CERN’s iconic sculpture “Wandering the Immeasurable” carved with 396 revolutionary discoveries in their native languages in physics, astrophysics, and mathematics along with their authors starting from Mesopotamian calculations and arriving at the Lagrangian Equation describing the Standard Model of particle physics

It is 8:29 am Europe time. I sit on my bed in my host family’s house, staring at my laptop screen. I had set my alarm unnecessarily early (which I never do if I can help it) and my grogginess was whisked away within a few seconds of waking (which is not how my mornings generally go). I am immobile but tense waiting for two numbers to change like a panther waiting for a deer to take one more step before it pounces from above. What could have forced me into such unnatural wakefulness and action this early in the morning, you might ask? Well I’ll tell you: I have the opportunity to visit the premier laboratory for particle physics research in the world fifteen days from today, and I am waiting for the second the clock turns to 8:30 so that the spots are opened for the tour. They usually fill within 1 minute of opening. You can bet that I had set a special alarm and 15 days in advance I was staring at my laptop on my bed in my host family’s house, my grogginess whisked away by adrenaline as I refreshed the page at exactly 8:30 am and madly typed in all the information in the form as fast as I could, then hit enter. With bated breath I waited for a response.

Ambiguous; not a confirmation, exactly. But not a rejection, which I had received the day before, so I assume it’s a success! Time to celebrate!

Something you should know about me is that I am also “dormilona” (a person who is quite fond of sleeping), so with bliss in my heart, I promptly passed back out before facing the day.

This momentous occasion was set to take place on the tail end of my spring break trip (see previous post for details). It was the part of the trip that I was most excited about in the weeks preceding my departure. Everywhere else promised vague enjoyment, but for CERN, I knew what I would be seeing and really, really wanted to see it.

We arrived at CERN around noon for our tour. If you ever go, I would get there at opening and spend the whole day, as there are two amazing, free, interactive museums and we only got to one.

On walking in, we received official-looking name badges on a lanyard, which made us feel very official, and excited. It only got better from there; our tour was greeted not by a tour guide, but by an actual physicist who works at CERN. This arrangement has pros and cons for the general public: it allows CERN to keep tours free, makes the tour completely authentic, and ensures that all questions can be answered, no matter their technical level, but then again, he was not trained as a tour guide, so we ran a little late and got a little more technical background than some less-enthusiasts might like or could easily understand. I, of course, was in a state of physics-inspired bliss.

Our tour guide explains a superconducting magnet like the one behind him

We began in a presentation room where our physicist gave us a short introduction. Amusingly, it included an assurance that the radiation levels that we experienced today would not be dangerous, and the fun fact that on a cross-country flight NY to LA, you receive about 1/3 the radiation as you would in a chest x-ray, due to the plane being above a lot of Earth’s protective atmosphere (and that radiation levels above ground at CERN are within the healthy benchmarks). It was clearly directed toward the general public because there was not too much science involved. One cool thing about visiting CERN is that the tour is free, so it’s run by a scientist working at CERN, not a professional tour guide. 

Some other radiation level comparisons

Anyway, after the intro, we walked across the street to the big wooden spherical building that houses the “World of Particles” exhibition. If I remember correctly, it was originally built for the World’s Fair and moved to CERN afterwards. We stopped outside where they have one of the solenoid magnets from the LHC on display.  There our guide launched into a longer, more science-heavy explanation of how the accelerator works, which some of the less physics-y people probably didn’t fully understand, but I enjoyed.

World of Particles building

After that we proceeded through the gate into the CERN grounds, where we first saw the side of the ATLAS building painted with the collider detector.  We went into one of the buildings where we saw a 3-D movie explaining CERN more in detail. I don’t remember it quite as well as the rest because it was outshone by everything that came next.  It included mapping out the evolution of the complex as new rings and new detectors were added, as well as explaining the mission of ATLAS, and showed some collisions recreated.  However, on the way back out we got to peek through a glass wall into the control room, where one or two scientists were supervising the current activity, which was the end of the six-week cooldown process they were running to prepare the LHC for the 2-year planned upgrade period that is starting right now (what a shame that I wasn’t able to come the next week, or I might actually have been able to go below ground).  There were also pieces of the equipment cut open so you could see the contents.

Then we headed to the building that houses the Synchrocyclotron. This was my favorite part. We walked in through a tunnel because the walls are something like five meters thick in order to stop the radiation from escaping.  The room was low-lit with blue lighting, until our guide hit a play button for the presentation.  It was exceptional because it was projected onto the walls and the machine itself, so the SC became visible out of the dark piece by piece as the voice over explained how it was built and what each part was meant to do.  It brought up important people and showed how the SC was linked into the beam track.  It also showed how the synchrocyclotron accelerated the beams.  It touched on how the new accelerators work and why they are faster.  Then at the end it showed what the SC had accomplished and ended with a lot of inspirational music and dramatic lighting, of course.  When it was over, we had about ten minutes to explore the room, which was full of artifacts like letters, equipment, and one of the old control centers with all the dials, gauges, buttons and switches.  It was fascinating.  I also appreciated and found it amusing that the presentation with the projections was clearly showing off the sophisticated technology that CERN has (and is still developing).

When the tour was over, we were shown out of the fenced-in scientific complex and we went to the Microcosm exhibit.  It was exceptional.  The first few rooms covered everything from the building of the LHC to the particles it studies, to cut open and diagrammed equipment showing where the liquid nitrogen and helium run, the superconductors, the beam tube, etc., to simulators of running the collider and adjusting parameters to initiate and focus the beam and switch the polarity of the magnets, accelerating the particles as the beam passed.  There were videos of physicists explaining how it works, how physicists do their work there and what they’ve found. 

There was another room with a not-to-scale sculpture of a quarter of a cross-section of the atlas detector, lined by mirrors so it looked like the whole thing.  Even at the size it was, it was enormous, and that’s not even close to the real size. 

Also in that room were components of the machine (different kinds of detectors, chips, magnets, etc.) and interactive screens explaining what they’re made of and how they work.  
Then there were  mock-up computer hard disk stacked shelves which had screens explaining exactly how much data is collected, selected, and analyzed.  For example, did you know that they detect a ridiculously large amount of collisions every second, which are run through a computer which chooses to keep only several million (or something like that) based on whether or not it looks the same as a previously seen collision or whether it likely contains something new?  Then that data is saved and must be analyzed by more programs and humans.  They have something like 1000 days of video, and the more sensitive the equipment becomes, the more data they need to store.

The big data processing and storage exhibit

Then there was a small room dressed up to look like an office, completely in white, in which you could select on the computer one of the documentary sections, and then another high-tech projection presentation would commence, describing dark matter, antimatter, the Higgs boson, or the expansion of the universe by projecting writing on the wall, light and images passing over the desk, the books, the picture frame, and the coffee cup there, equations scribbling out across the chalkboard and simultaneous voice over.
In the filing cabinet you could pull open the mock-up of a drawer to reveal a screen where you could select a “file” and read scientific papers published from CERN.  

A multimedia presentation on dark matter in the office room

I was distressed because I was running out of time, and I was trying to go as fast as I could to enjoy as much as possible.  We didn’t even end up getting to the “World of Particles” exhibit across the street, we went right up to closing time on the “Microcosm”.

In short, it was my favorite place on our Europe trip, and I would have loved to spend more time there.  I told my aunt that now I am inspired to become a great physicist so that I get invited back to see more of it, but my aunt responded pensively that really to go there I don’t have to be the best, I just have to be. . . mediocre or better.  We burst out laughing as I began to hope fervently to be mediocre or better.

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