Home lifestyle Fun, physics and the God particle: a tour of Cern, Switzerland

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Fun, physics and the God particle: a tour of Cern, Switzerland

by Ace Damon
Back in time: a harbor cruise on Lake Geneva.

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There is something retro and underground in the maze of narrow corridors ahead of us. Exposed steel pipes run down the ceilings, the floor is shiny linoleum and the doors are molded wood. It seems to have barely changed since it was built in the 1950s.

Welcome to the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, home to the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. In addition to design, what's more retro, prone to clouding your eyes for a bygone era, is how it all came about.

In an explosion of postwar idealism, scientists asked the UN to open a research center where countries, including Britain, could work together in a spirit of peace, harmony and progress, collaborating and sharing data on how the universe is. done.

"Science is not interested in religion or boundaries," says our morning guide, particle physicist Dr. Conor Fitzpatrick. "You will see Palestinian physicists working alongside Israelis." Fitzpatrick pauses for a moment and points to an unpretentious little sign hanging on the wall that says "Where the web was born." Here in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee came up with the idea as a means of sharing information with scientists from different universities and institutes. "

Back in time: a harbor cruise on Lake Geneva. Photography: Denis Linine / Getty Images

Cern, near Geneva, is the holy grail for physicists. There is really no other place like that, which is why I am here with my son, a level A physics student, thrilled as he walks through the corridors of the theoretical physics department. He nudges me to look at some of the small offices on either side, as if we're on a physics safari. There they are, theoretical physicists in their natural habitat, sitting at tables deep in contemplation or scribbling indecipherable formulas on whiteboards, trying to figure out where all the dark matter is hidden.

The pinnacle of any visit here is obviously finding out more about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which, as Dr. Fitzpatrick simply explains, are two hollow tubes containing two proton beams, isolated as a giant thermal balloon. The LHC is huge, about 7 km in diameter and 27 km in circumference. You cross the French border several times if you go around the ring.

The most exciting time to be here, says Dr. Fitzpatrick, was July 4, 2012, when they shared the news that they had observed a new particle "consistent with the Higgs boson," also known as the "God particle." . "The atmosphere was amazing," he recalls. “There were queues outside the auditorium; people heard the rumor and were sleeping in lines to enter. "

Dr. Fitzpatrick's natural passion for his subject is contagious – sometimes I think I even understand what he's talking about. At first it sounds simple enough and I wonder how I could have failed my physics level. "We are interested in the area before the Big Bang, when the energy was high and that energy allows us to form fundamental particles. As we collide particles, it allows us to create others that didn't exist at the moment – 13.8 billion years ago when the energy lasted so long. "

Take your time: Bourg-de-Four square in the old town of Geneva.

Take your time: Bourg-de-Four square in the old town of Geneva. Photography: Michal Ludwiczak / Getty Images

Uh-huh, I see. “Everything we see and touch is matter. For each particle of matter, there must be one antimatter particle. During the Big Bang, antimatter was produced, but what happened? Disappeared with time?

The more you learn, the strangely wonderful it is. There is also an artistic element. Fitzpatrick shows us something called a wire chamber: gold and gleaming with layers of tungsten wire, it looks like a direct measuring instrument of His Dark Materials. “Resident artists record what they see here because some of the designs are so beautiful,” he says. People were crying, he says, when it was taken out of use.

It's lunch time, and we sit in Cern's cafeteria with Dr. Fitzpatrick and his wife, who broach the subject. He specializes in antimatter and she is an assistant professor of dark matter. So what is the difference between the two? Patiently they explain. Antimatter is produced by cosmic rays and rays and is predicted by standard theories of particle physics. Dark matter cannot be seen using light, which is why no one has found it yet. "Ah, I see," I say. Then I feel quite pleased with myself, but my son is mortified that this is easily the most embarrassing question I could ask a particle physicist. At least I tried, I tell him.

Cern is easy to visit. It's a 20-minute bus ride from Geneva train station, which is a three-minute walk from where we are staying. 9 Hotel Pâquis It is a great value design hotel with a jeweled pool. We are in a more lively and interesting area than the Geneva I expected. Instead of wall-to-wall benches and designer watch shops, the streets are full of cafes and bars. We enjoyed a delicious Lebanese kebab and mezze after midnight at crowded tables that dot the sidewalk.

Physics issues: sculptures at CERN.

Physics issues: sculptures at CERN. Photo: Ulrich Doering / Alamy

When I meet my guide on foot the next morning, she is not very impressed. “Do you realize you're in the middle of the red light district?” She says, and leads us swiftly through the narrow streets toward Geneva that I envisioned: remote, elegant and icy with unique, sweeping avenues and large fins. Siecle hotels with lake views. We took a boat on Lake Geneva and saw in the hills Villa Diodati, where Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley spent three rainy summer days in 1816, creating stories to tell each other – one of which became Frankenstein. She points to one of the seaside hotels where Dostoevsky stayed, betting so much that he had to sell his wife's wedding ring.

But we are not here for literary anecdotes; My son is restless for more physical. Then we head to Bern and the Einstein Trail – a two-hour train ride from Geneva. Bern is a fairytale city, one of the smallest capital cities in Europe, with medieval spiers and cobblestone streets. Passing through it like a green ribbon is the star of the city, the Aare River, where people swim, cycle and fall in its opal waters.

Einstein moved to Bern in 1903 for two years, living with his wife Mileva Marić and their son Hans Einstein. In a modest apartment on the third floor of a narrow house, he developed the theory of relativity. Einstein was certainly in the right place to contemplate the nature of time. From the living room window, he would have heard the Zytglogge clock tower strike the time. Built in the early 13th century, the watch mechanism was the pride of Bern and one of the most advanced in Europe. It still needs to be wrapped by hand every day.

A 20-minute walk through the city from your apartment is the Einstein Museum. Small but informative, it presents pages of its feverish doodles, formulas and equations. There is also more about man himself, his interests and passions: social justice, civil rights, pacifism and … falling in love. Those he loved, along with his two wives, apparently included a physicist, a spy, a librarian, and "maybe" a nightclub dancer.

Follow the flow: a bridge over the river Aare in Bern.

Follow the flow: a bridge over the river Aare in Bern. Photography: Getty Images

We wandered back along the river to our hotel, Hotel Allegrowhich offers wonderful views of the old city. My son stands still and I'm sent on a message, a trip to McDonald's instead of an expensive dinner – just a saving of 20 Swiss francs (16 pounds), and that's just for him. The next night is more opulent: mushroom soup and rosti in baroque splendor by candlelight. Kornhauskeller, an old wine cellar with vaulted ceilings with frescoes.

Early the next morning, we take a tour of the clock tower, climbing the steep medieval stairs for a breathtaking view of the city's old rooftops and then watching the clock mechanism. An intricate structure of sprockets and wheels is powered by a pendulum that marks every second for the past 800 years, the perfect point to end our adventure in time.

Way to go

One-way flights on Swiss International Air Lines depart from £ 74 to Zurich and £ 83 to Geneva. O Swiss travel system provides a variety of travel passes and also includes the Swiss Museum Pass, with free entry to 500 museums and exhibitions. Prices start from £ 185 for 3 days in second class. To book a guided tour of Cern, visit home.cern. Hotel Allegro Bern It has doubles from £ 114. 9 Hotel Pâquis has doubles from £ 106. For more information about Switzerland, visit myswitzerland.com. For packages, trains and air tickets, go to sales@stc.com

Looking for a vacation with a difference? Squeaky toy Guardian Holidays to see a variety of fantastic trips

. (tagsToTranslate) Holidays in Switzerland (t) Holidays in Europe (t) Travels (t) Cern (t) Life and style (t) Science (t) Science (t) Science (t) Physics (t) Particle Physics

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