Last month, BSG Year 12 and 13 Physics and ICT students paid a visit to the CERN laboratory in Geneva. CERN is an international physics laboratory that is run by 23 European members states, and aims to do fundamental research in particle physics.
At CERN, physicists make advances in our understanding of the basic building blocks of matter, as well as the state of the universe a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. The laboratory was established in 1954 and currently operates a particle physics accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), with a circumference of 27km located underground in the vicinity of the Franco-Swiss border. CERN is also involved in other particle physics experiments that are not linked to the LHC, and in knowledge transfer to industry, to help exploit the spin-offs of CERN’s fundamental research, for example, medical imaging technologies.
BSG Sixth Form students visited the CERN data centre, which manages the scientific data that is collected at CERN, as well as all other CERN data services. It involves 10 000 servers and 450 000 processor cores. The tour guide explained how LHC data is stored on tapes, and when needed, handled by robots which are operated remotely by CERN users. The World Wide Web was originally conceived and developed at CERN, and students passed the corridor where Tim Berners-Lee worked on his project in 1989, in a different location on the main CERN site.
More recently, CERN has developed the worldwide LHC computing grid, providing physicists all over the world with LHC data.
After visiting the Data Centre, our visited CERN’s antimatter factory. In the standard model of particle physics, each fundamental particle in nature has an associated antiparticle, with the same mass but opposite charge. Antimatter is rare and we still have many questions to answer about its behaviour. At CERN, antiprotons are produced at high speed, and slowed down in a ring known as the anti-proton decelerator, which our students visited. The anti-protons are sent to 6 different experiments, to study their properties and to create anti-hydrogen atoms.
For example, our Sixth Form A Levels students visited an experiment that aims to find out if anti-hydrogen atoms fall in the same way under gravity as normal matter. Another experiment they visited aims to find out if the structure of antihydrogen, in terms of its energy levels, is the same as the structure of hydrogen.
Visit to the Globe
After the visits to the data centre and the antimatter factory, our A Levels students visited the Globe, which houses a small exhibit called the “Universe of Particles”. This exhibit introduces some of the big questions that are currently being investigated at the LHC. Students saw some interesting CERN artifacts, such as elements of LHC detector equipment, and were able to observe tracks left by cosmic rays with their own eyes.
Lunch with physicists
At the end of their visits, our Sixth Form A Levels students had lunch on the CERN site with two PhD students working on an LHC experiment. They discussed their research and answered questions the students had about CERN. The students explained that their research aimed to understand the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the universe: matter and antimatter should have been produced in equal amounts during the Big Bang, and it is still a mystery why we see so little antimatter in the universe today.
A very interesting and worthwhile visit for all our A Levels students specialising in Physics and ICT Technology.