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January 3, 2019

Switzerland: CERN


The Globe of Science and Innovation, a visitor center at CERN

Early in March of 2018 we braved the rainy cold and headed to Geneva Switzerland to visit CERN, the Centre Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire. CERN is home to Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider. This is where the existence of the Higgs Boson, the so-called “God Particle”, was confirmed. The LHC lies deep in a tunnel 27 kilometers (17 miles) in circumference crossing beneath the France–Switzerland border near Geneva. It is the largest machine ever built.

Our visit started at CERN’s reception in the Geneva suburb Meyrin. Across the road from the main entrance is the ultra-modern “The Globe of Science and Innovation”, which holds the exhibition “Universe of Particles”. It is a visually interesting though not particularly informative exhibit. Less impressive from the outside, but more informative is the Microcosm, a museum that sits near CERN’s reception. Microcosm offers exhibits inside and out of the building that shed light on the remarkable history and science behind the research facility.

“Wandering the Immeasurable”, a sculpture by Gayle Hermick sits in front of the Globe of Science and Innovation.

“Wandering the Immeasurable” is covered with inscriptions that honor the history of physics. I particularly remember Murray Gell-Mann (at the bottom), whose assigned parking spot I frequently commandeered during weekends when I was an undergrad. It’s a very small brush with fame.

There is an even better option to learn about CERN. Guided tours, which are free of charge, are possible with advance booking. We found it challenging to find open tour dates so when an available slot appeared we booked it and made a special trip from Burgundy France to Geneva just for the tour.

With such a complex subject it would be challenging for a lay tour guide to do justice to CERN’s complexities. CERN has a great solution: They use physicists who work at the facility to lead the tours. It assures that the information provided is as technically accurate as it can be.

Most of the tour time was taken seeing older decommissioned 600 MeV Synchrocyclotron. This synchrotron started operation in 1957 and was shut down in 1991. It was interesting, but size-wise miniscule compared to the Large Hadron Collider. After all, the 600 MeV particle accelerator fits in one not particularly large room not into two countries, like the LHC.

The 600 MeV Synchrocyclotron

The 26-ton Big European Bubble Chamber, which recorded the interactions of elementary particles

Inside the piston-activated Big European Bubble Chamber

It would have been interesting to see the Large Hadron Collider but it is generally off limits when it is in operation, which was the case when we visited. In particular we would have liked to see the LHC’s ATLAS detector, located deep underground near the reception. The best we could do was a visit the control room at the surface.

ATLAS must be impressive in person. The detector is 151 feet long and 82 feet in diameter. It contains around 1900 miles of cable. Pictures of the detector, with its maze of wires, plumbing, and machinery, look as if they belong in a futuristic science fiction movie.

At the end of the tour we learned that there’s hope to see ATLAS in person in the future. Our physicist guide said that visits to see the detector would be possible when the Large Hadron Collider is shutdown for maintenance and improvements. We may well need to make another trip CERN when that happens.

The Large Hadron Collider was in shutdown during our visit.

The above ground support building for the ATLAS detector

No actual pictures of the ATLAS detector were possible, so a picture of a picture will have to do, for now.

The ATLAS detector generates 1 pentabyte of raw data per second. That’s roughly equivalent to capacity of 1.4 million CD-ROMS. CERN’s gift shop sells surplus date tapes as souvenirs. Each tape contains 1 terrabyte of data; 1,000 of these would be needed for each second of data produced by the detector.

1 Comment »

  1. Awesome. Yes, that’s the word.

    Comment by ianmccauley2014 — January 4, 2019 @ 12:40 am


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