Last weekend, F and I had the chance to visit CERN for one of its occasional Open Days, when anyone come to see and learn about the different experiments that go on underground at the various locations straddling the Swiss-French border for free.
CERN (from the original Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire or the European Council for Nuclear Research), now known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (they kept the original acronym because OERN would’ve been too ‘awkward’), was founded in 1954 and is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, hosting some 10,000 visiting scientists and engineers, representing 113 nationalities.
CERN is responsible for various achievements in particle physics research and is the birthplace of the World Wide Web. Currently, and at any point in time, there are various experiments going on at CERN (of which you can read more here). For our visit we went to see was the CMS, or Compact Muon Solenoid, which is a general-purpose detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. In short, the CMS detector “uses a huge solenoid magnet to bend the paths of particles from collisions in the LHC.”
The CMS detector is massive, and when the experiments are ongoing, the room in which it is located is sealed off until the experiments are over. This brought me some conCERN (hehe). How can they verify the CMS is functioning properly if they can’t see it while it’s fully operational? (My underwhelming knowledge of basic physics shines through here) The answer is that the data collected from the detector is analyzed and used to cross-check its performance.
Like our guide explained, the CMS is structured like an onion (in layers), and the particles that are shot through it (at the speed of light or faster) collide with one another all throughout. For more detail on the function of each layer, see here. Otherwise, here’s a nifty photo:
The CMS detector is actually part of a huge system, as can be seen below.
But enough about science. After we arrived and checked in (they recommend reserving a spot beforeheand), I was given closed-toe shoes (I happened to be wearing sandals – I should’ve known better!) and we were all given hard hats to make sure no one hit their heads on the low ceilings or on other structures that sometimes jut out at you.
Our visit began with a 100 meter descent underground (or 36 floors) in a large elevator. Allegedly the elevator never breaks down… (I sure hope so!). Our guide took us directly to the CMS detector, explaining what it does in the simplest way he could possibly think of (still a bit over my head) and then showed us a similar diagram to the one above, explaining its purpose in the grand scheme of things.
The smell of science and cables gave me a bit of a headache by the end of the visit (just about one hour) but I would still highly recommend visiting CERN at least once to anyone – especially those that are a bit more literate in all things physics. They’re definitely doing some amazing things 36 floors below – things that had and will continue to have a huge impact in our daily lives, no doubt about it.