Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Switzerland for the Day

Courts is far more qualified to write this post, but I’ll give it a go. After 2 days of nothing much in Cormatin, we ventured out of town on a day trip. Not just any day trip, we went to Switzerland for the day.

We had been planning to do this for many months, ever since we discovered it was a 2 hour drive to the border at Geneva – because that’s where CERN is. CERN is the largest Nuclear Physics Laboratory in the world. If you’ve read Dan Browns books, CERN is the place where the bad guys steal the Antimatter at the start of… Angels and Demons, I think.

The fictionally stolen Antimatter comes from a real place – The Large Hadron Collider. Again you might have heard of this – it was in the news when it finally started operating last year, recreating the effects of the Big Bang in a circular underground tunnel. The tunnel is 27km in circumference and 100-150m underground. The physicists at CERN send groups of particles in opposite directions around the tunnel to eventually collide with each other on the other side at speeds near the sound of light. These collisions create new particles, the same ones seen in the universe seconds after the Big Bang and some never seen since, until now.

With Courtney being most of the way through a Physics degree (he’ll be finishing it next year) CERN is like a playground to him, and so we reserved places on a free but high-demand tour of the facilities as soon as we knew we’d be in the area.

We set out from camp just before 7am and made it to CERN with plenty of time before our 10.30am tour. Due to a legitimately innocent wrong turn at the border and the ill-sighted cops that waived us through, we were cruising Switzerland without a Motorway Vignet, a compulsory windshield sticker that costs 40 Euro at the border. Once we parked the bike, thankfully only 20 minutes from the border itself, I was relieved to no longer be fast-moving targets for massive Swiss fines.

After a video detailing the history of CERN, our tour guide took over, a young woman with bright red hair and good but broken English. She took us across the road from reception to stand in front of a massive super-conducting magnet as she went talked about the LHC and why it’s so exciting. Over the next two hours we were taken through Atlas, the biggest of four experiment sights set up around the circumference of the LHC tunnel. We saw a short 3D movie showing how they put it all together and peered through windows at the physicists operating the sight itself.

Once the guided tour was over, we were free to explore the two exhibits on site. The first was in a room that was basically a massive projector screen that surrounded you on all sides. Every half an hour a video played using up all parts of the room and explaining more about particles. Throughout the room were pods that were either touchscreen and full of information, or hollow and containing exhibits. We saw the first ever circular collider - which was tiny and fit easily inside an exhibition pod – and the first ever server for the World Wide Web, which was invented at CERN.

The other exhibit, Microcosms, was much bigger and really interactive. They’ve really made a big effort to make the whole thing really interesting and they use sound, film, pictures and interaction to do so. I’m discovering on this trip that I’m not really one for exhibits so I spent a bit of time sitting in the film rooms just watching the clips while Courts devoured every part of the rest of the exhibit.

All in all we were at CERN for 5 hours and it was well worth going. Courts absolutely loved it, and the only time I got bored was when we were going through the exhibit rooms, but I get bored in exhibit rooms no matter what the subject matter. They’ve done really well to make it interesting for kids and adults alike, and aim the information low enough for people like me that don’t have much background knowledge but high enough to keep someone like Courts entertained.

Plus, it’s kind of cool to say we went to Switzerland for the day.

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