Taking a bus from Geneva, David Whitley pays a visit to the giant laboratory that is taking our knowledge of physics to places it has never been before.
Into the Bond lair
It’s not often that you can get off a bus and walk straight into the end of a Bond film, but the terminus for the number 56 from Geneva looks like evil henchman central. A big rust-coloured sphere dominates the foreground, while the mountains, sea of concrete buildings and scurrying scientific types behind the security barriers vie for attention in the background.
The slightly sinister looking complex is the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – universally known as CERN (they changed the name, but kept the old acronym). It played a starring role in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, but the science has taken over from the fiction. This is where the Higgs Boson – or at least extremely strong evidence of the existence of the Higgs Boson – has just been found.
Chasing the God particle
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Of CERN’s vast range of projects, the quest to find the missing piece of the physics jigsaw has been the biggest and most expensive. It involved the construction of the Large Hadron Collider, and large is something of an understatement – it’s the biggest machine in the world by some distance. The idea behind it is to smash sub-atomic particles together at such a force that enough energy is released to replicate conditions a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.
The scientists want to find what ties nature’s fundamental forces together, and to do that, they have to fire particles round and round a tunnel network that is 27km in diameter, 100m underground and crosses over the French border.
Along with the tunnels are a series of chambers featuring colossal detectors – the ATLAS detector fills out a cavern that is 35m wide, 55m long and 40m high, for example. The whole thing has taken billions in funding, near superhuman feats of mechanical engineering and the most advanced system of cryogenics on the planet to prevent overheating. All this, and there was no guarantee that the physicists would find what they were looking for.
It’s not possible to visit the Large Hadron Collider itself, but there is a replica section of it inside the visitor’s centre. It looks like the sort of place where you’d find a cornered Sigourney Weaver in one of the Alien films.
How it works, in Microcosm
The Microcosm exhibition inside the visitor’s centre is tiny in comparison to the behemoth beneath it, but it’s still fairly huge. It’s one of those places that attempts to make science fun, explaining how we’re made up of particles that have been around for billions of years, and attempting to present quarks, protons and electrons in layman’s terms.
There are a lot of screens to look at, buttons to press and levers to yank, yet it all seems ironically low tech and fetchingly dated. Imagine being back in school and watching a science programme presented by a man with a beard and sandals or a stout, frumpy woman sporting comically oversized geek glasses – that’s the vibe.
The interactivity makes it work, although many of the concepts will fly right over the heads of most visitors.
Far more intriguing are the areas that concentrate on the work of CERN. Nuclear physics may seem like the detached realm of eggheads, where people bandy about numbers and equations with no practical use, but the click-through presentations turn this perception on its head.
Many cutting edge medical treatments – particularly in the field of cancer – have their foundations in CERN’s discoveries. Machines and tools used for research have been found to have practical, medical uses, and a whole host of new innovations will work their way into hospitals over the next ten years.
With all the machinery and data being created, huge advances in computing have also been needed. Computing technology has been developed as a by-product, and has been utilised by outsiders. The most famous of CERN’s innovations has unquestionably changed the world, and the idea for it was submitted in 1989.
Tim Berners-Lee’s boss called his proposal “vague but exciting”. By 1991, the proposal had become reality. The world’s first web page was created, and what would morph into the World Wide Web was born. Those of a geekier disposition will be delighted to know that the world’s first web server is on display at Microcosm.
Even more fascinating is CERN’s current computing project. The scientists are aiming to take things one step further, essentially turning every computer in the world into one giant supercomputer with a power and storage capacity several magnitudes higher than any current network can manage.
Called The Grid, the project is still in development, but in a few years time, we could all be a part of it. If it happens, expect to be able to download DVDs in a second and store unlimited numbers of giant files without batting an eyelid. The clickable computer displays at Microcosm explain how it would work, and the problems it faces.
It’s only when you realise that this ‘Grid’ in its current fledgling form helped crunch the data produced by the Large Hadron Collider that you start to realise the capabilities. The lines between science fiction and reality are somewhat blurred here…
This story was kindly funded by Small Luxury Hotels of the World
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Disclosure: This story was originally written for the Sun-Herald in .