Monday, November 10, 2014

Down under at CERN

We’ve been following the experiments at CERN for the past couple years; the helium leaks that closed the accelerator, the Higgs- Boson particle. I can’t say we understand it all but we try.  The kids ask a lot of questions and I can answer most, or at least those based on the physics taught in the late 1980’s. Anything new- like dark matter- is a mystery to me and of course, what the kids are most interested in. We recently tried to get up to speed on the present state of physics with a visit to CERN and the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva.

To start, we knew we were close to Geneva but were a bit unsure how close. We can know say without traffic we are a six and a half hour drive away. The driving part was the easy part. The getting a tour of CERN was the harder part. I clicked on CERN’s website, navigated through to individual tours and then found nothing available. We finally figured out that the tours are made available two weeks in advance and fill up immediately. They are free. We stayed up to midnight one night and scored a tour. I excitedly told the kids about it at breakfast. They yawned. Phil wrote directly to the visitors’ center and got a longer tour, which we ended up taking. Once there, we realized experiments were soon to start. With the accelerator running, no tours will be available for the next couple of years. We really felt like we scored some amazing tickets; sell out performance of a farewell tour. Well, kind of.
Scientists from 22 member countries make up CERN, which started in 1954 with only 12 members. All sorts of technologies have come out of CERN, including the original computer on which the first web page was created. And they claim the world wide web was developed out of a system of communication between their member scientists. The main facility at CERN is the Large Hadron Collider, which runs underground in a 17 kilometer loop beneath the idyllic French and Swiss countryside. We learned how 2 beams of protons (from hydrogen gas) were accelerated (magnets, vacuums and helium) and crashed into each other, going in opposite directions.  And the kids kept asking when we got to go underground.
Underground was our next stop, the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector. We learned these protons are clumped together in a bunch with 100 billion protons in a bunch, 2,800 bunches zooming around the loop. We were told that collisions between protons can make 1000 particles and CMS takes 100 million snapshots per second of which only 100 pictures of particles per second are saved. With that, we put on our hard hats and took an elevator down deep, down 100 meters. It was breath taking. And just where the Higgs-Boson particle was captured for the first time two years ago.
Moving around the tour, we passed from Switzerland into France and back again. The first physicist we were with was a Spanish guy and the second a Chinese woman. They both loved working at CERN and living in Switzerland. On our long car ride, Tori had an assignment to write a poem- in French-and read the book Hatchett in German.  Tori often says she doesn’t want to be a translator when she grows up. I told the kids to consider being a physicist at CERN and using their languages there. The girls rolled their eyes but Adam said maybe, but only an experimental physicist, not a theoretical one.  He definitely got the excitement of smashing two beams of protons together and that was the main thing.


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