I know it's not always easy to grasp all the scientific gibberish and savant stories about particle acceleration, protons, matter/anti-matter, and the so-called "God particle" that we often read about in the press. Nobody at CERN likes the "God" reference bit, likening the particle more to a "goddam elusive" particle. Last year we had a big bristle about the possible end of the world as we know it and the shenanigans that the CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or European Council for Nuclear Research) was trying to disclose to a wider audience.
I am not a rocket scientist (or am I?), but I was lucky to be invited twice to visit the CERN, meet scientists working there, and get a glimpse of a majestic apparatus 100 times more mind-boggling than any movie has ever been able to recreate. So let me tell you a little bit about what I learned.
One of my brothers lives in Geneva, which made it easy for me to get around the French-Swiss border that the CERN straddles. Its entrance is in Switzerland, and yet for the most part, the installation is on French territory; the working language at the center is English. The main visible feature from the outside is a semi-sheer sphere of copper color that looks like a leftover from a world fair and can be spotted from far away on the flat valley floor.
This is where British scientist Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, works. That instantly made me feel like I was entering a large playground of advanced humans with serious brain power and fertile intelligence, devoted to the pursuit of human betterment and maybe even salvation of our race. After all, Mr. Berners-Lee did change the world.
The European center for nuclear research is the working cathedral of more than 7,000 scientists and other workers from all over the globe. Among several projects, the main baby of the center is the Large Hadron Collider, the largest machine ever built on Earth, at a cost of about $9 billion. But why, you ask?
Well, the main focus of the collider is... to collide particles, in order to possibly find out how and why we came about as a human race standing on a small ball of fire in the middle of the limitless void. How and why our planet came around, leading to life on it, then to us, Homo sapiens sapiens (that's us). It is a very important and esoteric quest to finally discover where we came from. It would possibly lead to also trying to figure out where we are headed.
The geniuses at CERN are all ultra-specialists in their fields, and the hope is that the gathering of such brain power and mental cleverness might one day shed some light on the biggest mystery of all. How does a particle impact show the way? When traveling inside the buried 17-mile loop-shaped tunnel, the collider rushes particles at extremely high speed, and when the two subatomic particle beams travel towards each other in opposite directions, gathering energy, they finally collide violently and re-enact the Big Bang theory that holds the secret to the beginning of our world.
Last week it was announced that the Large Hadron Collider will remain shut down to allow for an upgrade until 2015, in order to double its current power and allow for new experiments that will continue the search for the creation of the universe, as well as potentially solving the concept of dark matter and the mystery of gravity. It's truly a challenging agenda.
Another project that will be tackled is the continuing search for the absolute confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson. One of the original main reasons for building the CERN was to discover the Higgs Field, where the bosons would live. I know you heard all about it when its theorist, scientist Peter Higgs, won the Nobel Prize in physics last year, but what is a Higgs boson, really?
For those of us who failed science classes, boson means particle. The Higgs kind would be a subatomic building block giving mass to matter. Why should we care? Because those building blocks are the foundation of our very own existence, and despite knowing perfectly how babies are made and born, we know very little about the creation and birth of our planet. So we search. And more than 7,000 men and women deep under 100 feet of French-Swiss soil are trying hard to find out, because knowledge and curiosity are main trait of the human race.
Everybody can visit the giant laboratory. Should you find yourself at the French-Swiss border near Geneva, do take a tour. It's mentally exhausting and incredibly fulfilling in terms of feeling extra-intelligent. The underground Large Hadron Collider itself is not open to visitors. Three hours or more are recommended for a visit. Tours are free of charge, but don't forget your passport!
More at cern.ch.