Would you like to take a tour of the universe, and also get a glimpse of the smallest subatomic particles currently known to humankind?
At CERN, the world’s largest scientific research complex, physicists and engineers from 80 countries send protons racing around a 27-km. race track at nearly the speed of light, then smash them into each other. The goal of this subatomic demolition derby taking place just outside Geneva, is to answer some of the biggest questions about our universe: How did it begin? What is it composed of? Could it be just one part of a “multiverse”?
CERN is home to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest subatomic particle accelerator. When proton beams going in opposite directions within it collide, they sometimes create new, even smaller particles that are revealing the building blocks of the cosmos.
In 2012, CERN physicists announced that they had at last observed the long-postulated, but never proven Higgs boson, a particle that’s unimaginably small in size and unimaginably huge in importance to prevailing theories of what makes up our universe. The Higgs boson (nicknamed “the God particle”, much to the chagrin of physicists) helps explain why our universe has mass.
Other experiments at CERN focus on what the universe was like at the moment of its birth. These experiments are a kind of time machine, replicating activity that took place in the first nano-seconds after the Big Bang, helping us understand the composition of our universe, including anti-matter and the mysterious theorized “dark matter” and “dark energy”.
The best place to begin your CERN visit is its Microcosm exhibit, which was reopened in 2015 after being completely redesigned. (All CERN exhibits and tours are free of charge.)
Walking through Microcosm’s hall, you meet life-size virtual scientists and engineers, dressed realistically in their normal work clothes of faded jeans and t-shirts, answering your touch-screen questions. (What is it like to work at CERN? What are the experiments all about? Why are they important?)
There are also other interactive video displays. One is an LHC simulator dashboard where you can control the temperature in the simulated collider. (At -271 degrees centigrade, the real LHC is “the coldest place in the universe”, says CERN, colder than deep space. This chilliness is necessary to enable “superconductivity”, i.e. zero electrical resistance.)
Three more fun facts from the Microcosm exhibits:
- The World Wide Web was invented here to enable scientists designing the LHC to share huge amounts of data.
- During the 10 hours that proton particle beams are “stored” in the LHC, as they travel at 99.99% the speed of light, they make four hundred million revolution of the 27-km. machine, travelling a distance equivalent to the diameter of the solar system.
- Outside the Microcosm hall there’s a sculpture garden, except the art also happens to be vintage subatomic particle devices that look like marvelous 19th-century sci-fi gizmos.
No reservation is required to tour CERN’s Microcosm exhibit.
Now for the Universe of Particles room across the street in the giant globe. In this dark, spherical room, the CERN experience turns decidedly psychedelic with a 6-minute multi-screen movie recreating the Big Bang. There are also various small displays showing the history of particle research.
No reservation is needed to visit CERN’s Microcosm or Universe of Particles exhibits.
But to take a scheduled individual or group tour that goes to working parts of CERN, you need to sign up in advance (see below).
A guided tour normally goes to two of several possible locations. You may get to visit the ATLAS visitors centre, or the control room for the AMS-02 (Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer), or the cryogenic magnet testing facility.
On the AMS-02 tour, your guide takes you to the control room where scientists are monitoring data from the magnetic spectrometer mounted externally to the international space station. The instrument, which was assembled at CERN, searches for anti-protons and anti-electrons to learn about anti-matter and dark matter. Their Holy Grail would be to detect an anti-nucleus of an anti-atom, which could indicate the existence of an anti-universe, supporting the “multiverse” theory.
On the guided tour of the cryogenic testing facility, you see where the LHC’s powerful magnets are tested. There are 1,232 large dipole magnets in the collider that direct the proton beam around the 27-km ring buried 100 meters below ground. Visitors can examine and even touch the finely machined, incredibly complex magnet assemblies as the tour guide explains them.
Someone considering a visit to CERN may fear that the mind-boggling complexity of the work being done here would result in mind-numbing, head-scratching tours only a physicist’s mother could love. Not so. Written information (in English and French) at displays is brief and clear. (Some interactive info is available in up to six languages.)
The tour guides are also adept at explaining CERN’s work in fairly simple terms. Sure, some weird concepts may not fully penetrate the black hole of your mind. (Anti-matter? Does that mean there’s an anti-you somewhere? An anti-hamburger?) But most of the information is not only accessible, but astounding. Welcome to your universe(s)!
Plan your visit
Two permanent exhibits: Microcosm and Universe of Particles: Mon. – Sat., no reservations needed, signs in English and French; up to six languages available on interactive displays. 1 to 2 hours, free.
Guided tours for individuals: Mon – Sat., up to 11 visitors, reservations required, French or English only, about 2 hours, free. Make reservations as early as 14 days in advance.
Guided tours for groups: Mon – Sat., 12 to 48 visitors, about 3 hours, reservations required, 30 languages possible, free. Reservations available as early as 3 months in advance. For student groups, reservations available as early as 9 months in advance.
Bike path: Passport to the Big Bang: A 50-km. bike path (passing through Switzerland and France) around CERN’s perimeter. Along the way are 10 interactive platforms describing nearby CERN experiments. No reservations needed, bring your own bike.
Public events in the Globe: Conferences, movies, panels, etc.
2018 programme soon to be announced.
By Bill Harby