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Young Chemists in Western Switzerland: A Particle Physics Crash Course at CERN

The last day of our Tour de Suisse took us to Geneva. Here, we took Metrohm Young Chemist Award winners Antonella and Bibekananda to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. 

We spent our last evening with Metrohm Young Chemist Award winners Antonella and Bibekananda in Lucerne. The cultural capital of central Switzerland is one of the most popular spots in the country for tourists from abroad. The romantic atmosphere on Lake Lucerne and the charming historic houses decorated with frescoes of Old Town Lucerne make every photo look like a postcard.

Christmas market in Lucerne’s old town

But we didn’t have a lot of time in Lucerne. We left early the next morning for Geneva where we had booked a guided tour of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The research center on the Franco-Swiss border was founded in 1954, short after World War II, when Europe had lost its leading role in scientific research. Twelve European countries were involved in the founding of CERN. Today, 22 European states are full members of CERN, and the organization employs more than 2600 staff members. In addition, it hosts even more fellows, associates, students, apprentices, and associates. Another impressive number: CERN’s Theoretical Physics Department published on average one paper per day in 2017. 

On the CERN campus, which extends across the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva

Our guide was Mark, an English physicist who had retired from CERN two years ago. He walked us through the construction of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) with lots of wry humor. The LHC is the largest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world. Scientists at CERN use it for experiments that will illucidate the physics of how the world works.

Building the circular particle accelerator with a circumference of 27 kilometers required technology that wasn’t available at the time. CERN works together with European companies to overcome such challenges. Even though the organization focuses on fundamental research alone, research at CERN has been driving technology forward. Some inventions without which life could not be imagined today originated here at CERN. Touchscreens, for example. And the internet.

Cryogenics laboratory at CERN

Mark went in detail about the challenges of creating the strong magnetic fields that are needed to deviate particles in the LHC. Such magnetic fields are created by sending a strong current through superconducting coils. To make the coils superconductive, they need to be cooled to -273 °C, which is done with liquid helium. But if anything fails and the coils heat up, the helium evaporates—and there’s a massive explosion.

The LHC has been in use since 2010, and has been instrumental in the discovery of the Higgs boson, which was big in the world of physics: the Higgs boson had been described in theory as a part of the Standard Model of particle physics, which explains the forces and particles in our universe. Proving the existence of the Higgs boson experimentally showed that physicists are on the right track with this model. Now it’s the theorists’ turn to come up with new hypotheses to test!

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2 Comments

  • Roman

    Mark a.k.a. “the sexiest voice at CERN”. These were the words his colleague at the reception used when he introduced Mark to us as our guide. Mark was great indeed.

    December 21, 2018 - 10:02 am Reply
  • C S Ramachandran

    Matters related to Particle Physics usually don’t grab headlines but the Higgs boson particle and CERN garnered serious global attention six years ago, partly thanks to its controversial nickname, the ‘God particle’. As the article indicates towards the end, if the Higgs boson does exist, the mystery will unravel further in the days to come!

    December 21, 2018 - 1:15 pm Reply

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