22 June 2023
Writing: Yotam Margoninski-Morrag (Year 12)
Editing: Helisha Verma (Year 12)
The arrival of summer and the end of exams meant it was once again time for the annual Challoner’s physics visit to CERN: over 40 physics students making the journey to what may be the holy grail of physics on the Swiss-French border. It’s here, at the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN, or the European Council for Nuclear Research in English) in long, underground tunnels just outside Geneva, where particles are smashed together at nearly the speed of light. This has the aim of recreating the conditions present just after the Big Bang to make and track down even the most elusive of particles, like the Higgs’ boson, whose existence was predicted in the 1960s but confirmed by the LHC (Large Hadron Collider - the world’s largest at nearly 27 km in circumference) only in 2012. In this way, research at CERN hopes to answer some of physics' most pressing unsolved questions, such as “What is ‘dark matter’ made of?”, and “Why is antimatter rare?” compared to just regular matter.
It was an early start: congregating at 5 AM before heading off to Heathrow for our flight to Geneva. After some ‘slight’ turbulence on route, we landed safely and dropped off our bags before heading off to the United Nations at the Palais des Nations for a tour. Seeing the Human Rights Council in session was fascinating, but for many of us the highlight of the visit was seeing the resident UN peacocks roaming the grounds!
The next day, though, was what we had really come for. Kicking off with a short tram ride to get to CERN, we were greeted by enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guides upon entry, who themselves were also part of the teams performing cutting edge research at the facility. We saw the control room for the ATLAS detector (the largest and most important detector at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider)) as well as the server rooms where the massive quantities of data from the detectors are initially processed, before being distributed to researchers around the world. Unfortunately, the collider wasn’t running due to a technical stop but the infrastructure was still incredible to see in person, and we learned a lot from both the exhibitions and the tour guides, not only about the LHC, but also the physics which it investigates. The research conducted at CERN is remarkable and the industrious scientists work day after day to better our understanding of physics to the smallest entities which make up the world around us.
The final day consisted of a boat cruise on the beautiful Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) followed by an excursion to the old town, where we enjoyed the stunning view from the tower of Saint-Pierre Cathedral. It was then time for our flight back to Heathrow, where we landed an hour and a half late (thanks British Airways), exhausted, but certainly with a better understanding of the physics underpinning our universe and a newfound appreciation for those who discover it. A massive thank you is of course due to all the members of the Physics and Educational Visits teams who made the trip such a success.