The week the Large Hadron Collider was switched back on following a period of upgrade, I flew out to Geneva to try out CERN’s visitor experience.
The Universe of Particles exhibition is housed in the Globe of Science and Innovation. The site that was popularised by the Dan Brown book – Angels & Demons. Despite the building not actually being part of the organisation at the time, the government gifted it to improve CERN’s outreach programme, to provide a refuge for members of the public in search of answers relating to the ‘God Particle’.
The exhibition allows the public to explore the world of particles through an immersive AV show that divulged details about the past, present and future aspirations of the organisation, offering philosophical, technical and scientific perspectives.
It took around an hour to sit in the audio pods and absorb brief overviews of some of the experiments, visions, hopes and dreams of CERN scientists. For the button pressers, a series of encased items and screens introduced elements of the organisation’s history, structures and apparatus. The most intriguing of which was a spark chamber that illustrated, in real time, cosmic rays from outer space traveling to Earth through our atmosphere and creating new particles – their tracks made visible by the detector. A central display presented real events from proton-proton collisions recorded by the LHC experiments. Exhibition spaces like this need constant maintenance, items were broken and it felt worn in places – I bet when the normal lights go on it has the same feeling of a nightclub in the daytime. Hopefully, this is a reflection of how interested people are in cutting edge science.
The tour was led by an enthusiastic software engineer who worked at CERN and was hoping to study the MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College – I meet a lot of people who want to do this course! He answered all questions in depth, in an accessible manner, no matter how ‘out there’ they seemed to be – which was a challenge as the crowd was a mix including: scientists, engineers, teachers, and those without any scientific background who had just found themselves there. This is the type of Q&A session where the crowd’s questions rapidly become statements by sci-fi fanatics and I imagine there is always an ‘expert’ in the room.
The tour was an introduction to CERN’s history and the latest scientific developments. It consisted of a visit to the historic area of the site and the operations centre of one of the experiments (although having met with one of the many particle physicists working at CERN the previous day, I was informed that this was in fact a facade for the visitors). The tour continued past a Lego version of ATLAS and into a large scale exhibit that gave details about its founders and post WW2 beginnings.
…plus I got a T-shirt.