I peered through a 300-year-old microscope and imagined what it must have been like to see the once-invisible hairs on a flea for the first time. Before heading to CERN, I walked along the edge of Lake Geneva to look at the museum’s outdoor exhibition, a series of displays that featured old drawings and photographs accompanied by descriptions of these images by local scientists.Marc Ratcliff, a University of Geneva professor, chose an 18th-century drawing of aquatic microorganisms.The morning before my visit to CERN, I biked along the Passeport Big Bang route, which traces the path of the underground ring.At a bike rental shop near CERN headquarters, I grabbed a free trail map as well as a pamphlet that introduced the Large Hadron Collider through Tintin-like cartoon characters.
Each room contained science instruments dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries: hand-carved celestial globes, sundials, astrolabes, Crookes and cathode ray tubes (which led to the discovery of X-rays), the first microscopes, oscillators and electric motors, as well as a vast array of glass eyes.
Thus reassured, we walked across the Geneva-bound tramline to the control room of the Atlas detector, one of the two detectors that discovered the Higgs boson.
Next to the live video feeds of the detector was a plaque that summarized its lofty mission: “to advance human knowledge, to continue an endless quest to learn where we come from and why the Universe is as we see it today.”Later, our group visited the building containing CERN’s original particle accelerator, the synchrocyclotron, built in 1957 as a way to help European science regain its feet after the destruction of World War II.
I raced back to the CERN visitor center with a few minutes to spare, locked up my rental bike and tried unsuccessfully to wipe the countryside mud off my hands and pants. Our guide was Klaus Bätzner, a retired CERN particle physicist whose giddy excitement at the institution’s accomplishments more than made up for my limited comprehension of what he was saying. Particle physics is so complicated that it was like trying to understand a foreign language, particularly since high school physics was 25 years in the rearview mirror.
Our tour began with a presentation about CERN, and perhaps in a nod to lingering public awareness of the debunked micro black hole claim, we were told that during the visit we would receive less radiation than from dental X-rays.