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My visit to CERN

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Last week, Shree Bose, the grand prize winner of the 2011 Google Science Fair, traveled to CERN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland as part of the grand prize. We invited Shree to write about her experience.

CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The name CERN is derived from the acronym for the French Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire.

“We got it.” The Director General paused, and the cramped room I was in burst into applause. Chills ran up my spine, as I looked around at the faces of the people of CERN who had worked for years to hear those three words. A particle similar in properties to the expected Higgs Boson had been found. And I had been at CERN to see its discovery announced to the world.

Shree Bose in the ALICE Cavern. Photo source:
Tim Vernes-Lee first came up with his proposal for the world wide web while working at CERN, a one page paper with a typed diagram showing his framework that is still on display today in the visitor center. His professor at the time scribbled three words at the top in black ink, three words that would go on to describe so much more than he could have ever imagined - “vague but exciting.” Making history is what CERN does best.

My ten days at CERN were full of learning more about physics than I had ever learned in my life, from people who were passionate and excited about the work they were doing. With a 27 km long collider complete with four huge detectors, particle physicists and engineers were often seen walking around wearing construction equipment and hard hats. It usually took me a second before I remembered that they were working on the subatomic scale, colliding protons at close to the speed of light. From these collisions, these physicists were recreating the conditions of the collisions, figuring out what particles were being released and eventually bringing us one step closer to understanding where we began, what we are made of, and where the universe is going.

And there couldn’t have been a better time to visit. During a technical stop the first week, we were able to go down to the detectors, these behemoth four story machines where the proton-proton collisions happen and are recorded, and down to the tunnel where the beam pipe was right beside us. It was hard to believe that, when the collider was running, clusters of protons were shot through at close to the speed of light. Some of the coldest temperatures in the universe, required for the superconducting magnets to function, were achieved by liquefying helium. We got to visit the computer farms, where thousands of computers hummed, processing massive amounts of data recorded by the detectors. We met people who were creating antimatter which annihilated upon contact with matter just as they did in the moments after the Big Bang, talked to a theoretical physicist about dark matter, learned about proton-gluon plasma created from colliding heavy ions from the people of the ALICE experiment, learned about the beauty particle at the LHCb project, and found out what ATLAS and CMS were doing to find evidence for the Higgs Boson.

During the weekends, we got to go sightseeing, visiting Chamonix, a beautiful small mountain village in the French Alps, and across Lake Geneva to visit the medieval castles of Yvoire. During one evening, we ate a delicious home-cooked meal of pasta and seafood with our wonderful CERN guide, Silvano de Gennaro, in his house he had renovated from an old barn in the Jurra Mountains overlooking Geneva as a full moon hung over the cloudless sky. His wife, Michelle, was a member of Les Horribles Cernettes, a musical group whose album cover had been the first picture on the internet, and we got to see videos of the de Genarro family band rocking out. Perfect moments like that are just so surreal.

The day before the seminar, you could feel the energy among the people of CERN as people excitedly whispered amongst themselves about their plans for the next day. I was sitting in the communications office when Peter Higgs, one of the physicists behind the creation of the standard model, came in for an interview. When asked about the upcoming announcement of the results, he said he couldn’t believe he was alive to see this day. I couldn’t believe I was watching history be made right before me.

After the seminar and the press conference we got to sit in on, it was a whirlwind of visiting experiments specialized on the medical applications of the technologies, and before we knew it, we had said goodbye to Silvano while standing in the rain at CERN, and it was the morning of our flight. As our plane took off, headed first to London and then to DFW, I couldn’t help thinking about how much I’d learned - about the physics, about its potential for the the future, and most of all, about the power of the group effort at CERN. One mind alone is an incredible thing. But so many minds working together can really do the impossible. I guess the world of particle physics and the entire future of science is, as three simple words can put it, vague but exciting.

Shree Bose and her family in the LHC tunnel. Photo source:
You can read more about Shree’s trip here.

- The Google Science Fair Team