjoying the novelty of visits to the bright lights and “information overload” of West Berlin, Thorsten began to re-assess his options.
In the end, he studied for a Bachelors degree in Physics at the Technical University of Berlin, before winning a scholarship to study for a Masters on D-zero with the State University of New York at Stony Brook Long Island. “It was crazy,” he smiles. “Going to the United States is maybe something you might have dreamt about growing up in East Germany. I mean that was the country where all the movies came from!” Another scholarship followed, this time to study for a PhD at DESY with the University of Heidelberg, and right after that – in 1999 – Thorsten became a CERN Fellow, and has been here ever since, currently as Senior Research Fellow with the University of Manchester.
In his ten years here, he has managed to amass multiple titles and credits. He was Physics Coordinator of OPAL in 2003, was in charge of building and operating the first level trigger in the last combined ATLAS test-beams, and was Run Coordinator for ATLAS during the big 2008 switch-on.
“The really rewarding time as a Run Coordinator was from around mid-August 2008,” he remembers. “The way people reacted – not as systems any more but as a whole experiment – was really astonishing. At that point I really started to enjoy myself.”
Thorsten was instrumental in the decision to keep ATLAS running following the “heartbreaking” stop of the LHC – a step which not only provided a wealth of useful data for tracking and alignment purposes and oiled the wheels of the Control Room shift set-up, but also staved off potential depression about the shut-down by keeping collaborators busy. More recently, he chaired the task force outlining the analysis model for the first year of running, and as of October 2009, became Trigger Coordinator.
“Once the Trigger Coordinator position is over [at the end of September 2010], I think I’ll concentrate on physics. Because that’s really why I’m in for this,” he smiles. “I very much enjoy these jobs of making sure the experiment works, but in the end I want to do physics.” Top physics, to be precise, which he describes as “the Swiss Army Knife of the LHC” in terms of its usefulness and how interesting it is.
Despite occupying a whole run of high-pressure positions at ATLAS, Thorsten has somehow managed to keep up with a bunch of outside interests. He plays guitar in the CERN-based band Der schöne Bahnhof (the beautiful train station) who were born at the Hardronic Festival in 2000 and reunited for the recent ATLAS CD.
Since his wife, Joannah, also plays bass in the band, rehearsals fell by the wayside a bit after the birth of their two children Leo (3) and Anna (2). But now Thorsten is working on a hobby for the whole family. The machinist in him has been resurfacing as he builds a pair of electric bikes for himself and Joannah, from parts he got from a friend, ready to take the children away with them on trips. “I’m at heart an experimentalist,” he smiles. “I just like building stuff and measuring things.”