I had the pleasure of hosting one of my favorite people in Geneva last week, and, being
a bit of a science nerd, a visit to CERN was at the top of her “To Do” list. For those of you who are not super into physics, CERN is where scientists build fancy machines to accelerate particles and crash them into each other. The goal is to learn more about the components of matter and, ultimately, the universe. Apparently, getting a tour of the expansive facility near the French border is one of the hottest tickets in town: You can reserve a spot 15 days ahead of your desired tour date, with a 24-person cap per group. At the 15-day mark, I signed online during my lunch break only to find the tickets sold out! Luckily, we had a second day that could work for our schedule, so I took things to the next level the following day. I signed on at 8:29am, having read that fresh batches of tickets are released at 8:30am, and, when the clock turned to 8:30am, raced to fill out the online form like I was trying to get into a Beyoncé concert or something. Happily, I was successful, and informed my friend who was in India at the time that I was officially the best friend ever. And then I was late to French class. Such sacrifice!
On the day of your tour, CERN instructs you to arrive at reception 15 minutes before your appointed time wearing closed-toe shoes without heels. The tram ride over went smoothly so we arrived 45-minutes early and had enough time to check out the two free exhibits and the gift shop before our tour began at 3pm. The two-hour experience kicks off with an introductory video in the reception building that highlights, among other things, the discovery of the Higgs boson particle at CERN in 2012. Then the larger group is split in half based on the color lanyard you were handed at check-in and a physicist collects you for the rest of the tour. Our group started in the ATLAS building where we watched a pretty cool 3D video about the Large Hadron Collider, aka the biggest and most powerful particle accelerator on earth. (Worth noting: The tour does not go underground to the LHC itself). Then we walked downstairs to the ATLAS control room where, through a glass wall, we could watch the researchers monitor the LHC. Our guide, who impressively spoke at least three languages in addition to his mastery of physics, provided context and answered questions from our group throughout the afternoon.
The tour wrapped up with a visit to the Synchrocyclotron, which was the first accelerator built at CERN circa 1957. It’s no longer operational, but they do a great job explaining how it worked by projecting images onto the machine alongside a video that provides historical background. (The name CERN comes from the acronym Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, which dates back to 1952). It was my favorite part of the visit, unless you count a quick interaction we had after the tour. My friend asked our guide if he had any photos of particle track, which her dad had requested. He proceeded to ask an important-looking man behind a desk, who gave us these cool images that look like old-school film negatives. So pro tip: Ask for one if you score tickets to a highly prized CERN tour.
(Thanks for the photo contribution, Meg!)