Underground, Overground – Exploring Unseen Things At CERN Open Day

The CERN globe

After inadvertently exploring the skies in hot air balloons and cable cars the day before (thanks for the free ride, Mr. Balloon Man!), a certain inhabitant of South London (living in reasonably close distance from Wimbledon Common) felt that it was more than appropriate to spend the day underground at CERN

The Open Day was supposed to start around 9pm, so I got up around 5:30, partly due to my snoring and sleep-walking room-mates at the youth hostel, to be there at least two hours early (no, I did not have a beach towel on me…). According to the website, ‘only’ 15,000 people would be allowed underground (in the end more than 50,000 people turned up!), so if all of Geneva plus its surrounding towns and villages plus all the visitors from abroad were moving their atoms into the same direction, I’d better be there before everyone else… The plan was good – the reality wasn’t. On the other hand, the trip became a whole lot more adventurous!

CERN physicist can calculate everything but…

At breakfast, I met a German physicist who also wanted to go to CERN. Initially I had wanted to see the ATLAS detector at Meyrin, but he warned that the main base would probably be too crowded. So we decided to visit the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment and the tunnel at Cessy. At the bus station, we asked the driver whether he was going to the Cessy shuttle bus point, and he answered ‘yes’. During the ride, however, he changed his mind and dumped us in the middle of nowhere with the comment: ‘I’m not going there on Sundays’. So there we were – a tiny village (I think it was (near?) Ferney-Voltaire) on a Sunday morning with no public transport, no taxis and not even a police station open (the telephone box did not work either). After running around to find out if at least a bakery was open which could supply us not only with edible survival rations, but maybe also with taxi numbers, I saw an estate car which looked a bit like a London minicab. I waved my arms around manically to stop it, and it really did stop! Was our mission saved?

What people get up to before 9am in the morning…

The car driver was, against our expectations, not a cabbie, but a ‘Brit’ nevertheless – and he volunteered to take us to the shuttle bus point for Cessy! (Thank you!!) At the shuttle bus point we met our next challenge: much more people than buses were there. Luckily, the second bus stopped and opened its doors right in front of us, so we arrived at Cessy reasonably early. As you can see in the picture, others had arrived early, too (as it seemed, a mixture of physicists from all over the world and local people who were interested in ‘what they were living on top of’), so by the time we got to the ticket stall, all the tickets for the tunnel had gone, and few tickets for the CMS experiment were remaining (we only then found out these were two separate things). Specific times were attached to the visits, which resulted in a great deal of half distressed, half entertaining bargaining activity amongst the visitors (somehow we ended up with a ticket for the tunnel as well as the CMS experiment). I envied the people with the ‘press’ armbands and was seriously considering smuggling myself in as a journalist – after all, isn’t blogging a form of journalism?! ;)

While waiting for my turns, I had many opportunities to talk to other visitors as well as to CERN staff, e.g. about the ‘artwork corner’ or the different kinds of hands-on activities that were offered during the day. I received an interesting explanation from a Dutch scientist of the difference between Newtonian and quantum physics (‘in the Newtonian Model, when you smash two things together, they bounce off each other or break – in quantum physics, when you smash two things together, you get a banana’) and listened to the explanations of a ‘supercool’ physicist (with tinted glasses!) at the ‘Ask A Scientist’ point. I also found out that CERN scientists mostly go underground for ‘sight-seeing’, too, as they tend to work overground, that the set-up in the tunnel can be guaranteed a precision of 0.1 mm on 27 km (!), and that each experiment has a rugby team associated with it (they were having a match that day). Colliding physicists – interesting!

Generally, I gained the impression that the people I talked to who live on or near the CERN site feel like a community – regardless of whether they work at CERN or don’t. There was a distinct, almost utopian spirit about them that I found fascinating. It seemed as if CERN’s tunnel ring was more than just a physics experiment and was binding people together. Some people even described themselves as ‘truly European’. A certain CERN intoxication and cheerfulness affected everybody regardless of where they came from. This was materially noticeable in the hive surrounding the souvenir stall where the superconductor ‘relic’ keyrings (‘take home a piece of CERN’) were sold out practically within the first hour and new key rings had to be delivered from the main site. Lots of anecdotes were shared among the visitors about their relationship with CERN and their reasons for attending the Open Day.

The CMS experiment at CERN

Finally, it was time to see the CMS experiment. We all received a red hardhat (you could buy orange ones as a souvenir at the shop!) and were whisked into a lift that would have been quite spacious if there had not been about 24 other people in it. Underground, the CMS detector awaited us. Rather than looking like something out of an H.R. Giger painting, it looked more like an oversized electromagnet with lots of integrated circuitboards – which probably isn’t too far from what it is (here, you have a social scientist speaking ;)). The detector was extremely colourful and had quite a few tags on it telling you the origin of the respective components. A lot of people could not believe the scale of the detectors needed to find particles whose tiny size (if you can call it that) could hardly be imagined. The scientist who explained everything to us (in French) had to hurry us quite quickly through the site, because so many people wanted to see it. When somebody asked about costs, she told us that not the big things are the expensive part of the experiment, but the small things (e.g. crystals). A few people living near the site asked lots of questions about possible radiation emissions and other phenomena that could be a danger for them.

When our time was up we ascended again and gave up our hardhats to the next group. I was just in time to witness an argument between a CERN physicist and a visiting physicist about the experiment to come. The CERN physicist argued that ‘everything is predicted, each part is tested’ and that the real problem will not be a technical fault or software bug, but the interpretation of the results. The other physicist remained sceptical: ‘I have never seen anything without bugs!’ When they parted (on friendly terms) I went over to the queue for the tunnel, which was near some coffee machines (= people accelerators?). After getting a ticket through a combination of luck and cunning on somebody else’s part (thanks!!), I was able to descend once more (not only morally…). In the much smaller lift, a woman joked if the accompanying physicist could talk a bit slower because she is blonde!

The tunnel at CERN

The descent strongly reminded me of the time I visited the National Mining Museum near Wakefield, only that the feeling in this part of CERN was infinitely more weird, which I had not expected at all! My head and my legs felt very funny (in addition to my tiredness and hunger). I was convinced the floor was moving and vibrating, and I could hear a disorientating high-pitched noise. The physicist tells us that this is normal and has to do with claustrophobia. Erm… A few moments later, a child who felt similar symptoms has to be sent up again. I try to hang on, and successfully did until the end of the tour. The tunnel itself was quite a marvel, as a 27 km long experimental set-up should be. Nevertheless, I was glad to get to the surface again. What a trip!

And yet another adventure was to come – travelling to the main site at Meyrin! At the information, I asked if there is a shuttle bus. ‘No,’ is the answer, ‘only to the Cessy carpark’. I further inquired whether it would be possible to get a taxi or a local bus. ‘No, you’ll have to hitch a ride with someone’ was the answer. Great – another attempt at hitch-hiking! Only this time it would be intentional… and without the help of Uma-Thurman-style magic thumbs! Just in case nobody stopped for me, I started walking into the direction of Meyrin (about 10 km away). Fittingly, somewhere near a restaurant called ‘Atlas’ (after the detector?!) yet another British gentleman (and his daughter) stopped to give me a lift – all the way to CERN’s main reception! (Thanks!!).

At Meyrin, so much stuff was going on that I could hardly decide where to go first. I decided to attend two half-hour lectures, one on the internet by a co-creator of the internet himself (where I learned that the idea of the internet was deemed ‘vague but exciting’ at the time of its conception…), and one on dark matter, which drew unexpected parallels with children’s discoveries. Afterwards, I stormed into the refectory and, seeing that not only was there a decent vegetarian dish on the menu (Thanks!!), but also the prices were much more student-friendly that those of Geneva, I caught up with several days lack of calories. Afterwards, I felt re-invigorated enough to confront more information input. My next stop (bumping into my fifth British scientist) was the ‘Microcosm’, CERN’s permanent (partly hands-on) exhibition, which led me to the queue for the Atlas detector. As I had already guessed, there were no more tickets, and I was too exhausted to try to sneak my way in. As I could not find the art exhibition or the people from the ‘improvisation society’, I went to a debate on ‘CERN and the Environment’ in CERN’s cathedral-like ‘Moiré’ Globe. Most questions focused on what had been in the media, e.g. ‘what is more important – finding the Higgs particle or preventing an apocalyptic disaster’, ‘is the magnetic field dangerous’ or ‘should Climate Change not be the preoccupation of so many scientists’. Some people asked questions about experiment results and the scientists themselves – how soon results can be expected and who makes the most interesting discoveries. The latter question was answered with ‘les jeunes’ (the young people). Ah, the recruitment drive! ;) The Open Day ended there, but the discussions continued on the buses and trams into town (thankfully, not another hitch-hiking session).

There is a small BBC clip about the Open Day here.

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One thought on “Underground, Overground – Exploring Unseen Things At CERN Open Day

  1. Pingback: DESY – Where Gods, X-Rays, IceCube(s), Dinosaurs and Nivea meet « Mutable Matter

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