What are we?
Where did we come from?
How did the universe come to be?
What lies in store for us, and for the universe itself?
How much dramatic formatting is too much?
These and more are the questions that the scientists, engineers, and researchers of CERN are hoping to answer.
I had no ambitions to answer these questions for myself when I embarked on a day tour of the CERN compound last week. However, it DID take some serious ambition just to get in the door. As I found out, CERN tours are extremely limited and difficult to land.
Starting three weeks ago in Bosnia I began a daily ritual of checking the CERN site for tour availability (they are given twice a day in English and French). Each day I would log in and see that the dates of my stay in Geneva were fully booked. The only thing that kept my hopes up was seeing that occasionally (very rarely) slots would open up just days before the tour date as individuals or groups cancelled their booking, so I pressed on.
On my second day in Geneva, I checked for the umpteenth time and wearily expected to be let down once again. At that point I was numb to the disappointment. Shock and disbelief set in when I saw that a slot had opened up for an English tour the next day. My fingers raced across the keyboard as I filled out the pertinent fields, wary that another eager beaver might be doing the same at that very moment.
When I received the confirmation email I was relieved, then excited. I was going to be in the presence of the largest machine ever built by human hands.
The CERN compound is located about 20 minutes outside the Geneva city center in Meyrin, sitting on over 250 acres that straddle the French/Swiss border. CERN was established in 1954 as the “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire”, or the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Today it houses 2,250 full time staff members plus an additional 12,000 or so who come and go as their work dictates.
I had a high-level understanding of what goes on at CERN before beginning my tour, but was eager to learn more. Upon arriving I was directed to a room where others were sitting, waiting for our guide to arrive. In my head I imagined our guide would be a middle-aged, French/Swiss, man/woman who had put in many years at CERN.
Elena was none of those things. When she burst through the door a few minutes late, I was shocked at how young she was. She had to be around my age, if not younger. I immediately took note of the smudged writing all over her hands. She seemed to be flustered, but she composed herself and began a powerpoint presentation briefing us on our tour. One slide showed a graph of the amount of radiation we would be subjected to on our tour compared to other menial activities. The intent was to show us how little radiation exposure we would be getting compared to, say, a flight from Geneva to Los Angeles, which is about 100x more.
Then Elena took us off at a quick pace to show us the compound.
We pass by the Universe of Particles, shown at the top of this post, which features an exhibition that I would check out later. I talk to Elena as we walk. She says she’s from New Jersey (I thought I detected her accent). She graduated from Princeton with a degree in Physics, applied here at CERN and is now working what she calls a “dream job”.
Eventually Elena leads us onward to the Atlas Project.
After viewing a short video, Elena finally gets to telling us more about the fascinating work being done at CERN.
(This part of the post is best read while listening to the Interstellar soundtrack)
At CERN, scientists use the world’s largest and most complex instruments to study the basic constituents of matter, particles that form the foundation for everything we know. These instruments are divided into two categories: particle accelerators and detectors. The largest and most well-known of the particle accelerators is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
The LHC is the largest and most powerful particle collider ever built, as well as the largest single machine ever crafted by human hands. It lies 174 meters (574 ft.) beneath the ground and measures 27 km (17 miles) in circumference. The purpose of the LHC is to accelerate particles using superconducting electromagnets, some 9,600 of them, which work in concert to fire protons around the circuit and collide them together at near speeds of light. The complex precision required to achieve such a collision cannot be understated.
The collisions generate conditions similar to the Big Bang, when the universe was created. The goal is to study how particles interact in these conditions, which could answer questions about dark matter, dark energy, antimatter, and quantum gravity. Moreover, they look for signs of new particles, such as the 2012 discovery of the Higgs-Boson or “God Particle”, which completed our understanding of how particles hold mass.
On June 3rd, 2015, the LHC began a continuous run that would last for three years. That meant unthinkably powerful particle collisions were occurring every second we sat there.
When Elena tells us the LHC is sitting directly below us, a chill goes up my spine.
For her part, Elena does an excellent job of explaining CERN in sciencey-stuff-for-dummies terms. However, when we descend to the Atlas Project Control room, where she spends her day-to-day, she starts to get very technical, albeit passionate.
As best I could gather, Atlas is one of two general-purpose detectors attached to the LHC; the particle beams are accelerated by the LHC and, according to Elena:
“…collide in the middle of Atlas almost a billion times every second”
Trying to wrap my head around that makes my head numb.
Elena goes on to explain how it is quite impossible to capture and store all the data produced by each collision. Still, Atlas is able to capture tens of millions of “images” every second, which then go through a filtering process, resulting in raw data that is immediately available to scientists around the world within CERN’s network.
She then takes us to the Atlas control room, where smart people in casual wear are analyzing the data produced by the Atlas detector.
At this point Elena starts to go a bit deeper into what she works on specifically in the Atlas project. She starts speaking very quickly, using complex phrases like supermagnetic fields, quark-gluon plasma, and muon spectrometers.
(I half expected her to start talking about midichlorians and how we should not give in to fear, lest we succumb to the dark side of the force).
The group’s collective attention is reeled in when she starts talking about the possibility of other dimensions. She explains that the gravitational pull of the earth is relatively weak compared to other forces, which has puzzled scientists for generations. The answer could be that the force of gravity is spread across multiple dimensions (check out CERN’s relatively easy-to-read explanation of this theory here).
One way the LHC could offer us a peek into another dimension would be the creation of a “microscopic black hole”. Elena casually states that black holes are something she looks for in her analyses. She continues talking, but as I look around many in the group are wide-eyed and pale-faced. Could a black hole really be produced here on earth? Wouldn’t we all get sucked up into nothingness? Elena sensed our collective horror.
“Don’t worry, the black hole would disintegrate rapidly due to Hawking Radiation”
I doubt she convinced anyone. This has been a typical reaction of society to CERN’s work for the past several decades. Even Stephen Hawking himself has denounced CERN’s experiments, saying they could lead to…
“…catastrophic vacuum decay which would cause space and time to collapse and… we would not have any warning to the dangers”
Hawking is far from alone. Neil Degrasse Tyson and other prominent scientists have also spoken out in critique of CERN’s playing with fire.
In 2008, just weeks before the LHC was slated to be turned on for the first time, a collection of scientists and critics levied a lawsuit against CERN. Professor Otto Rössler, a German chemist and one of the scientists who submitted the complaint to the court, said: “CERN itself has admitted that mini black holes could be created when the particles collide, but they don’t consider this a risk…we do not believe the scientists at CERN are taking all the precautions they should be in order to protect human life”. Professor Rössler claimed that, in the worst case scenario, the earth could be “sucked inside out within four years of a mini black hole forming”.
Ultimately the suit was dismissed and the LHC began its collisions on schedule. As I’m typing this, the world has yet to implode or slip into another dimension.
Sensing the nervous tension within the group, an Israeli man whom I’d chatted with briefly speaks up and half-jokingly asks Elena how many dimensions she thinks there are. She answered without hesitation.
“I believe there are seven additional dimensions to the four that we already know. So eleven total.”
The room reverts back to pale disbelief as Elena explains her reasoning. Shortly after, she seemingly tries to lighten things up with a story. About a month ago, a weasel found his way into the electrical facilities of the LHC. The little guy did not survive, marking the LHC’s first casualty and causing a shutdown for a few days in the process.
(I quietly think to myself that the weasel was probably from the future and had hoped to destroy the LHC, knowing the destruction it has wrought in his time)
I admire the feeling of intense curiosity at CERN, but I also grapple with the feeling that they are messing with forces that they don’t understand. Like a child running toward a dark forest, yelling out into the black abyss, jumping up and down, unaware and unprepared for what might lurk behind the trees.
But to speak only of my concerns with CERN’s experiments would be a red herring to you, the reader. Their work is important, and it is relevant to even the common man in ways I will explain.
Next Elena takes us to a machine that did a lot of good work for the organization over many years: The Synchrocyclotron.
The Synchrocyclotron was built in 1957 as CERN’s first particle accelerator. For 33 years it collided particles and delivered tons of raw data to CERN’s scientists before being decommissioned in 1990. The successes and longevity of the Synchrocyclotron laid the groundwork for the concept development and engineering of the LHC.
However, CERN’s great work is not limited just to sciencey stuff. In fact I should thank CERN for providing me with the medium by which you are reading my words right now. Indeed, the World Wide Web was invented at CERN in 1989 when the first web browser was written to help CERN scientists communicate more efficiently.
So next time you laugh at a hilarious meme or cat video, be sure to pay respects to the folks at CERN.
Moreover, machine innovations at CERN have spilled over into many other industries and helped optimize operations across the economic spectrum. Elena rattles off a bunch. I can only remember her mentioning medicine, electronics, civil engineering, and computing.
But of course, their primary goals mostly conCERN the really crazy physics stuff.
After the tour is over I check out the Universe of Particles, housed in a big, brown domed building (see above). I walk in to a planetarium-esque show, which sends lights and colors and images all over the room.
The exhibition discusses, displays, and ponders concepts pertaining to dark matter and dark energy.
This interview with Neil Degrasse Tyson explains these concepts presented in the exhibition better than I ever could.
“Five sixths of all the gravity we measure in the universe has no known origin. It’s a mystery. We can track the black holes, the gas clouds, the planets and stars, and all the atoms. When we do, it accounts for one sixth of all the gravity in the cosmos. We don’t know what’s causing the rest of the gravity, so we’re calling it ‘dark matter.’ But we don’t even know if it’s matter—that’s just a placeholder term. And then there’s another mystery: a pressure in the vacuum of space that’s operating against the wishes of gravity and making the universe accelerate in its expansion—we call that “dark energy.” But we don’t even know if it’s energy. We don’t know what it is. If you add up dark matter and dark energy, it comes to 96 percent of everything that drives the universe.”
(Read the whole interview – it’s fantastic)
My brain is firing on all cylinders as I depart the exhibit. I almost feel like I’m leaving CERN with more questions than answers. And a lot of the questions scare me. Am I curious about black holes, dark matter, and the existence of other dimensions? Do I want to know what drives the forces of the universe like Tyson, CERN, and scientists all over the world?
Of course I’m curious. Of course I want to know. But not at the expense of life on earth as we know it. I suppose I take solace in the fact that there are people much more brilliant than I who have deemed their work safe, for the time being.
So until the earth implodes itself into a black hole summoned in a small village outside Geneva, Switzerland, I will wait patiently and see if we can discover the secrets of the universe before that happens.