"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
I've been to see ALICE -- though there was no looking glass to jump through, just a retina scanner and one very long elevator ride down into the earth. I've toured a CMS that has nothing to do with online publishing. I've even gently laid my body on the most powerful particle accelerator in the world and raised the ire of surrounding engineers in the interest of a good shot. I did all of this at CERN, the international particle physics laboratory located near Geneva, Switzerland. But you probably know it best as the birthplace of the world wide web and home of the Large Hadron Collider. And, yes, it was all exactly like a walking fever dream.
CERNSee all photos
CERN Large Hadron ColliderSee all photos
CERN CMSSee all photos
CERN ALICESee all photos
It's apt that a Lewis Carroll quote would encapsulate my two-day visit to CERN in June, a trip that took place in the simmering Swiss heat (fun fact: A/C does not exist anywhere on the sprawling campus). And the facility, with a detector named after Carroll's ever-curious protagonist Alice, openly invites that connection. It's not hard to imagine most of CERN's resident physicists starting their days with a strong cup of (delicious, European) coffee, a bowl of müesli and a good pondering of the impossible. Maybe "ponder" is the wrong verb to apply here, considering one such scientist outright dismissed the notion of "impossibility" in discussion with a fellow journalist. He even appeared to harbor an active distaste for it. And he rightly should. After all, particle physicists and the whole of CERN trade in "wonder." It's very nearly a requirement for entry to the grounds.
Particle physicists and the whole of CERN trade in "wonder." It's very nearly a requirement for entry to the grounds.
The other essential ingredient for access to CERN's labs is a dormant LHC. I found myself wearing hard hats and gazing at the surrounding Jura and Alps mountain ranges while shuttling from one underground cavern to the next because of scheduled LHC maintenance. This period of inactivity has a dual purpose for CERN's engineers: it's partially a regular tune-up, but there's also major repair work underway.
A good portion of this two-year downtime's being dedicated to correcting damage from a 2008 explosion that wrecked many of the LHC's super-conducting magnets. Though CERN's engineers managed to get it back up and running in the time since that incident, the LHC's never quite been the same. It's actually been running at just half power -- still good enough for major scientific breakthroughs like the Higgs boson, but really a shell of what it's meant to do. Come 2015 when the LHC is once again operable, it'll be the first time the device collides its dual proton beams at an energy of 7 TeV (or teraelectron volts) each. To borrow CERN's own analogy, that's roughly equivalent to a car racing along at 994mph (or 1,600km/h).
Forget the LHC for a moment. The two detectors CERN made accessible -- CMS and ALICE -- are the real sleeping technological beauties.
An under repair accelerator is also a safe accelerator: there's no leaking helium to displace the air, no lingering radiation to make things poisonous and no near-absolute zero temperature of -456.3°F (necessary for operation of the magnets) to make frostbite seem inviting. That confluence of hospitable factors is primarily why CERN allowed us to walk a portion of the 17-mile (27km) long tunnel that forms a ring beneath the Franco-Swiss border, along which four collision detectors are placed. But forget the LHC for a moment, it's just a long and unexciting pipe.
The two detectors CERN made accessible on this trip -- CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) and ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) -- are the real sleeping technological beauties. It's those massive rings of densely packed super-conducting magnets, tracking devices and calorimeters that truly put the search for the Higgs boson into perspective. A particle so infinitesimally small, so elusive, so completely integral to our understanding of physics that it requires a 69 x 50 x 50 ft tall (21 x 15 x 15m), 12,500-ton detector with a solenoid magnet at its heart to generate an electromagnetic field roughly 100,000 times stronger than the Earth's own just to find it.
CERN is big-budget science and it looks just like the movies.
Of course, seeing is believing. Which is why we're extending that golden ticket to you in the form of a mini-doc and curated photo galleries. CERN, as you'll see, is big-budget science and it looks just like the movies: massive machines in subterranean chambers, a mess of cables and enough warning signs to let you know great things are happening. If you're looking for answers to the known mysteries of our universe or a deeper dive into the hows and whys of the LHC, you won't find them here. This is a virtual tour; it's the next, best thing to actually being there. For all that headier stuff, you can stay tuned for our upcoming Primed.