When a couple of months ago the opportunity to visit Cern (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, now European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, suddenly showed up, I couldn’t believe it and wait for it to happen! When I was a child I wanted to become a scientist once grown up: I’ve always been intrigued by science, physics, and technology so that one was something I couldn’t miss for any reason. Just think about this: I’m now able to write this article and share it with you because of the World Wide Web that Tim Berners-Lee invented at Cern in 1989!
The tour was scheduled for the 1st of April so I was a little bit skeptical at the beginning, I remember last years’ pranks by Cern, I didn’t want to go there and discover it was all a joke! My contact confirmed it was real and I had nothing to be worried about so I left Milan very early in the morning, the meeting outside Cern’s reception was at 12:30.
Let’s begin with this, where is Cern. Cern is close to Geneva, in Switzerland, precisely in the municipality of Meyrin. Since it’s an international organization, part of its area is also on French soil, so you might cross the border without noticing while you visit Cern. Not a problem, though, there are no cops shooting at you or customs to cross, probably you can jump from Switzerland to France by simply going from the toilet to the sink!
If you’re expecting a shiny, modern, eye-catching building, you’re fantastically wrong. Cern is so on the edge on what it does as much is glum on how it looks. Structured like a university campus, with many facilities all over the area, you have a bright example of substance against appearance. No frills, wandering in the “campus” you feel like you’re in an industrial area where 50 shades of gray could also be the palette used to paint everything. But I guess the overcast and windy day influenced my impression.
On the inside, instead… it’s the same! Being some buildings from the ’50s, the idea you get by walking along the corridors is to be in an old school or municipal offices: wooden doors, white walls, linoleum hospital-like floor. But at least you see posters, flyers of events organized by Cern for the people who work there and also some funny stuff attached to the doors (usually geeky humor, that I admit I like).
But it was interesting, really. We ate at the canteen and we saw people like us, young scientists from all over the world, not superheroes you can think about, since what they’re doing seems like science fiction or out of this world. They are normal looking guys, working behind the scenes to make the world a better place and improve human knowledge.
Thanks to these people we can now have the web as we know it now. Cern is the place where the WWW was born, from an idea of Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. We visited the building where everything happened and next to the former office of Berners-Lee there’s a commemorative plate, that you can see here.
LHC: the Large Hadron Collider
Cern is famous also for its huge particle collider, called LHC, a sort of tunnel-like, 175 m underground structure measuring 27 km in length. It’s the largest and most powerful of its kind, also the biggest single machine in the world. Usually, it’s not possible to visit underground experiments but since we were not a “normal” tour and our guides and friends are scientists working there, we had something like a privileged tour, leaving out the various exhibitions and tourist stuff to focus on something more interesting!
At Cern there are several particle colliders, starting from the little ones, growing up to the big LHC. Every of them works for some experiment, but in the end, what they do is to cause crashes between particles at ludicrous speed and see what comes out of that crash.
If you’re familiar with Einstein’s famous formula (E=mc2) imagine two cars, loaded with an immense amount of energy and thrown against each other at 99.9999% the speed of light. The result of the crash could be a cruise or a bus and at Cern, they investigate on how and what comes out of these collisions. I know it could be hard to understand, but that’s how they explained it to us!
After visiting some facilities, some control rooms, attended to a 45 minutes video explanation in the same conference room where the Higgs boson was announced as discovered, we headed for the piece of the resistance: the CMS experiment!
Going underground: the CMS
The CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) is one of the four experiment going on on the LHC, on the four collision points located along the circumference of the synchrotron. Its purpose is to investigate in particle physics, like it did by discovering the Higgs boson, and find further elements to understand what surrounds us: the dark matter, antimatter and, why not, extra dimensions.
The building itself is like a huge hangar, with several rooms, labs, data centers and all sort of stuff you and I won’t understand no matter how we try. Then, the elevator arrives. With the pass at our neck, we are asked to wear the safety helmet, leave all our belongings and go into the elevator: next stop floor -1, more than 100 m beneath the surface.
We were in the heart of the CMS moving along narrow corridors, high-density lead doors, radiation scanners, and biometric-equipped turnstile, everything to assure the absolute safety of the infrastructure, both for the people working in it and the CMS itself. Just think that when in function, the LHC become one of the most radioactive places on earth. You want to be sure nothing happens to your health when you go there, or you die before reaching the surface. That’s why all these safety measures.
There’s a continuous buzz in the structure, due to all the machines functioning, but after a short while, you don’t notice it anymore. There are ear plug dispensers in almost every room, if you really can’t stand the noise, so you have no excuses.
Finally, we reached the long-overdue detector! How to describe it? It’s a huge 14,000 tons, 15 m in diameter “portal”, a state-of-the-art structure made of several layers that work together to detect the result of the collisions happening inside. A device as stunning to see from real as difficult to describe without using inappropriate terms, due to the technicality of everything. Furthermore, I was so amazed by what I was seeing that I missed almost all the explanations… But if you feel brave enough, you can read the 547 pages technical design report to learn something more!
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The detector was open, it seemed like a big plug, with a section soon to be connected to the other and locked with enormous steel clamps. During the execution of the experiments it’s impossible to visit those areas, so we were lucky: another portal was closed the day before, CMS should have been closed in the next days to start operating again.
A unique experience, something I couldn’t, unfortunately, understand fully, but still fascinating like few things I saw in my life. Only one thing disappointed me: when we headed back to Cern visitor center, the souvenir shop was already closed, no geek souvenirs!!!
How to reach Cern
If you land at Geneva Airport it’s really easy to reach it, since it’s 5 km away from the terminal. Both by bus, taxi or metro, in less than 15 minutes you’re in front of the reception. If you’re coming from Geneva centre, Cern is about 8 km away, depending on the traffic you’ll be there in less than half an hour. From France, assuming you’re coming from the département of Ain, head for “Gex” or “St. Genis”, Cern is on Route de Meyrin just after the customs.
When to visit Cern
That’s a difficult question to answer. Cern tours are subject to availability depending on what’s going on there so when you request to visit Cern they ask you three different periods for the tour. You can go as an individual or in group up to 48 people, but keep in mind that NO TOURS include underground visits and NO CHILDREN UNDER 13 YEARS are allowed to enter, for safety reasons.
Once in a while they organize Open Days, in which you can visit also the experiments underground, but there won’t be anything before August 2018: LHC is working!
Everything, anyway, is free of charge, both the visit of the facility and the various permanent exhibitions.
For further details please consult Cern’s website, always up to date with dates and news.
Have you ever desired to see something like that, or would you like now to see it? Let me know in the comment section!
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