20 Jan 2012

A visit to Cern is a journey to the beyond

What strikes you as you arrive at Cern, is just how old the buildings are that house this vast 21st century scientific brilliance. ‘Sixties jerry-built’ would not be unkind – peeling paint, faded colours contrasting with what lies beyond – vineyards, stately chateaux shrouded in the Swiss mist. You get no sense of the beauty and scale of what lies below.

What captivates at Cern, is not just the scientific daring – pushing out beyond any frontier physics has ever known – but the extraordinary anthropological circumstance in which it is carried out.

I’ll come to the science in a moment. But imagine 1,000 PhDs from 38 countries supported by 2,000 other physicists and engineers, from 174 universities, supported by thousands staff from 100 countries across the world.

Indian, Pakistani, Israelis, Saudis (including, in particular, woman scientists) work alongside each other. There is the most extraordinary cohesion. And the leadership is meritocratic: every section director we met was amongst the finest physicist or engineer of his and her generation.

I was particularly struck by Professor Fabiola Gionnotti who gave up her concert piano career (from Bach to Debussy) to concentrate on physics and now leads the Atlas team that generates and finally processes the findings of the Hadron Super Collider.

Cern is a European venture, hatched in 1954 to harness the science that had played so infernal a role in war, for peaceful purpose. Amazingly Europe has funded it (£6bn to build, £1bn annual costs), ever since. It is proof, if proof were ever needed, that Europe as a selfless non-nationalistic entity can work.

So to the science – this extraordinary 27km ring under the Swiss-French borders beyond Geneva plays host to the igniting and projection of the most powerful beam in the world – blasted at just under the speed of light, to collide with another beam hurtling at the same speed. From the combustion of that collision flow many secrets of the universe.

Key amongst them the question as to whether Professor Higgs’ theory that there is a particle that plays a critical role in shaping mass. The scientists declare that they will definitely know whether the particle, the ‘Higgs Boson’, does, or does not exist sometime this year.

If it does not, the consequence will be as exciting as if it does. Because it will mean that something else is in play – and no one will have a clue quite what. But if it does, it will finally confirm the basis upon which particle physics is currently predicated.

We were taken right into the tunnel to see the vast Barrel Toroid magnets that bend the beams around the circle. But the great climax was to visit the massive cathedral-like chamber in which the ‘Detector’ is housed.

It is in and of itself a complex of unbelievable beauty. Bronze, silver, gold sheeted panels – box like elements with blue, red, yellow, and copper black wires threaded between them. A part on the left is like a great Richard Rogers tower – looking like the Pompidoou Centre in Paris. To the right the construct looks like a vast water wheel stacked with graceful metallic contraptions.

We were lucky – it had all been stilled for its winter maintenance. Towering more than a 150ft above us, we were reduced to midgets. Inside it all, men and women worked feverishly to ready it for its next great test.

Make no mistake – particle physics is as exciting as rocket propulsion and space science were for the last generation.

I’m no scientist – I was turned on to Cern by Rolf Heuer the director-general of the whole shooting match. I interviewed him in front of 1,000 people at the Hay Festival last year.

From my zero gravity feed of no information he fuelled me with an enthusiasm that has not waned to this day. I cannot wait for the Higgs Boson resolution. Delving deep into the sumptuous beauty of the apparatus that will make that great discovery has proved one of the most exciting of days.

By the way, one of the engineers told me that isolating the either existent or non-existent particle is like fishing, save that instead of taking the fish out, you take the water out – and they have just about extracted every drop that there is. Make of that as you will!

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14 reader comments

  1. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    An exciting time for you then. Amongst the enthusiasm I share with you ,is the frustration that we are too old to probably know the answers to the questions. Is there a god particle? can times supposedly linear construction be shufftied around so we can see into past and future ? are wormholes real? what exactly happens in black holes? why is space , distance and time such a hard physical journey ?
    Can we perceive other universal lives , then configure our imaginations to bring them into our focus? and from thereon do our psychologies as human beings match universal patterns which interact and become apart of the darwenesque earth? and so on and on and on …

  2. John Wetherell says:

    Brilliant post. Thank you. As always a perfect balance of the personal and the objective. I particularly liked how you touched so skilfully (i.e. briefly) on the fact that we are now exploring the very tiny quantum level, with the same trepidation that, in the sixties, we sent rockets up into the vastness.

  3. Ann Kittenplan says:

    1 Great to see science getting more and more mainstream attention. This speaks to the original thesis of the Two Cultures lecture.

    1a Now science just needs to be treated equally to scepticism and constructive criticism. Who’s up to the job?

    2 Chronocentrism = something like egotism on a cosmic scale: The belief that in, the 13 billion year history of the universe you, yes you, are around when the most important discovery is made*. A Theory of Everything? Really? Will it still be Theory of Everything in a 1000 years? Perspective please. Humility.

    2a Related. The LHC means we can see deeper into the mysteries of the universe but why on Earth should it provide any ultimate answers? Just bc we can engineer it. Next up the XLHC.

    2b Also related but more accurately Anthropocentric: Is there any reason the laws of nature should be “beautiful” or biddable to an axiomatic approach. Isn’t this a relic of an evolved mind working to fit the universe? To what extent do our evolved minds impose order on fundamentally disorderly nature?

    *See Francis Fukuyama’s End of History. The end. Of History. Lol. Egotism large enough to span the vastness of time. And he was taken very seriously.

  4. Philip Edwards says:


    And not a profit motive in sight………..


  5. peter from bristol says:

    Dear Jon. Good report on Cern. I am a great believer that the truth is often stranger than the fiction. I think that Super Luminal Propagation (invisibility cloaking devices) will soon become available it will be made in to a film like Material which is what Teflon the Meta material is. It will have Military applications to improve Stealth technology. One day in hundreds of years’ time since they spilt the Atom they will be able to open up a Black Hole in outer space and travel through it. Scientific advancement has the sky as a limit. Cern should have not have been a circular collider it should have been a Linear one. Peter Miller BSc Open University Postman from Bristol

  6. Saltaire Sam says:

    I understand the excitment and desire to explore the origins of the universe and all that other stuff. I can sit and listen to Brian Cox and wonder at the vastness of it all and be intrigued about how and why it works.

    But I can’t help feeling that the billions of pounds that have been spent around the world over the last 50 years on space travel and things like Cern, would have been better spent providing everyone on the planet we know exists with clean drinking water.

    1. John Wetherell says:

      You’re right actually. But there are shades of grey, and the real waste is the military not the science.

  7. adil says:

    I too cannot wait for the exclusion of all sectors that the Higgs does not exist. No disrespect to Prof Higgs. I have always thought that the model is, well, in-elegant. And, the neutrino sector (if you’re interested, there’s a truly beautiful detector in Japan) has intriguing problems that do not fit the model that necessitates the Higgs.

    One thing that is important is to see that such an environment generates lots of expertise and skills applicable in many areas. There have been lots of applications of the technology (computing, hardware) and data analysis (statistics, modelling) that have been applied in many areas outside of science.

    It’s important to pursue these questions because by doing so we understand how things work and what is and is not possible and how they can benefit everything.

  8. dtb200 says:

    Yes – agree an excellent blog and and as usual, just the right length to read easily in one go on iPad, rather than leaving it to read later, which never happens. Guess it would be a 3 min package on TV or something like that..?

  9. Stephen Downes says:

    If the Higgs Boson really exists,we know nothing of what it may lead to.What if it where the trappings of a black hole! We would be reverse fed into it.
    I too am facinated by the beauty that you have described in your blog;it is an amazing achievement by everyone.
    We must be cautious. If you don’t know what it is your messing with then surely caution has to be the order of the day.

  10. adrian clarke says:

    Oh ,indeed the article exudes the enthusiasm of the seeker ,looking for the intangible,the unknown,the possible and maybe even probable.Yet no hint of the reason.Does the elusive so called”God Particle” exist?If it does and if it is found,of what use is it to mankind?
    It will help us know how the Universe was formed!!.Do we want to form a new universe?Is a particle of such power a dangerous thing?Dangerous to our very existance,if scientists,no matter how brilliant,start playing with the unknown.Could the “Cern” project itself cause an explosion ,capable of destroying Earth.The quest for knowledge though admirable can be dangerous.On a smaller scale,myxomatosis, eradicates rabbits,but can not seemingly be controlled.GM crops sounds great yet now appears to be a dangerous commodity.Scientists tampering with DNA,supposedly in a quest to remedy life’s ailments.Playing “God” can always be excused by those doing it.

  11. Meg Howarth says:

    Beautiful infectious post, Jon. Am now fully on board.

    Had hopped on during a recent TV prog on same where I was struck by the co-operative spirit (at work and in the canteen!) – your ‘extraordinary cohesion’, perhaps. And amen to your ‘Europe as a selfless non-nationalistic entity’. There’s a model her for everyday life: fancy waking up every day to the co-operation of working together (hand and head, no elitist intellectual/manual labour split) to provide us with the basics of life, and then enjoying one another’s company and the creation of new things/ideas? How different, alas, from the current reality where even ‘shelter’ for our children, an essential for living a life, is increasingly hard to acquire given the growing obscenity of unearned rentier parasitic income.

    But I’m optimistic – social media, particularly Twitter – is an empowering and democratising tool. Indeed I like to think that it’s already affecting the domestic social and political agenda. As at Cern, thousands of people working together can produce ‘extraordinary and effective cohesion’.

    An inspiring post – feel even more uplifted. Thank you!

  12. Anthony Martin says:

    It’s great to see you have absorbed yourself into such an intriguing subject Jon. It’s even better that you’re kind enough to share your thoughts and experiences.
    Much about the LHC is formed as a result of scientists ‘standing on the shoulders of others’ but, they’re worthy of recognition for their input and hard work via this collaberation. Who can blame ’em. I just hope we don’t get the typical media frenzy according all the attention on celebrity Physicists if/when Higgs Field/particle/Boson ‘God’ factor proves to be correct. It’s a team effort and as such, it should be conveyed that way rather than big egos awaiting a Nobel prize!
    Super Symmetry may underpin Higgs and, quantum weirdness may always be the order of the day but, let’s not forget that much good and evil has resulted from scientific experimentation but, never as much as the colossal scale of religious brainwashings.
    To those involved at CERN, where Atlas forms the central ‘photographic’ record of decades of work, let’s hope no unforeseen quantum mutations like ‘Strangelets’, MBHs (Mini Black Holes) or, Dark Matter inference manifest in some morphological ‘Bio-genesis Destructive Consequence’ as a result!

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