On September 14 and 15, we normal people have a rare opportunity to see the mind-bogglingly complex 27-km circular test tube buried 100 meters underground just outside Geneva. This is where some of the world’s biggest scientific discoveries have been made – though on a teeny-tiny sub-atomic level.
The Big Bang, dark matter and beyond
CERN (originally, Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) always offers fascinating public tours (free, Mon. - Sat., guided and self-guided). But only during the rare “Open Days” when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) isn’t slinging proton beams to collide on purpose at nearly the speed of light, can we lay eyes on the world’ s most powerful particle accelerator.
Which is what exactly?
LHC experiments being conducted by thousands of visiting scientists and engineers from more than 100 nations are revealing nothing less than the forces that exploded forth at the nano-instant after the Big Bang when the universe was created 13.8 billion years ago. These far-thinking women and men are also shedding light on what the universe (or maybe the multiverse!) is composed of, including the mysterious dark matter and dark energy. In 2012, CERN made one of its most important discoveries: proof of the long-theorized but never proven existence of the Higgs boson, the extraordinarily small and enormously important sub-atomic particle that gives mass to the matter of the universe we can see.
CERN experiments are performed by using huge magnets at super-cold temperatures (-271.3 C) to send proton beams around the circular LHC in opposite directions, then bending them to collide. Like spilled oranges from a sub-atomic train wreck, this exposes even smaller particles, some never seen before, giving clues about the building blocks of the universe.
Fun activities for normal brains
Amazing, right? Or, let’ s admit it, maybe amazingly brain-numbing? But there’ s no need to feel intimidated by learning about atoms and the cosmos, even if you hardly know a proton from a moron. CERN's permanent self-guided Microcosm and Universe of Particles exhibitions have all kinds of displays that are remarkably easy to understand – at least on some levels. Kids will find the interactive exhibits especially interesting. The life-size recorded video panels of eloquent, charming physicists – dressed not in a starched lab coat, but more often jeans, t-shirt and a hardhat – are so stimulating you’ll be tempted to say thank you to the screen afterward, or ask them out on a date.
The mind-bending movie and displays in the giant globe are downright psychedelic. All the exhibitions feature written materials in French and English. Audio is also in German, Italian and Spanish.
The history of CERN is traced here, too, from its roots in 1952 when 12 European governments conceptualized the lab that would study atomic nuclei, to 2008 when the modern LHC first powered up, to the continuing astounding discoveries about ever-tinier sub-atomic particles. CERN is also where the World Wide Web was created in 1989.
During the two CERN Open Days, visiting the LHC (space is very limited) will be just one of the special tours, activities and workshops. Whether you’re a scientist, a quantum physics nerd or a family looking for an utterly unique outing, there will be dozens of activities to explore. How about a game of proton football? Or watching an antimatter science show? Or building your own particle detector? Or having coffee with a theoretical physicist? (The ideas are theoretical, not the physicist.) Or even dancing like free electrons to tunes mixed by CERN’s PhD DJs? And again, it’s all free. But, you need to register to make sure you have access to as much as possible.
Getting there at less than the speed of light
It’s practically a cosmic joke that you can so easily take the #18 tram in 19 minutes from the main Geneva train station right to CERN’s doorstep almost on the French border. You’ll know you’re arriving when you see the startling brown globe, 27 meters tall, that somehow simultaneously looks like an atom’s nucleus, a planet and the perfect symbolic architecture for this dazzling laboratory explaining our universe.