Visiting CERN

The bottom end of Switzerland is very narrow, it was only fifteen minutes form the south border with Italy to the northern most border with France where CERN is located in the small village of Myerin. We parked in the main visitor carpark and as we’d given ourselves a lot of time to arrive, we had an hour and a half to kill before our tour. There was no where to have lunch as the CERN canteens are only available to people who work there or on rare occasions to people who have requested access in advance. 

Instead we went to Le Globe de la Science et de l’Innovation, a dome built for the fiftieth anniversary of CERN. They have an exhibition around particles, using the ground floor of the building, and they show various information and tools that help you understand what CERN does. There is a machine showing the passing of cosmic rays. A globe that lets you explore the history and structure of CERN, and a regular light show and explanation.

We then explored the Microcosm exhibit in the main building with the reception, which takes you through the history of CERN and the different accelerators they have had in their history, getting increasingly larger. It also has an outside garden with some components built into the garden like sculptures that you can see.

It was finally time for the tour. We watched a short video on CERN and then were divided into two groups. One went with the english guy who presented the original video, and we, the orange group, went with the German PhD student studying in the Netherlands called Brian. Many of the PhD students, as part of their access to CERN have to assist with the PR activities to keep the taxpayers informed of the good work going on.

First we went to the decommissioned Synchrocyclotron, the first of CERNs machines, built in the 50’s. We had a video projected onto one wall and then it moved onto the decommissioned machinery and used multiple projectors to create an animation of the machines being built and used. It was quite impressive.

After the decommissioned building we walked over to project ATLAS, one of the three main projects using the Large Hadron Collider to watch a 3D film of its creation and see the scientist and engineers working on it through a glass wall which was a little bit like watching monkeys in a zoo, especially when one saw us and discretely put her MacBook away as we were told (in answer to my question on OS (it is a custom compile of Linux called Science Linux)) that CERN was focused on open source. We also found out that everyone has to spend a part of their time working in the situation room monitoring the various experiments going on, to keep it ‘fair’ and not have the original builders do all the operations work, and the new scientists only doing the interesting work.

We found out that part of the reason the Large Hadron Collider crosses the French border is so they can connect it to the french electric grid to save a lot of money as Switzerland's electricity is very expensive and they use as much as half a nuclear power plant would provide. They maintain a connection to both however, as the French supply becomes undependable in the summer.

The LHC is closing in 2019 for two years for repairs and an upgrade and you will be able to visit the collider tunnels, making it a very temping option to come back in the time to see it. Even with claustrophobia.

The whole experience was fascinating. It would perhaps be dull for many tourists, you don’t get to see any special areas and much of the experience is the videos you are shown but the guides are all people who work there and pass the duties around, they are incredibly knowledgable and passionate about the work that is going on and they have that true nerds filter of not quire realising how little some of their audience may know. hearing ‘obviously energy and momentum are the same due to the god constant’ as someone who works in advertising is a little hilarious and a lot humbling.

At the end of the tour, I bought myself a CERN hoodie, with the 30+ degree weather in Europe this year, I have no idea when I will be able to wear it, but it is a good thing to own and to support them. With 1,000 processors running 24 hours a day across the collaborating countries I wonder if CERN could spend 1 day a week not doing work but just mining Crypto and boost its budget….!

CERN had been very strict on the booking around our tickets. We were told we would be vetted before confirmation, that we would have to bring a passport with us as we might cross the border and regardless we should have it to identify ourselves. My friend collected our passes just mentioning his surname, but my name never came up. I was not once checked for my identity or permission to be there. There were any number of chances on the tour I could have slipped away from the group. However, as CERN says on its FAQ regarding photographs, “CERN has no secrets and you can photograph or film anything you wish throughout your visit as long as you do not violate the privacy rights of individuals.“ So, perhaps they actually don’t mind who is walking around, the information is open source, assuming you have the tools to store it.