CERN!October 8, 2019 in Switzerland ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C
Today's post is a bit different to our usual descriptive accounts. Its focus is niche but we hope it is still accessible, informative and enjoyable to read.
Vicky had managed to book two tickets for a guided tour of CERN. Although tours are free, obtaining these oversubscribed tickets is not easy, so we were excited when we recieved confirmation that our applications had been successful.
CERN stands for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire or European Council for Nuclear Research. The idea for a pan european organisation to focus knowledge, skills and resources into the research of particle physics, was conceived in the late 1940s with the aim of providing a force for unity in post war Europe and stopping the brain drain to america.
Today CERN is an international body focussed on discovering what the universe is made of, how it works and how it started, through experiments using particle acceleration facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider.
Based near Geneva, its vast site crosses the French-Swiss border. It is made up of 23 member states, including the UK. There are many more associate member states and nations with cooperation agreements and observer status. In total, the community comprises over 12,200 scientists of 110 nationalities, from more than 600 institutes in more than 70 countries. In other words, it's a very big deal.
Arriving early, we parked in the free car park, ate lunch and checked in at reception. Putting on our pre-printed visitor lanyards, we used the time before the tour to take a peak at the gift shop and some of the (free) exhibitions including a molecular journey through time, from milliseconds after the Big Bang to the present day. The atrium steadily filled with visitors speaking many different languages. We couldn't help checking to see whether anyone resembled the characters on The Big Bang Theory. We weren't disappointed (although no sign of Penny)! When upwards of 100 people had gathered, stewards began to direct school and college groups towards the cafeteria. 24 of us were soon ushered into a lecture room and introduced to our guide, a young woman from South Africa who'd been working on the ATLAS project for the last two years.
After watching an introductory video, she led us through the Microcosm exhibition with detailed explanations of the different experiments and equipment at CERN; past present and future. We would normally have been able to visit the ATLAS experiment, but unfortunately this was shut down for routine maintenance. Will got a lot out of the talk, but much of the more technical content went over Vicky's head. However the displays were modern, interactive and engaging so she didn't get bored.
CERN's key achievements incude the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle and the fabrication and study of antimatter via a machine called the Antiproton Decelerator. They created the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator; the Large Hadron Collider, which they are already in the process of developing into a High Luminosity Large Hadron Collider, the next stage in experimental particle physics. Oh, and the World Wide Web was invented here back in 1989!
The final part of our tour took us over the French border to the building where CERN's very first particle accelerator, the Synchrocyclotron still resides. First brought online back in 1957, the machine functioned for a good 33 years before being decommissioned and eventually opened to tour groups in 2013. Designers had made understanding its function and purpose accessible through a very effective sound and light show, with images projected directly on to the huge contraption.
With the tour over, we headed back to the gift shop to buy Will a T-shirt. We don't normally purchase souvenirs but CERN had given us so much and we hadn't had to pay a penny (or even a centime!) Our final destination was the Universe of Particles exhibition, housed within a huge wooden sphere, called The Globe of Science and Innovation. Armchairs and display cases with futuristic atom-like designs were arranged around a central cylinder, cut at an angled cross section a few feet high. Together with the curved walls it acted as a projection screen, showing a fun six minute animation on the beginning and development of the universe. Circular touchscreen panels allowed visitors to interact with various atomic discovery programs.
We came away with a real sense of awe. As atheists, visiting CERN is as near as we are ever going to get to walking on hallowed ground! The mind boggling nature of the work. The theories, research, discoveries and inventions that have been formulated, enacted and created here. The immense collective intelligence of the organisation's community. The huge and exciting potential for future progress. One thing we particularly loved was how CERN is only as successful as it is because of its international cooperation. So many brilliant scientists from different cultures all over the world, speaking so many different languages, but working together towards the common goal of furthering the human race's knowledge and understanding of the world around us. It was a truly inspiring experience to visit such a place.Read more