CERN Trip 2018

In May, students and staff from the Physics department visited CERN in Switzerland. Student Katelyn Chelberg gives us her account of the trip.... 

CERN Physics Trip 2018

In May, twelve lucky Alton College Physics students travelled to Switzerland to explore the world-famous CERN campus. There, physicists work on the forefront of modern science as they try to explain the sub-atomic world and answer questions as old as the Big Bang. One of the ways they do this is by smashing particles together in the 27km particle accelerator. 

After a painful 4am start and a flight from Gatwick to Geneva, we arrived at CERN wearing shorts and sunglasses. We ate a hearty lunch and paid with the very beautiful Swiss money which is as colourful as monopoly notes.  

We crossed the road to an exhibition that guided us through a short history of CERN. Who knew that in Switzerland lay the origins of the World Wide Web, and that the initial idea was only described as ‘Vague but exciting’? Next on the to-do list was the anti-matter factory, where anti-hydrogen is produced. The only problem with anti-matter is storing it: anti-matter annihilates upon contact with ordinary matter… 

The evening was an exciting trip into the centre of Geneva. We could see the fountain in the centre of Lake Geneva and explored some of the many streets to find the best chocolates to take home. 

CERN has many accelerators which work together in succession to accelerate particles to increasingly higher energies. Each machine boosts the energy of a beam of particles, before injecting the beam into the next accelerator in the chain. In the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the last and largest of the machines – two beams travel in opposite directions until they collide inside one of four detectors – ALICE, ATLAS, CMS or LHCb. 

The next morning, we visited the ATLAS control centre, where we laughed when shown the small blip in a curved graph that proved the existence of the Higgs Boson – a previously only theorised elementary particle. A time-lapse video of the construction during 2007 showed the enormous scale of the detector and the time and resources spent designing it.

We visited the engineering facility where we could see the massive electromagnets used to keep the beam of particles in a very tight line, and the concertinas designed to let the tunnel expand and contract when the LHC is filled with liquid helium; we also visited a life size replica of a section of the tunnel.

After a very Swiss lunch filled with cheese and pastries, we visited the Synchro-cyclotron facility, CERN’s oldest particle accelerator, which is now used as a son-et-lumiere exhibition about the history of CERN. There is a video of this on Youtube (look for: The Synchrocyclotron Experience, CERN). The Synchrocyclotron ran from 1957-1990, before all work moved to the larger Proton Synchrotron Booster. CERN is already planning a new accelerator, to be built in around 40 years’ time, much larger than the LHC, allowing physicists to accelerate particles even closer to the speed of light. 

Just as we were leaving, a lucky few of us met Maria Fidecaro, an Italian experimental physicist and CERN celebrity. Along with her husband, she led revolutionary research on sub-atomic particles called pions using a cloud chamber. We saw a cloud chamber, where tiny particles such as muons and alpha particles leave wispy tracks as they fly through space. 

We managed to fit a huge amount in only two days. Mick and Fiona, our teachers, were fantastic and made everything go smoothly. We really enjoyed the trip and would do it all again if we could.