CERN Ė Science or Tourism?
CERN is a research centre of international significance.
But it also makes for a fascinating tourist stop,
as Jane O'Reilly found out.
Earlier this year I had the privilege of visiting the CERN site at Geneva in Switzerland. For those who donít already know, CERN is the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. CERN began in 1953, when 12 founding states (including the UK) signed an agreement that would see them work together to fund key scientific research. Over time, more countries joined, each adding their own financial contribution, and a large hadron collider (LHC) was built underneath France and Switzerland. Their aim was to explore particle physics in a way that had never before been possible. In essence, they are trying to recreate the conditions of the big bang. Much of what is currently understood about the origins of our universe have been demonstrated mathematically but never seen in action Ė the LHC changed all that.
Inside a very long circular tube, a focussed beam of protons and ions is fired through a vacuum, using huge electromagnets to push them into a concentrated stream (particles are charged and so are repelled by the magnet, which effectively pushes them closer together). Travelling close to the speed of light, the particles collide, and what happens when they do is recorded. The data gathered is then analysed by physicists, not just onsite at CERN but all over the world. The most famous particle to have been created at CERN is the Higgs-Boson. First proposed in 1964, it was created in the LHC in 2012 and British scientist Peter Higgs FRS FInst.P was awarded a Nobel prize in 2013 as a result.
Getting to the CERN site from central Geneva is easy, as itís only a short tram ride away (and everyone travelling to Geneva on holiday gets a free pass for public transport). The site itself is split into two halves, one in Switzerland and the other a few miles up the road, on the other side of the border. At the Swiss site, there is a museum focussing on the history of CERN and the work done there: it made for a very good introduction.
At the French site, we were able to see a bit more of the actual workings of the site, included a guided tour of some parts of ATLAS. Although it (unfortunately) isnít possible to go into the tunnel and see the collider itself, there is a mock version which gives idea of the scale and set up, and we were able to see the huge electromagnets used to direct the proton beam inside the tunnel. Although I had read about them, seeing the sheer scale of them was something else, and we were given an excellent talk by one of the scientists who monitor them, explaining their design and how they work.
After that, we travelled to a different part of the site to learn about the ALICE project. For part of the year, lead ions are beamed into the LHC, and when they collide, it creates conditions similar to what is believed to have existed immediately after the big bang and just before the particles that make up the universe were formed. It is quite literally looking at how the universe was made, and I donít think science gets much more exciting than that.
If you are a physics buff or have a teenager with an interest in STEM then it is well worth considering a city break to Geneva with a trip to the CERN site included. Geneva is a convenient city to use as a base when visiting the CERN site at Meyrin, which welcomes visitors (you will need to book in advance). Transfers from Geneva airport to the city centre are easy as there is a direct train (again, free for tourists). The city itself is relatively small but very pretty, and there is a youth hostel for those wanting to keep costs down.
For more information see: https://visit.cern/.
Jane O'Reilly is the author of the space operas Blue Shift (Piatkus, 2017) and Deep Blue (Piatkus, 2018). Her next book will be the final part of the trilogy, Blue Planet (Piatkus) due out in 2020. She also is a member of the SF² Concatenation book review panel.
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