Earlier in May this year, a group of CN Yang Scholars had the opportunity to visit CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. They attended lectures and discussion sessions with Professors in CERN and toured some of the research facilities over there. They also toured parts of Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein and Germany as part of the leisure itinerary. All four members of the CN Yang Press & Publicity team went on the trip and here we present an account of the trip in each of our different perspectives.
…And if I could have a wish, may it be that we could come once again, this time with our minds brimming with deeper questions, our perspectives broader than before, our hands itchier than a child’s. Of those who have already decided to return, I can already make a list.
This account of our CN Yang students’ trip to CERN is simple. My last intention would be to confuse, I assure you, but in the midst of quirky quark names, pulverising proton beams, not to mention chewy (and indeterminate amounts of) cheesy cuisines, I hope not to lose you.
Particle physics is not my forte, but giving it a go was one of the most intriguing experiences I had done. While it is easy to brush aside the (probably) irrelevant little muons and gluons to biomedical engineering, who knew it could be so relevant… and so much fun. And before you brush me off as the nerdy anomaly, I’ll have you know I was surrounded by passionate physicists, mathematicians, and all forms of engineering prowess. While asking excessive questions might be a student’s occupational hazard, but the blizzard of questions we geared towards the researchers, professors and engineers who guided our tours, was a force of nature to be reckoned with, so much so that many of our questions were still left unanswered at the end.
Inside the CMS facility
I can never quite express the place of friends, but here I shall do my best to do justice to their eternally appreciated presence. Navigating the counter-intuitive galaxy of teeny tiny particles together, I learnt more than I imagined I would, and the pleasant surprise came when at the end, we were not only able to speak CERN’s language but also make jokes of it at the dinner table.
Additionally, meeting professionals of all occupations in CERN was an eye-opening experience. Be they engineers or scientists, willy wonkas or oompa lumpas, their parts to play in the entire research facility was entangled and indifferentiable. Nonetheless, their relationship is both competitive and collaborative, and the way each holds the other in regard is very interesting to see.
If anything, Cern left my mind boggled and thoroughly concerned, wondering if we would even find some answers to our questions in this generation. Perhaps it is not a matter of if, but when, and when we discover something even more ground breaking than the Higg’s boson, what will we do with the knowledge? Typical, we left with more questions than answers, yet we had felt more satisfied than before we arrived, and fat with new ideas and 3.50 francs quiches. Finally, for the clichéd quote to end the dilemma of the infamous last paragraph: Sometimes we have to get lost, perhaps drift for a bit in a universe unparalleled to all we have known and understood, that we will find ourselves. Add to that equation some unbearably nerdy jokes and a beautiful country, and if (when) you join us, at that time, I hope to lose you too.
“You take the red pill: you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” – Morpheus, The Matrix.
Last June, about 40 of us students managed to catch a glimpse of the physics wonderland, travelling deep underground to visit the many facilities of CERN to learn and understand more about the mysteries of particle physics and the origins of the universe. While the experience was brief, the imagery lingers on in our minds. It was exciting to listen to the complicated but intriguing ideas that the researchers and engineers there presented to us. We also had the opportunity to have a taste of a researcher’s life, often quite literally at the cafeteria which served a variety of delicious food for the hardworking individuals working in CERN. Furthermore, we had a good opportunity to tour the beautiful city of Geneva, which was a mere 20 minute’s tram ride from the facility of CERN to its city centre. However, this reflection would focus more on the sights of the research laboratories in CERN, which would be of a different perspective from the other writers.
Initially, I expected the outer appearance of CERN to be grand and magnificent, due to the publicity it garnered as the forefront of physics research and the futuristic photos of the facilities, like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). However, the facility actually looked spartan and simple. It had small aged buildings scattered around the vicinity, with many winding roads, parking lots, trees and large plots of lush green grass, reminiscent to an army camp found in Singapore. From a distance, large power cables passed through the quaint area. It turned out that most of the complex machinery featured in news articles were actually found deep underground, and some of them were out of bounds to visitors. Nevertheless, we still had the opportunity to learn about these facilities from the researchers or engineers themselves.
Inside the ASACUSA facility.
The inner facilities at CERN looked pretty daunting to me, as I marvelled at how the researchers and engineers could use such complex machinery and electrical setups to run an experiment that tested out new ideas in quantum physics. One of the experiment labs, the ASACUSA (Antiproton Decelerator), looked like a normal industrial workplace. There were winding pipes running overhead along the tall ceilings, and brightly painted platforms that seemed to be moveable. Tall boxes of electrical circuits, or server units, stood proudly around the facility, with haphazard, multi-coloured wires hanging around and linking to other units. One wondered what the significance of each tiny piece of wire was in such a monumental project. Tall railings stood to restrict access to these working areas or to prevent absent minded individuals from dropping from a great height. A long table was seen on the basement level, with many small items and a few pieces of paper scattered randomly around it. The scene looked like one from a typical Hollywood movie, where the scientists worked in a messy but sophisticated lab, working on the next big thing, except that all this was reality, something that older scientists like Einstein or Rutherford could never have imagined in their lifetimes.
The research of another project, CLOUD, was not underground but located in one of the buildings. The facility looked like a large warehouse with many concrete blocks stacked neatly (to block off the radiation) and metal staircases lying around, and there was a large cylinder at the centre of it all, which looked like it was wrapped with a layer of aluminium foil. Large metal pipes connected the cylinder to other complex machines. A female researcher stood beside the cylinder, monitoring the equipment and staring intensely at the computer screen, probably waiting for her moment of eureka to arrive.
An actual part of the tracker used in the ATLAS
At another facility, the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), we were getting used to the sight of large computer servers with complicated wiring, the edges of which were painted bright blue. There were huge silver pipes running along the corners and the ceiling, and many warning signs that signalled all types of danger, be it radiation, flammability or just a no-entry sign. This time, we were also treated with many posters and pictures of the machinery, along with tiny Lego-like models that explained to us the individual parts of the solenoid itself, which partially compensated the disappointment that we could not see the huge solenoid itself. We also passed through computer labs with many LCD displays showing all types of graphs and images with experimental information, and witnessed the computer geniuses hard at work looking at these screens, deep in thought, and the next moment typing furiously on their desktops. This was one of the scenes etched in my mind, because it was very similar to those shown in movies, and also the fact that I could see the passion in these researchers, who were so focused and hardworking on their desks.
To me, the entire underground facility of CERN felt like a deep labyrinth, the compound was large and full of visual delights, and our brains were always trying our best to comprehend the infinitely large number of photons entering our eyes at any point of time. There are still many vivid images stuck in my head, more than what I could include here, but now only memories remain of the fast paced visit, since time and tide wait for no one, except if you are a particle whizzing through the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) close to the speed of light. Even so, all of us will definitely treasure and remember these particular moments of space and time, where we took the red pill and collectively entered the same geographical coordinates in our own frames of life to tour the deep and mysterious rabbit quantum hole of particle physics together.
Koh Jia Xuan
…and down we went. What started simply as a name tossed out nonchalantly, had bloomed into a full-fledged trip that was set to bring us to the one of the biggest scientific institutes we have seen: CERN. Incredible as it may sound, to travel there to receive lectures, tours and even discuss with existing faculty, what was even more incredible was the amount of knowledge we were faced with as we dived nose-first into the world of particle physics. What I was left with was a flat face against a concrete floor.
View of the underground tunnel of the LHC. Note: This is just a poster
I was astounded by the myriad of terms that scurried all over the page, as I tirelessly chipped away at what was clearly a solid, marble slab of knowledge. Too much, it felt like too much. What seemed at first to be yet another chapter of science, had me standing at the Doors of Truth, struggling to speak the language to gain entrance. I was lost and was falling ever further down, deeper and deeper. Slowly piecing together the parts of the puzzle that lay within my grasp, I could vaguely make out the shape of what it was I seeked. And then epiphany. I can never truly say I saw it for what it truly was, but I managed to get a handhold. I could finally make some semblance of sense out of it.
As exaggerated as it may sound, this was truly my experience as I trudged through wikipedia pages, articles, sometimes even the dreaded journals to make sense of what it was I hoped to learn from CERN. And there I saw the depths that this would go, the amount of mental gymnastics it would require and I marvelled at the capabilities of those daring enough to work on it.
But as I surveyed it all, I realised that even though I was just scratching the surface, I had gained a wealth of knowledge that would never leave me; a new perspective to view the world and that was all worth the effort.
But, scientific knowledge is not the only thing I gained on this trip. I fear that I may have gained some weight in the process. In between mental exercises that threatened to destroy my brain, were hearty meals consisting of generous servings of cheese, potatoes and pastries. As concepts assailed my mind, I found comfort in the warmth and flavor of the food, richness never tasted before.
Hopefully, the amount of walking during the trip managed to work the weight off. Even during our 4 days in CERN, evening times were free for little adventures around Geneva, be it travelling to parks in the city centre, simple grocery shopping or even wandering to the neighbouring farms to marvel at the expanse of empty fields. To match our voracious wanderlust, our tour that came swiftly after brought us across the borders of Switzerland, to Liechtenstein, Austria, and Germany.
Stopping for only a day or two at each location may not have been optimal for really soaking in what the town or city could really offer, but it was sufficient as the number of locations visited added variety to the landscapes that we saw. Venturing through the region brought us to quaint little valley towns, hiking adventures to the top of ancient castles and climbing up the tallest church tower we could find, all to gain a better vantage point. As we wandered through towns, the obvious tourist bent in certain areas of town was obvious and it was mildly amusing, albeit a little frightening too, that the town could feel so different as you ventured out of these ‘tourist zones’. Away from the hustle and bustle of tourists swarming souvenir stores, the town was quiet, eerily serene, with the occasional villager strolling along the streets. Moments like these, had us feeling tense and wary, senses all on high alert. Like sheep that had wandered from the herd, we felt suddenly alone. Maybe we had travelled too far out, and we noted our distance from comfort. Or maybe we realised how far off we may have gone from the beaten track (not very far to be honest). But it was then that I had a thought, if I kept on walking forward, what would I see, what would I feel, do I dare to venture farther to glimpse the depth of this adventure?
Well, only if you would come along with me…
As a Physics Major, I have read numerous articles and stories about CERN and their discoveries, including the recent confirmed finding of the Higgs boson. When CERN was announced to be one of our destinations for the overseas learning trip, I signed up for it immediately. Prior to our departure, however, we were tasked to read up on particle physics and its applications, and share our findings with the rest of our peers. Without much prior knowledge in the relevant field, we struggled to grapple with the scientific jargon and concepts. Wikipedia became our vade mecum, and would always be on our laptop screens during group discussions and meetings. Reading up on CERN and their facilities helped to build interest in particle physics, and many of us were genuinely eager to embark on this trip.
The fields in CERN. The downsized model of the pipes used in the underground LHC bears CERN’s motto: “Accelerating Science” or “Accélérateur de science” in French.
Being at CERN itself was an entirely different experience. Bombarded by mind boggling yet interesting concepts and topics such as “quantum chromodynamics, dark energy and matter, string theory…” left me thoroughly confused yet excited. Physics had much more potential than previously assumed, and we were thrilled to be a part of it.
While numerous pictures of the various facilities in CERN were available on the Internet, these were a far cry from what we witnessed first-hand. From the immensely powerful multipole magnets to the transport equipment, every structure was engineered to a scale so massive that it was unimaginable.
Our departure from CERN took us through Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein and Germany as part of our leisure itinerary. We found ourselves clutching onto our cameras as we sped through the picturesque landscapes and architecture along the streets and highways of Europe. Mountains, meadows and rivers were aplenty, a far cry from the concrete jungle back home. Whilst in Interlaken, we boarded a train and travelled 3466 metres above sea level, taking in the wondrous sights of Jungfraujoch. I vividly remember our squeals of excitement as many of us were seeing snow for the first time, and the images of mountains cast in white were distant fairy tales brought to life. Jungfraujoch was but one of the many attractions we visited. From the Jet d’eau in Geneva to the Glockenspiel in Munich, we managed to venture through the streets on our own while relying on maps for directions. The food, sights, and sounds of Europe left us breathless and I have thoroughly enjoyed every part of the trip.