• Academic
  • 5 April 2017

Physicists go below ground at CERN

Twenty four Cranleigh Sixth Form physicists enjoyed a trip to Geneva last week. On the schedule was not only a tour of…

Twenty four Cranleigh Sixth Form physicists enjoyed a trip to Geneva last week. On the schedule was not only a tour of the largest and most complicated experiment ever designed by mankind but also a boat trip on Lake Geneva, visits to the Red Cross and History of Science museums and an interesting tour of the United Nations second headquarters located in Geneva itself.

The weather was kind to the intrepid scientists for nearly the entire trip but this was never more important than on the first day when they took a tour of the Lake by boat. The United Nations visit that afternoon provided a detailed look at top-level international politics within the spectacular halls of the Palais de Nations. A highlight included the group being able to sit in the seats of individual countries within the main chamber.

The second day was spent at CERN. After a short tram journey, the keen Cranleighans arrived at the visitors’ centre where they started with a visit to the exhibition space: it was informative and incredibly relevant to the A-Level course. The many different demonstrations and showcases enabled the pupils to submerge themselves within the exciting science of the project. In the afternoon, we were given an initial talk by one of the current CERN physicists that touched on everything from basic particle physics through to the origins of the universe and what CERN project is trying to achieve; nearly all of the content of the A-Level course was mentioned in some form.

It was clear that that CERN project is not only an incredible feat of engineering and international co-operation, but that it also contains the hottest and the coldest places in the known universe – colder than the depths of space and as hot as at the start of the Big Bang.


You never really know what you are going to get in the tour section of the visit to CERN but this time the students were privileged to be allowed below ground at the CMS experiment. The Physics Department has run this trip for many years and never before have we been allowed down to see the actual instruments in situ. After a quick briefing by the staff we were split into three groups and shown the experiment in the cavern some 100m below the surface.

CMS is one of the four detectors placed on the LHC ring and is huge in its own right: it is 21m long, 15m in diameter, and with a  mass of about 14,000 tonnes. It aims to detect the particles created in high energy interactions between the protons accelerated in the LHC and is a phenomenal piece of engineering and science. Since the scheduled maintenance had overrun the detector was open for all to see inside. A truly breath-taking experience.

Before the return flight on the third day, there was time to visit the moving and poignant Red Cross museum. This documented and beautifully illustrated the history and current work of both the Christian Red Cross and Muslim Red Crescent organisations. It provided an opportunity for everyone to appreciate the wider social aspects of science and in particular, international, co-operative projects like CERN.

One last stop at the History of Science museum set in one of Geneva’s beautiful lakeside gardens enabled an interesting look at the journey that science and its famous scientists have taken throughout the ages.

The pupils represented Cranleigh incredibly well and made the trip as pleasing and successful as it was. They clearly got a lot out the scientific and also the wider cultural aspects of everything Geneva had to offer. We start to plan for the next trip in two years’ time.


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