Physoc Does CERN!

11745927_10207332036997628_3358211534382470112_nOrganising your first international group trip is not easy. Having previously taken a handful of members of Warwick’s Physics Society to Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, leading a similar-sized group abroad took a lot more preparation – to the extent where I was quite honestly hoping the trip would just be over as soon as possible. At last, when our Geneva-bound plane soared up and off the ground, I had this sudden realisation that actually, things would be just fine. That the nightmare of missing our flight (which I had two nights prior to departure) stood no chance of becoming reality. In joint efforts with Charlie, we finally sent 15 sleepy students on their way to Switzerland!

CERN: a pile of wires.

None but one of us had ever visited CERN before, thus it was a big deal for me to ensure the trip would be as smooth as it could be. Of course, CERN is a colossal deal for groundbreaking research; still, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I was not expecting to see the LHC or ALICE by any means, but I was expecting more – how to phrase this? – structure to the whole complex. From the outside, CERN consists of no more than a bunch of unsightly buildings resembling our famously unsightly Physics department at uni. Same story goes for the interior; the experience completed by that familiar whiff of the distinct smell of the corridors back at uni, lined with office doors and posters. The striking change comes only once we enter a darkened room with nightclub-like lights flickering at the top right hand corner of the wall. This in itself is quite cool albeit distracting and by this point, my mind wanders away from our tour guide and into observing the flickering lights. Barely a quarter of an hour later though, I find myself unwillingly dozing off to our guide’s explanation of the evolution of data storage at the collider experiments…  The situation is saved when the wall in front of us appears to disappear, revealing stacks upon stacks tapes and hard drives with decades’ worth of experimental data. Jesus Christ. Looking around at the exhibits in the room of the storage devices used, my surprise from the neverending stacks of tapes quickly turns to awe at the sheer size of these “ancient” disks. And awe at not only this, but also at the exponential increase in computing power over the last couple of decades! I don’t even know whether to be amazed, dumbfounded or petrified at how furiously fast this power has been increasing since computers were unleashed into the public sphere.

Zinc and silver disks with cardboard soaked in saltwater: the voltaic pile, aka the first battery!

Despite the fact that visiting CERN was the main purpose of our trip, disappointingly I didn’t find it to be the highlight. Actually, it was the unassuming Science History Museum which proved to be an unlikely gem! Housing amongst other intricate instruments some of the first barometers, stargazing devices, an early edition of Newton’s Principia, Alessandro Volta’s first battery, or other physically interactive things to feast a scientist’s mind, this museum made me very, very happy. Although it had little in terms of English descriptions, the exhibits themselves were enough to impress.

Unquestionably, there was also plenty of general sightseeing, chocolate, sun, humidity, sweat, a sudden downpour, the UN building, painfully overpriced cocktails and of course, the mesmerising Lake Geneva and Jet d’Eau to complete the package. All in all: a successful expedition to possibly the cleanest city I’ve ever set my sights on! Freshly inspired to consider a career in research, too – although Particle Physics will sadly never be my forte.

Lake Geneva at sunset.

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