By Chené Koscielny
My brain was not wired to understand physics.
Needless to say I’ve been in no rush to visit CERN, the largest particle physics lab on the planet, even though it is right on my doorstep. So, when CERN staff member Haydn du Plessis invited us on a private guided tour, I hesitated, but then decided it was time to expand my universe.
“Don’t worry, I won’t bore you,” promised Haydn at the start of our tour.” I had my doubts!
He accompanied a small group of us around CERN’s main attractions during a 2-hour tour. Haydn’s knowledge was very impressive and his explanations easy to follow – even for total physics dummies like me.
I found myself surprisingly interested and genuinely fascinated!
CERN IN A NUTSHELL
The biggest draw card at CERN is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the world’s largest subatomic particle accelerator.
WHAT IS THE LHC?
The LHC is a 27-kilometre ring of super powerful magnets within which two high-energy particle beams travel at the speed of light before they are made to smash into each other like a head-on car crash.
WHY SOULD YOU CARE?
The smaller particles created during this crash are continuously monitored and analysed by thousands of physicists and engineers from around the world based at CERN to try to understand some of the big questions of the universe: How did it all begin? What is it all made of? What is our destiny?
Some of the most notable achievements at CERN include the creation of the web(aka internet) and the likely discovery of the Higgs Boson (so-called God particle) in 2012.
To find out more about the LHC, this almighty crash of particles and other CERN experiments, take a walk through the Microcosm exhibition – a free, permanent exhibition open to all. This is a great interactive expo where life-size virtual scientists and engineers answer your questions via touch screen: What is it like to work at CERN and what are the experiments about?
Other interactive video displays include a LHC simulator dashboard where you can control the particle experiment.
TOP TIP: Check out the sculpture garden made from subatomic particle devices – outside the Microcosm hall. It’s an awesome collection of futuristic ‘sculptures’.
On the ground floor is the permanent exhibition – the Universe of Particles, which takes you on a journey deep into the world of particles and back to the Big Bang. The exhibition in a darkened room includes a 6-minute multi-screen movie recreating the Big Bang. There are also small displays showing the history of particle research.
This exhibition is free and open to all ages. No reservation is needed.
THE ATLAS VISITOR CENTRE
As part of our tour we also passed by the ATLAS Visitor Centre –Located 100 metres under ground, ATLAS is a particle detector built to detect the tiniest of particles created in the LHC crash. At 7,000 tonnes it is the largest of its kind in the world. (Similar in weight to the Eiffel Tower)
The ATLAS Visitor Center has a permanent exhibit with interactive screens outside the Control Room and a 3D movie explaining how the detector works.
NOTE: The ATLAS Visitor Centre can only be visited as part of a guided tour.
CERN GUIDED TOURS
CERN receives around 600,000 requests for guided visits every year!
The tours are free of charge – but need to be booked in advance. Expect to wait a few months to get in. REMEMBER, though that the Globe and Microcosm are open to all and no reservation is needed.
Some CERN tours are not open to children younger than 12.
Other CERN tours include:
CMS, CERN Data Centre, LEIR, ALICE and LHCh.
For more info about CERN and their guided tours visit this site.
Don’t miss the CERN Researchers’ Night on the 28th of September, when the centre is open to all with the aim to make science accessible to all. More info here.