For a long time it’s been an ambition of mine to visit CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which straddles the countries of Switzerland and France. Here they use the largest scientific instruments in the world to smash particles together at the speed of light in the hope of finding the smallest known things in the universe, the particles that make up matter. “CERN” comes from the acronym for the French “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire”, or European Council for Nuclear Research, which was founded in 1952 with the task of establishing a world-class physics research organization in Europe. When CERN was founded, its goals were around the research and understanding of what laid inside the atom, hence the term “nuclear” in the name.
In July I discovered that CERN were putting on two open days for the public before major upgrade work, so I knew I had to get there somehow! The lottery for underground tickets to see the legendary Large Hadron Collider, detectors and other experiments were hard to get hold of, as they only randomly released a few a day over the course of a month. As you’d expect geeks from all over the world were sitting like me refreshing the page constantly, to get the chance to grab tickets each time they released a few to the public, consequently they were snapped up within a couple of minutes every time.
Eventually I was lucky and grabbed a couple of tickets for ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment). The 10,000-tonne ALICE detector is 26 meters long, 16 meters high, and 16 meters wide, and is used to study quark-gluon plasma. The detector sits in a cavern 56 meters below ground close to the village of St Genis-Pouilly in France, receiving beams from the LHC.
So in September I went to Geneva to visit CERN, as you’d expect it was a wonderful and awe-filled experience. There was so much to see and so many brilliant physicists, computer scientists and other experts who gave their time to conduct tours, give amazing talks and answer questions. Of course my highlight was going underground to see ALICE, which was breathtaking and to see part of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator ring itself which is 27 miles in diameter. Also seeing the architecture, signs and small things like the bikes and scooters that the physicists use to move around, which gave one an idea of scale.
We also visited Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) Payload Operations Control Centre (POCC). The AMS is a particle-physics detector that looks for dark matter, antimatter and missing matter from a module which is attached to the outside of the International Space Station (ISS). It also performs precision measurements of cosmic rays and 17 billion cosmic-ray events were collected in the first year! Data is received from the module on the ISS by NASA in Houston, and then it is relayed to the AMS Payload Operations Control Centre (POCC) at CERN for analysis. This experiment is run by a collaboration of 56 institutions. The detector measures 64 cubic metres and weighs 8.5 tonnes, was assembled at CERN.
It was a fab treat to have a look round CERN Control Centre (CCC), which combines the control rooms of the Laboratory’s eight accelerators, as well as the piloting of cryogenics and technical infrastructures. It was boggling to see all the control stations and monitors, I also noted all the empty champagne bottles, which together made a timeline of CERN’s milestones and achievements.
The Microcosm sculpture garden is wonderful and features some amazing examples of former CERN experiments shown as sculpture. Plus the many exhibits and kit on show which are too numerous to mention in a short blog post. There was even a music festival comprising of CERN staff bands, which was also fabulous. I didn’t get to see everything, there was far too much to fit in my one day at CERN, but here are a few of my photos of my most amazing day at CERN.
Microcosm sculpture garden made of old CERN experiments.
Oh yes, I finally got my paws on a couple (well 3) official CERN t-shirts, which completed my trip as I’d been after a CERN t-shirt for many years, in fact I’d even taken to designing my own celebratory t-shirts for the switch on of the LHC back in 2008!