Strange Charm

In October 2009, at least amongst seventh grade ZIS students, there was a feeling of apprehension regarding the matter that the earth may be about to be consumed by a black hole somewhere under Geneva*. Switzerland is the home to possibly the world’s greatest scientific research centre: the European Organisation for Nuclear research. You may know it as CERN. Last week, a group of 15 or so unashamedly geeky physics students went to Geneva to visit this establishment.

After a video explaining the history of CERN, we were taken in a tour bus to the site of the AMS experiment. AMS, which stands for Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, is in space. It is the only CERN experiment which is on the International Space Station. The ISS’s path through space is proudly displayed above the computer terminals displaying complex data. AMS is a space-funnel. Its aim is to which capture an anti-helium nucleus, and prove the existence of anti-matter galaxies.

As if that wasn’t sci-fi enough, our next visit was to CMS experiment. Though CERN has many experiments, and lots of expensive equipment (AMS cost $2 Billion) by far its largest, best known and most expensive is the Large Hadron Collider, a magnetic tube  27km in diameter which fires sub-atomic particles at each other at a respectable fraction the speed of light. The Compact Muon Solenoid experiment is one of four is one of the four experiments on the LHC. The experiment is in the form of a 12,500 tonne particle detector. Along with the ATLAS experiment, it was responsible for the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle in 2012. Tour groups don’t often get to see the collider; we were the first group to do so in all the years ZIS has been going to CERN.

Awesome is a word that gets thrown around with obnoxious abandon but for CMS, it’s one of the few appropriate adjectives. Awesome means that which inspires awe and CMS certainly achieves that. There is something beautiful about this machine that goes beyond aesthetics, a machine which exists purely to further the collective knowledge of mankind.

The highlight of the trip came just before we were scheduled to leave. The reason this trip runs is because Mr. Pierri is friends with CERN researcher Dr. Stephen Hancock. We were lucky enough to be able to talk to Dr. Hancock about his work. Occasionally, you will meet someone who is so passionate about their work they fill their audience with excitement on their behalf. Dr. Hancock is one of these people. One of the questions he was asked was about the usefulness of CERN, about whether acquiring knowledge for its own sake was a worthwhile endeavour. He convinced us that is was. His own work is in tomography. Tomography is an imaging system which involves taking lots of 2D pictures and putting them together to make a 3D image. Dr. Hancock uses this technique to analyse paths taken by sub-atomic particles after a collision. Outside of CERN, tomography is used in CAT scanners. Dr. Hancock refined this process, eliminating many sources of error. This technology has been donated to hospitals by CERN free of charge. It is expected to prevent hundreds of thousands of misdiagnoses every year.

Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that to wonder was, “the seed of science” and in that regard CERN is a veritable cornucopia. The students who visited there were left with plenty. We could have stayed in school and studied CMS and AMS and read all about tomography but we wouldn’t have felt the emotion that went into these projects. It’s easy to become detached from science, to view it as something cold and clinical but it isn’t, or it needn’t be. CERN is proof of this. And fortunately, it’s on our doorstep.

 

*Actually, the creation of a black hole would be a wonderful thing.

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