• MZ

    Select your country and language

    Selected country/territory
    All countries/territories
  • MENU
Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
            Back to Open Skies

Travel to Geneva


Inside CERN, Geneva

1 November 2014

Christopher Beanland and photographer Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek visit the world’s largest physics laboratory, which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary

Two metal cylinders bigger than jet engines face off as if in preparation for a gargantuan battle of the machines. A shiny rod, like an oversized drill bit but longer than an average size car, protrudes from one cylinder and penetrates the other. This is the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Cavern, located beneath the municipality of Meyrin on the outskirts of Geneva, where the Swiss city’s suburbs melt into rolling green countryside on the border with France. 

The Jura Mountains, shrouded with fog, rise up in the distance. There is little to suggest that a manmade miracle is occurring here under my feet. Only the brown, boxy, functional buildings in a field hint at what lies beneath. The CMS Cavern inspires awe. The experiments carried out here are changing the world. It's a big operation. 

Every second the data produced from the CMS experiments can equal the entire content of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. If they ran the experiments for 10 years, the data they'd acquire would be more than all the words spoken by humans throughout our entire history. It takes some very special scientists to make sense of it. The tangle of wires alone is enough to boggle the average mind. Kilometres of cables dangle everywhere. 

“When my mother came she said it's like spaghetti down here!” jokes Portuguese physicist André David, who has worked on the CMS experiment at CERN for a decade. All around the cavern silvery surfaces glitter and glint, interspersed with red, green, yellow and brown panels. The equipment appears rudimentary in a way. It's looks like a child's toy set from some angles, from others like the interior of a space ship. 

We all wear orange hard hats, cementing the idea in my mind that something dangerous lurks somewhere down here. The scientists at CERN are, after all, playing with the matter that started the world – and if something went wrong it could be the end of it. The scientists here helped identify the Higgs boson back in 2012. Now they're looking for dark matter – the very building blocks of the universe we live in. 

The huge detector they use to do this is 20m long and 15m in diameter. It's made of many layers and it identifies the energy and momentum of photons, electrons and muons from the Large Hadron Collider. “It's like a giant camera,” says French press officer Julie Haffner, as we both lean over the green rail on a walkway halfway up the side of the CMS Cavern, marvelling at CERN’s magnitude.

A dozen European countries founded the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, to give CERN its full name, in 1952. The village of Meyrin, near Geneva International Airport, was chosen as the site for a super-lab to investigate the very smallest parts of our world – atoms. The sod was cut in 1954. In 1957 the first particle accelerator, the Synchrocyclotron, was built. But CERN was to be at the forefront of physics research – and it still is. 

Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web here in 1989, before the first website went live in 1991. CERN's proudest moment came on July 4, 2012, when scientists excitedly announced that the Higgs boson had been discovered. The Higgs boson is an elementary particle that lies at the root of physics. This was an electrifying discovery. 

And it was made possible by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which runs in a 27km tunnel under the ground. It's a perfect circle. Atoms are smashed into each other in the LHC by forces we can't even begin to comprehend. The first time I heard about CERN was when British comedian and film director Chris Morris, who seldom breaks cover, wrote an article about his visit to the world’s largest physics laboratory. I was intrigued – and have wanted to visit ever since. 

Morris made a podcast of his visit and the chat he had with pop star-turned astronomer and BBC presenter Brian Cox. Morris plays with Cox, reminding him that he'd earlier mentioned how the LHC “could destroy the whole universe”. They both laugh. But could it? Luca Bottura, leader of the MSC (Magnets, Superconductors and Cryostats) group, agrees to take me down to see it. We descend slowly in a lift, 100m below the ground. 

“If there's an evacuation you use the lift, not the stairs,” says Bottura. I nod. We pass through a series of electric doors like we're breaking into the villain’s lair in a James Bond movie. Then we reach the LHC tunnel. It's cold. It's bright from the fluorescent lighting. Could this really destroy the whole universe? “Yes, you can do black holes,” says Bottura, a friendly Italian from Parma. 

“But I'm not sure about destroying the whole universe!” In fact CERN is safety-mad. You can see the tunnel curving round (it's a huge circle). Bottura shows me the magnets and accelerators that fire the particles round the circuit – bending, compressing and directing the atoms. Some of the magnets and machines look like car engines and some like mini submarines.

I'm taken with a huge magnet made by scientists from the USA and Japan; it is called Xena, and has that name painted on its orange side along with the flags of the two countries. Then Bottura points towards the “chambre pantalon”, so named because it mixes the two beams of particles down from two to one like trouser legs. Bottura explains how tricky it is to get the magnets down here into the tunnel; they're lifted by a crane into a shaft, which stretches down from ground level, and then moved into place by little trucks that can only travel at three kilometres per hour. 

Bottura talks about what might come next for CERN. “We want to do even more events, accelerating more particles, use new materials and super conducting magnets,” he says. “Maybe even we could build a 100km long circular tunnel.” Next, Bottura takes me up to his magnet factory – an aircraft hangar filled with magnets being tested and repaired. It is science on an industrial scale. 

In the floor of the foyer is a map you can walk over, which shows the LHC tunnel extending in a perfect circle – and sometimes running under nearby villages. Bottura explains that the residents don't mind because CERN always offers them tours and open days. The magnet factory is popular – we funnel past groups of visitors on tours, schoolchildren and families and some pensioners. 

Anyone can come to CERN and see these spaces, but we are incredibly lucky to be taken down into the LHC tunnel, where tour groups are not allowed to venture. When it's switched on again in 2015 for the next round of experiments, not even CERN's scientists will be permitted into the tunnel, as the radiation levels will make it too dangerous for humans. T

he LHC is the place where the atom smashing takes place, and then there are seven particle-detecting experiments that analyse what happens. CMS alone takes up the time of thousands of scientists. There are 10,000 visiting scientists at CERN, from 113 countries – 50 per cent of the particle physicists on the planet. The numbers at CERN start to become very big, and very crazy, very quickly. The site is so huge we are ferried around in cars. In fact, there are several sites and it takes 20 minutes to drive from Andre David's CMS building to Luca Bottura's magnet hangar.

We see offices and labs as we pass through CERN. Some scientists are suited and booted, others are scruffy. At lunchtime, in the canteen, CERN staff laugh and chat – some look suave and some sombre. It's a very international, very exciting environment. A United Nations of science. It reminds me of my alma mater, Leeds University, with its rambunctious air, enthusiastic chatter, its slightly clapped-out 1960s corridors. 

We stop by the office of Professor Jonathan Ellis CBE, a famous theoretical physicist from London. “I've been working here for 41 years,” he shouts over to me as Daniel photographs him sat behind his desk. His office is full of hundreds of stacks of papers, a blackboard with “John Ellis rocks” scribbled on it and a skeleton dangling from the wall. “The office certainly suits me!” Ellis says. A scientific colleague Skypes him, and he explains that he can't talk right now. 

We head upstairs. “This was the first European institution that got people together after the war,” says CERN's director general, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, who has agreed to a rare interview. We meet Heuer in his office, and he welcomes us as he shuffles papers containing the latest scientific breakthroughs from the site. 

“CERN's role is bridging cultures and bridging nations, research at the forefront of technology, which pushes back the frontiers of knowledge, and education of young people,” says the 66 year-old German physicist, who studied at Stuttgart and Heidelberg Universities and has run CERN since 2009. He's spent the morning handling “supervisory body meetings” and “getting the guest list together for the 60th anniversary celebrations”, while we had our hard hats on, marvelling at the machines. “Different people, technicians, students, different nationalities – that's the charm of CERN,” Heuer says proudly. 

“Everyone works together, small wheels in a large machine – but the machine cannot work without those small wheels. Collaboration is essential, but also competition is.” CERN is a political gesture, of that there is no doubt. And what a gesture, with so many countries working together. Heuer tells me about a project in the Middle East that could potentially do the same amazing work. 

“SESAME is a new infrastructure in Jordan,” he explains. “It's a scientific lab modelled after CERN, which encourages co-operation.” SESAME (Synchrotron-Light For Experimental Science And Applications In The Middle East) was set up at Allan, Jordan, in 2002, and it’s hoped it will be completed next year and physics experiments can begin in earnest. “The people involved include Turkey, Cyprus, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Pakistan.” In troubled times, this kind of scientific co-operation seems remarkable and commendable.

In a way CERN – despite its futuristic outlook – is a remnant of a previous era. The spirit you sense and the buildings you see, even the experiments with all their wires, are reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s. CERN reminds you of a time when we all really believed that technology and our ability to conquer and harness it were going to create incredible new worlds. That time when we dreamt of space stations and nuclear power and high-tech living seems to live on here in Geneva. And that is a wonderful thing. 

The human spirit seems alive here. Progress seems alive here. These scientists are at the very tip of the spear of knowledge. They're creating and learning and testing, and they end up with incredible outcomes that stun us. And it's all for peace – the technology here is not used for weapons. And every day they go to work in this frenzied, fun, yet serious atmosphere. CERN shows us what we can do when we work together. As it celebrates its 60th birthday we should celebrate what it stands for. “Do you want to photograph me standing up?” Heuer asks Dan. Dan nods. Heuer laughs. “I'll need to change out of my jeans into trousers then!” 




Related articles