By J. Lotufo
The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) controls the largest science experiment in the world. Established in 1954, the Geneva-based laboratory has been revolutionising the area of particle physics for decades. It conducts a handful of fascinating experiments that challenge the barriers of science, year upon year. Eight lucky students (including myself) were given the opportunity to visit this facility during Carnival, we boarded the plane in great enthusiasm and eager to investigate the extraordinary world of microphysics.
CERN operates an enormous complex including six particle accelerators, one decelerator, and several detectors; two of which we actually visited. The purpose of this complex is essentially to speed up protons until they have reached nearly the speed of light. These protons are then made to collide, recreating conditions similar to that of the Big Bang. Once they do, huge detectors capture images of the collisions, analysing all the elementary particles that are created as a result. Everything is done with incredible care and precision, with ridiculously complex levels of mathematics – which of course, we only barely understood.
What we did understand, though, is the significance of CERN not only to all those who work there, but to the entire field of physics, and even to humanity as a whole. It was a physicist we met there (whose name I am guilty of not remembering) who said it best: ‘Philosophy answers the why. But we’re not satisfied with the why; we became scientists because we want to know the how.’ Only studying the intricate world within the tinniest bits of matter can we comprehend the magnitude of the universe. If anything, that is what I learnt during my time in Switzerland.
Philosophical and scientific importance aside, it is hard to comprehend the literal scope of the experiments. The LHC, for instance, which is the largest accelerator, is a massive ring, 27 kilometres long. Staff even have to travel along it by bicycle, since doing so on foot would be highly inconvenient. Meanwhile, the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), one of the detectors we visited, is 21 meters long, 15 meters wide and 15 meters tall. With that the amount of data collected is just as astounding. Annually, the accelerators and their respective detectors collect about 30 petabytes of data – this is equivalent 30 million gigabytes, or the capacity of around 3.75 million average pen drives. So, indeed, a lot of data. Understandably, the entire complex requires a vast supply of energy. To put it into perspective, CERN uses roughly two-thirds of the electricity required to keep the entire city of Geneva running.
We also had the chance to visit S’ Cool Labs, a physics education facility within CERN aimed especially to high school students. There we had an interesting and interactive session where we built our own ‘cloud chamber’, which some may call a very nifty invention. The cloud chamber allowed us to see the tracks of moving particles by condensing atmospheric alcohol. All we needed was a fish tank, dry ice, felt and alcohol. As it turns out, atomic-level physics doesn’t need to be hard to observe. Still, the chamber is obviously not comparable to the LHC.
Of all things, our visit to CERN made me admire the very nature of human curiosity. The organisation’s fundamental questions invite people to stop and think about greater things… What is the universe made of? How did it start?
Ultimately, CERN is about looking into the distance and appreciating our world as it is, but at the same time surrendering to the instinctive need of knowing more.