The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s biggest particle accelerator, and it’s located just to the south of the Jura mountain ski slopes, just inside the border with France. CERN is the European Centre for Nuclear Research, which operates the LHC and various laboratories associated with it.
You read about places like this in science fiction novels, but you don’t often think about the nuts and bolts of this pioneering scientific research. Specifically, what’s involved in moving billions of sub-atomic particles to close to the speed of light, so that you can monitor collisions between them and tell something about the basic nature of matter.
The small museum outside the main CERN offices north of Geneva gives a fantastic introduction to some of the pioneering research being done at CERN. Before visiting CERN, I’d been with friends at Saint Genis Pouilly, a pretty village below the Jura mountains. We had walked their exotically named sausage dog in the forests of silver birch and snow behind their apartment. Through the leafless trees, you can walk round the banks of a small river to the CERN satellite facility known as ALICE, a research station about 10 km from the CERN offices dedicated to studying interactions of quarks and gluons in superheated plasmas.
As we took photos and Xi-Lin the Dachshund strained at the leash to get a closer look at a cart-horse munching on the ground outside, researchers at the facility filtered back in their cars after having what one assumed was a traditional lunch. No sitting at a desk here, munching stale sandwiches.
The Globe of Science and Innovation is a striking brown sphere made of wood and steel, just outside the CERN offices, opposite the tram into Geneva. Inside the dome is a twilight zone that takes you all the way from the Big Bang to the computer on which the first page of the World Wide Web was created. The first impression is of low-lit spheres that make you think momentarily of an Aliens movie. These luminous globes represent the particles that the scientists are trying to understand. Some of these are touch screen displays that allow you to interact with the experiments that pioneered the CERN research, others are comfortable chairs where you can listen to soundtracks in French, English and Italian that explain particle physics in an engagingly accessible way.
I was midway through listening to an explanation about string theory, and how to conceive of the existence of other dimensions, when the sound track cut out and the lights dimmed. For the next five minutes or so, we listened to an account of the Big Bang, and then of the research in particle collisions that is going on at CERN. The walls of the Globe of Science and Innovation lit up with waves of colour representing different types of particle and their behaviour.
I loved this exhibition. Did I buy the T-shirt* ? Definitely.
* The T-shirt costs 20 euros and displays one of the “basic” equations of particle physics, which is also depicted on a notebook (a snip at 10 euros).