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We're all mad here..

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I have now visited CERN!

One of my greatest dreams since I realised I wanted to be a Physicist was to go to Geneva and visit that lab of all labs: CERN. Potentially work there one day. This Easter break, the Physics Society Chaos helped that dream come true: I have now visited CERN. Eek! :D

The 20 hour coach journey to Geneva was torturous as only coach journeys can be; the seats were slightly too small, I only realised how to recline said seat at 4am, and the coach loo was too close to my seat and people were walking past me all night. We finally arrived in Geneva at around midday local time, staggering slightly from dead legs and bleary eyed from lack of sleep.. A couple of us went for a walk to clear our heads and see a bit of Geneva before we could book in to the youth hostel. It was a nice day, we saw some of the sights- the Water Jet, a fountain of water in the middle of a lake that pumps out 500 litres of water a second, and the Flower Clock, which I forgot to photograph. Ironic, really, since it’s the most photographed site in all Switzerland..

I was too exhausted to really do anything else the rest of the day, so after a meal at the hostel (16 Francs, apparently a bargain by all accounts) and some pretend socialising I retired, sleeping away the small hours and missing the nightlife in Geneva (I’m glad I slept instead, I was far more awake the next day…).

The following morning brought us to CERN bright and early, leaving the hostel at 8.20am (joy of joys… I wasn’t that awake!) The Globe, an interactive museum with the history of CERN and information about the work that goes on there dominated the right hand side of the road, the small buildings to our left our destination. Once inside, we were led through a veritable maze of corridors, ending up at the auditorium where we had a 45 minute presentation about CERN and the 4 main experiments being conducted there; CMS and ATLAS, looking at the particles produced when two protons collide (currently famous for finding the Higgs Boson), ALICE, looking at colliding lead particles to observe the quark-gluon plasma, and the LHCb, which is looking at the b quark and why there is lots of matter but barely any anti-matter in the Universe. Awesome.

Walking back through the maze, 59 Cardiff students chattered noisily about the presentation, silencing quickly upon our arrival back to reception. Now to the best bit: we were going on a tour of the ATLAS experiment, just over the road. Our guides checked; did we all have our passports? We would be going over the French border, to see the magnet testing area straight after seeing ATLAS. We did.

Just past the Globe, over the road, there is a big green gate, and through the green gate is a gaily painted building, decorated with schematics and diagrams of the ATLAS experiment. Inside, the main control room has sheets of glass in front, so the visitors can see the banks of computers and the TV screens that control the 40 meter long and 25 meter high machine. Currently inactive, the few people inside the control room are debating something gathered around one of the six banks of computers, gesturing at the screen. Our guide explains the need for the six control stations; data collection, data deletion, ensuring everything is working… One of the desks has a large collection of rubber ducks guarding it ;)

The gaily painted building

Moving upstairs, we watch a short film about the building of ATLAS. 100 meters under Geneva (and a bit of France), protons collide and are photographed by the equivalent of a 100 megapixel camera 20,000 times a second. No wonder the data has to be sorted; there is no way a computer could store that much information!

Emerging blinking into the sunlight, it is only a brief drive to the magnet testing building, passing the Swiss and French border posts. The huge buildings look lonely sitting in the French countryside, all on their lonesome. Currently empty of people, the magnet testing facilities are used when the new magnets arrive from the USA, China or Germany before they are put in place around the 27km loop 100 meters under the French-Swiss countryside. (Actually, because the tube needed to be on base rock, the distance from the service varies from 75-125 meters as the rock is at a 5 degree tilt. This is so if there is an earthquake- a rare event in Switzerland!- the tube will all move together and therefore not break. Physicists need to think of everything before they can build a new experiment..)

I swear Physicists just make up funny names for things because they get bored.. We obviously have a great sense of humour ;)

A Large Ion Collider Experiment

We didn’t actually get to visit ALICE, because it was too far away and we’d only booked the main building and ATLAS, but my friend is called Alice so I was cracking Alice jokes all day ;)

The Globe over the road was also really cool; everything in there was round or spherical. There was lots of information (and it was reeeaally dark) but perhaps the coolest thing was the round seat things, which when one sat in them and pressed the ‘English’ button on the side, a voice spoke about Life, the Universe and everything. There were five, and they spoke about the questions that the data from the CERN experiments were raising. It was awesome.

Finally, one of the things that really amazed me when we were there was the sheer size of the thing. I mean, the experiments are physically huge, but the whole thing is massive; with 38 member states, plus some countries waiting to become member states, and other countries who use the data from the experiments.. There are over 16,000 people working at CERN, and of them 70% are engineers. Woah. And of the Physicists, something like 2% are physically at CERN. Crazy. Maybe one day I’ll be one of them.

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