Life at CERN: The Mythbuster Edition

A column by Yi Ling Hwong

cern-lhc

Deep beneath the plains of the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, in a man-made tunnel stretching over 27 km, lies one of humankind’s greatest engineering feats of all time. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the flagship accelerator of the European Organisation of Nuclear Research (CERN), is the largest scientific instrument ever built to study the smallest constituents of matter. Scientists are on a quest to dig into the deepest secrets of our universe and to answer questions that have plagued generations of thinkers.

At least that’s what the media says.

Thanks and no thanks to the massive hype over CERN’s near-mythical state of research, misconceptions abound over what really goes on behind those steel-reinforced (no, they are not), eyeball-scanner-controlled (yes, they exist) doors. Reality can be stranger than fiction, no doubt about that. But more often than not, it is simply misunderstood. Headline-grabbing titles might entice the masses, but they do little to help penetrate the biggest myth of all about science: that it is hard and thus only for the ultra-intelligent.

In an effort to bust these pesky little myths, here are the top five most misunderstood facets of CERN.

1. The LHC is built to find the Higgs Boson

The Higgs boson—sometimes referred to as ‘The God Particle’, much to the chagrin of Peter Higgs, its eponymous predictor—is a theorised particle that gives mass to all matters in the universe. Two detectors of the LHC, the ATLAS and CMS experiments, successfully detectedthis particle—thus proving its existence—in the summer of 2012, and won Peter Higgs a Nobel Prize in Physics the following year.

The LHC, however, was not built just to find the Higgs. It was also built to help scientists find the answers to other important questions: what is the nature of dark matter and dark energy (which together make up 95% of our universe)? Why is there more matter than antimatter in the universe (theories say there should be equal amount)? Are there other dimensions besides the four (if we include the dimension of time) that we observe?

Finding the answers to these will close a huge gap in our understanding of the universe.

CERN Data Centre. Photo: CERN

CERN Data Centre. Photo: CERN

2. It must be really hot in the LHC tunnels!

The LHC collides protons. These protons are accelerated to almost the speed of light and collide more than 600 million times per second. Heat (energy) is generated during collisions, thus the LHC must be like a furnace, correct?

Wrong.

In fact, the magnets that make up the tunnel and are responsible for guiding the particles around the accelerator rings are cooled to -271.3°C – a temperature colder than outer space. This chilling is necessary to cool the electric cables to a superconducting state, so that they can efficiently conduct electricity without resistance or loss of energy.

CERN is, quite literally, the coolest place on earth.

CERN is, quite literally, the coolest place on earth.

3. CERN is only for people who study physics

Founded by European physicists back in early 1950s, CERN was initially a research organisation for particle physics. Over the years, CERN’s research has grown so much that it has necessarily branched out to many other fields: engineering, computing, environmental and space science and most recently, medical science. CERN also employs mathematicians, computer scientists, lawyers, accountants, communication professionals and many more.

Take computing as an example. Every collision that happens in the LHC (remember, this happens approximately 600 million times per second) generates particles that often decay into more particles. The passage of each of these particles are recorded as electronic signals which are then sent as data to the CERN Data Centre (see Figure 1). The amount of data generated is enough to fill around 100,000 DVDs every year! An army of IT and computing specialists are needed to come up with intelligent ways to process and manage this gigantic amount of data.

4. Everything at CERN is swanky and meticulously organised

After all, we did build the world’s biggest machine. And invented the World Wide Web.

Sure, state-of-the-art technologies are being used; the grandiosity of the main auditorium rivals that of the Carnegie hall; there are touch screens every couple of steps in the main building; the LHC control centre looks like a scene out of Star Trek.

But you would be wrong to think that is all CERN is – organised, modern and high-tech. There are quirks. Plenty of them. Buildings are numbered at random (building 3 sits next tobuilding 534, and building 533 does not exist); tapes (yes, these) are still being used to record data (‘if it is working, don’t fix it’); people still work in old buildings with creaky stairs and windows that do not close; and coffee machines still make bad coffee.

5. People who work at CERN are serious and nerdy (read: boring)

There are people who are genuinely so passionate about physics that they make CERN their second home. The stereotypical image of a mad scientist buried deep in mountain-high papers? They exist too1.

Professor John Ellis in his office at CERN. Photo: Alex Loth

Professor John Ellis in his office at CERN. Photo: Alex Loth

But boring? Not even if they tried. The dozens of social clubs and extracurricular endeavours taking place daily are a testament to the people’s creativity and boundless energy. Produce and release a film about vampires, inside CERN, without authorisation, while working towards a PhD? It’s been done. Play in a rock band? There are even annual music festivals inside CERN (aptly named ‘Hardronic festival’). Dancing in the library? Why not.

They are people who are used to pushing boundaries, question conventional wisdom and do things differently

It can be challenging to communicate with people who are non-conformists, and CERN is full of them. These are people who are used to push boundaries, question conventional wisdom and do things differently. But they are also some of the brightest, funniest, kindest, most inquisitive and humble people I have ever met. They embody the spirit of science, quiet but steadfast in their pursuit of verifiable truth in a world too often cluttered with noise and gimmicks.

And they are the things I miss most about CERN.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way the official policy or position of CERN.

1 The scientist here is John Ellis, one of the most respected scientists at CERN. He is also one of the most brilliant individuals I have ever met and is in no way serious and nerdy. Quite the opposite, read this story about the Penguin Diagram

This article first appeared in the Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 10. Check out other articles in Issue 10 by downloading the PDF version for free here: Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 10 (PDF version)