Accelerating Science

The Upper Sixth Physics trip to CERN began alarmingly early at the start of the half-term holiday. We were in Geneva by 11:00a.m.

The lake was just a stone’s throw from our accommodation and a walk into the old city followed by a bus ride along the opposite shore and a water-bus trip across the lake just as the sun went down was spectacular. We had an enjoyable meal in a local restaurant and then a stroll in an interesting downtown district with a visit to a tiny bar run as a cooperative in a formerly abandoned old house. Who would have thought that one of our party would quickly strike up a conversation in Mandarin with one of the locals!

CERN is a twenty minute tram ride away from the centre of Geneva and we arrived there on Saturday morning with time to visit the two permanent exhibitions, which are called the Universe of Particles and Microcosm. Our tour began after lunch with a fascinating and entertaining introductory lecture by Professor Erwin Bielert. We learnt about the early days of CERN in the 1950’s and 1960’s and saw images of physics luminaries such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who both contributed to the foundation of CERN. Images of early committee meetings of suited men wreathed in pipe smoke reminded us that society was rather different back then. Our group of 11 male and 10 female physicists continued to listen avidly, as we learnt about CERN’s more recent history, which includes the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Werners-Lee and then, of course, the discovery of the Higgs boson. Hearing that physicists are one of the smallest groups of specialists at CERN (the biggest group are engineers) was surprising and a reminder that essentially CERN is a piece of physics equipment (albeit a very large and complex one).

After our lecture we stepped across into France and visited the Antimatter Factory which showcases decelerators (rather than accelerators), creating and taming antiprotons for use in antimatter experiments. Like a miniature version of the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), the decelerator is a ring composed of bending and focussing magnets that keep the antiprotons on the same track, but rather than speed them up, strong electric fields slow them down. The concept of antihydrogen in a gravitational field (a proposed study for the GBAR experiment) potentially being able to fall upwards was intriguing and continued to exercise the minds of some of our group into the early hours! We next visited the nearby data centre and learnt about the unique difficulties of dealing with unimaginably vast amounts of data collected from the various detecting parts of the LHC. This finished with a sudden and unexpected view of the vast hangar of massed ranks of main frame computers, which we hadn’t realised we were in! What an amazing day.

Sunday was a welcome day of rest and free time and our group dispersed to see more of Geneva in the morning, before we all had lunch in the delightful botanical gardens. This was where the staff were persuaded to ride on the rather elegant carousel ride. Later in the afternoon, we briefly visited the nearby United Nations headquarters and the poignant broken chair statue before heading back to the airport and home.