This week’s dream
A giant science experiment beneath Switzerland
I recently took a trip to “an exuberant foreign country” called science, said Peter Kujawinski in The New York Times. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) outside the Swiss city of Geneva is “arguably the world’s most famous science facility.” It’s home to the world’s largest machine, the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile particle accelerator that lies several hundred feet beneath the Swiss-French border. Tours of CERN have been quick to fill up since 2012, when the collider detected the Higgs boson—the long-theorized elementary particle that gives everything in the universe its mass. So as soon as I found an open spot on the tour earlier this year, I booked a flight—“and started brushing up on my physics.”
I struggled to understand some of the lingo used by my group’s guide, retired CERN particle physicist Klaus Bätzner. But his giddy excitement made up for my limited comprehension. Our group visited CERN’s first particle accelerator, the synchrocyclotron, a 1957 creation that resembles “a Rube Goldberg device bathed in the fluorescent lights of a European dance club.” Later, I headed below ground for a private tour of Atlas, one of the Large Hadron Collider’s giant detectors. The collider shoots protons around its subterranean ring at nearly the speed of light. When the subatomic particles collide, they shatter into their constituent parts, which are analyzed by detectors such as Atlas. Standing on an observation deck, I gaped at the seven-story machine. “The detector was a vast network of mirrors and wires that looked like a blown-up photograph of an insect’s eye.”
More technical wonders awaited at Geneva’s Museum of the History of Science. Housed in a 19th-century villa, the museum is crammed with antique scientific instruments: astrolabes, cathode-ray tubes, oscillators, and 300-year-old microscopes. One object lingered in my mind for weeks afterward—the world’s first battery, built by Alessandro Volta in 1800. I imagined the physicist gazing at this slender tower of copper, zinc, felt, glass, and wood “and reveling in the joy that comes from discovering new things, simply because it’s in our innermost nature to do so.” It’s why I loved being a science tourist. “It was a rejuvenating tonic, one that left me excited about the future.”
Free tours of CERN can be arranged at visit.cern/tours.