Hit me with your best beam!

This last year has been a buzzing sequence of new discoveries and advances in science – think of the Mars landing by the InSight probe just a few days ago! – and leads the way to a year rich in new discoveries, but also scientific anniversaries. 2019 will be, in fact, the International Year of the Periodic Table, to commemorate 150 years since the discovery of the regular arrangement of chemical elements by Dmitri Mendeleev. Plus, it will mark the 50th anniversary of the first humans to walk on the Moon with the Apollo 11 mission. So much to look forward to!

2018 also gave us the chance to reflect on past discoveries and the steps forward that the scientific community has taken in many fields, such as particle physics. This year in fact marked the tenth anniversary of the first particles travelling in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, that made plenty of exciting discoveries possible – such as the Higgs bosonone of the most mysterious particles of the Standard model. The LHC is located at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, at the border between France and Switzerland.

A few years ago, one of our Science Communicators was fortunate enough to to visit CERN, and to see some of the instruments in LHC. This exciting opportunity came about because Cambridge Science Centre was part of the Explore Your Universe programme, which brought together 20 science and discovery centres across the UK, all committed to getting schools and public excited about science and technology – from particles to astrophysics. So, over to Zoë to hear something more about what CERN looks like from the inside.


What was the mission of your visit to CERN, and what did you get to see there?

We really wanted to see first-hand some of the amazing technology that scientists and engineers from all around the world have developed to help find the answers to some of the biggest questions known to humankind, and then to use this experience in our planning and developing of exciting new shows and workshops to inspire our audiences back home.

Over two days we toured some of the research facilities that sit above the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC), including two of the four centres where the two hadron beams collide. The first was ATLAS, where, overlooking the control room where the critical data were received and processed, we spoke with a researcher, Kate, who had been part of the team searching for, and ultimately finding, the elusive Higgs Boson particle. Next was the ‘rival’ CMS detector which, using entirely independent methods, led scientists to the same result; this time we descended 100 metres into the depths of the rock of the Geneva Basin so see the truly awesome 21-metre-long, 15-metre-wide solenoid magnet.


Wait, they do the same experiment twice?

Yes, they have to, because they are looking for collisions that are very rare. With just one experiment, you can’t be sure that your results are not affected by how your detector is built and the way it works. If scientists find the same results with another detector built in a completely different way, then they can go on to analyse them and learn more about the new discovery. And they have to do this also for all the data analysis – write different computer programs to dig the numbers from the findings, to verify each result independently. This is why so many researchers work at CERN.


That surely sounds like lots of work. Did you see much else?

Yes, and lots of cool stuff – in the real sense of the word! At the SMS18 cryogenic test facility we saw inside test superconducting magnets and were reminded that, thanks to carefully monitored streams of liquid helium, the LHC is the coldest place in the Universe, at just 1.9 Kelvin degrees above absolute zero. It is these cold temperatures that allow the supermagnets to reach such a high field strength.

Our tour concluded with visits to the Computer Centre, to see how they handle the data overload (including being shown the computer used at CERN by Tim Berners Lee to invent the World Wide Web) and to the S’Cool lab, which is an educational programme for 16-19 year old kids. The team showed us some of their very impressive demos and experiments, which they hope will inspire the next generation of scientists – they certainly inspired us! And my cat Ziggy, who was most interested in my CERN experience.


Thanks a lot Zoë for telling us everything about your trip to Switzerland!

Yes, it has been a great trip and a wonderful occasion to learn more about current research in fundamental physics. I should also say that this trip would not have been possible without the organisation of Dr Penny Fidler and her team at the Association of Science and Discovery Centres and Steph Hills, the UK Communications and Innovation Officer working at the CERN Press office. I am most grateful to them for arranging this fantastic trip, which was generously funded by the Science and Technologies Facilities Council.