Visiting CERN

A few weeks ago, my NDSR cohort & I had the great opportunity to present our paper at iPres 2016 in Bern, Switzerland! This was my first ever peer reviewed paper and it was accepted! Not a bad first time 😁. Our presentation went really well -- there was good audience engagement and it seemed like there was real potential for people to extend or use our study (with all our open access data!). One of my favourite moments was right after our presentation, when an audience member (whose name escapes me, I'm so sorry if you're reading this!) told us that we were part of very few people he'd seen accurately use grounded theory. I doubt this is true, but it was flattering nonetheless.

This was the first time that the 5 of us (NDSR-NY '14-15) were all together since our graduation ceremony, May 2015. I missed everyone so much! After being so involved in each other's lives during our Residency it was nice to all be face to face again. We did lots of cute Bern things together, like visiting the man-eating-babies statue, eating a lot of rosti, and wandering open-air markets. I miss them already!

NDSR Bern

NDSR Bern!

The last day I was in Switzerland, I took a 2-hour train ride down to Geneva where James Beacham, a former phD student at NYU and now postdoc at CERN, gave me an insanely awesome, half-official, half-unofficial tour of The European Organization for Nuclear Research, A.K.A. CERN. I put all the pictures of my trip to CERN at the bottom of the page, because this post would go on forever if they weren't in a gallery, so skip there if you just want pictures 😄.


CERN: Unofficial Tour Part 1

I met James right outside the CERN reception center bright and early (for me, ok?) to begin my big tour of CERN! We checked on the status for my official tour later on and hopped into a CERN car! Yes, they have car sharing "on campus." Seriously cool.

Then we went to FRANCE! to see the SM-18, the facility where they test the magnets and instrumentation for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)! The superconducting magnets are tested at temperatures as low as 1.9K -- colder than outer space!! This is how they get to be super conducting. There are 1,200 of these in the LHC, which is 100 meters underground, designed to hold radiation for 5-10 years.

James and I were in the SM18 for most of the morning, since he discovered my understanding of particle physics was not really good... I was very lucky in that he spent a GOOD amount of time explaining things to me. I get the Standard Model, which has been around forever (well, 1930s) and is still used extensively to understand how particles interact, and the forces that govern them.

My favourite quote from James during this tutorial session was easily: "We're swimming in a jelly of Higgs Bosons," but he had some other great ones too, about his job. James refers to himself as a "cartographer" and a "particle hunter" which needs to be on his business card ASAP.

After Particle Physics 101, 102, and 103 in the SM-18, we stopped off at the LHC control center!! Apparently, James had never been in there before and we were able to quietly lurk in the doorway and take pictures. The folks in the control room at ATLAS and CMS take their cues from these folks -- they make the protons smash. The best part - there was still a wall of champagne bottles from the discovery of the Higgs 😂!


CERN: Official Tour

After a quick coffee in one of CERN's cafeterias, we headed back to reception. James had gotten me on a wait list for an official guided tour at 13h, and since they had some cancellations, I was lucky enough to join! The tour guide was a physicst at ATLAS, which was really great because I got a repeat of my "Intro to Particle Physics." We started off outside the Universe of Particles to take a look at the magnet out there and get everyone acquainted with the idea of the research going on here.

We checked out ATLAS afterward. The building that houses ATLAS has an incredibly beautiful mural depicting what the interior looks like -- which is hard to tell, because it's 26 meters (85 feet) high. The size is proportional to the amount of energy given to particles for collisions -- and there are about 40 million collisions per second. Using a lot of heuristics and extra processing, the physicists deal with a dataset of about 1,000 collisions. Atlas primarily studies quark gluon plasma (proton has 3 quarks). James explained it to me like this: gravity is a super weak force, because we fight and win against gravity all the time (we can jump, for instance). But, the force that binds quarks together is super super strong because we cannot pry quarks apart -- when quarks get pulled too far apart, another quark is created in the vacuum.

mind blown

Mind. Blown. (Image from Tim & Eric).

After hanging out in the ATLAS control room, we went over to visit the Synchrotron! This was the old, old proton Synchrotron from 1960. There was a pretty nice light show and presentation about the evolution of CERN, nuclear research, and smashing particles.


CERN: Unofficial Tour Part 2

After meeting back up with James and discovering that someone didn't return the car for us(🙄), we walked over to Building 40. This is mostly an office building, but it was seriously pretty. Also pretty funny to mention -- there is a weird fake-ish rivalry between ATLAS and CMS that the tour guides kind of play up. In Building 40, there was an interesting split where on the right side of the room, there was a lounge decked out in ATLAS gear, and on the left there was one for CMS gear. The fake-ish rivalry plays out!

One thing I really wanted to see was the Data Center, so we headed over there. Since the World Wide Web was born at CERN, there was a lot of cool stuff there about the history of the web. In my image gallery below, you'll see a great picture of a bunch of servers with the label "World Wide Web Servers." So great!

We then went to see LEAR, the Low Energy Antiproton Ring, which became LIAR, the Low Energy Ion Ring in 1996. LIAR provides lead-ion injections for the LHC. There was a bunch of information there about the search for anti-matter (which physicists KNOW exist, but can't recreate or quantify yet), which is obviously really cool. James made this point a few times during the day -- there are things Science knows exist from empirical observation, things that astrophysicists observe, but the particle folks haven't discovered the particles for yet. Like gravity -- no one has discovered a graviton yet. Or the particles that make up antimatter or dark matter. Science has observed these things, so now the particle hunters are on the lookout. It's like a puzzle waiting to be solved.

The end of my day was a self-guided tour of their Microcosm exhibit, followed by some journal writing in the hardware graveyard. I got kicked out of the graveyard by a security guard (we spoke French together!!) and then kicked out of the reception by a receptionist (in English, this time though). I took James and one of his colleagues out for dinner, and then made the 2-hour journey back to Bern.


Seriously feeling beyond lucky that James took some time off from working at CERN to show me around CERN & educate me on particle physics and the research done there. Next time I visit though, I'm totally going to finagle getting into the library. By the way, here are those pictures I took during my visit!