Sixth Form trip to CERN

Over the half term break, Upper Sixth Form students visited CERN in Geneva. At CERN, (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), physicists and engineers use the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments to study the basic constituents of matter. Sixth Form student, Bobby Archer gives his account of the trip.

“An hour on the M25, three at Gatwick North, another two on the plane, a few more split between trains and trams, and the Upper Sixth Physicists finally reached Geneva and the “Hostel Central” in Geneva, which, as it turned out, was not where we were staying. Fortunately, the local trams were fast and frequent, and so it wasn’t long before we arrived at our true destination, the “Hôtel Central”, enjoying a more central location and, more importantly, breakfast in bed. 

On a tram by 8:15am on our first morning in Geneva, we were on our way to CERN. We would be creating our very own ‘cloud chamber’. We constructed the apparatus, sealing a dry-iced cooled metal plate in a clear box containing isopropyl alcohol, and watched. For over 20 minutes, the entire room was mesmerised. The chamber allowed us to directly observe the effects of sub-atomic particles as they collide with gas molecules, leaving ephemeral trails of visible droplets formed around the moving charged particles which would have remained invisible otherwise. A similar experimental set-up was involved in the initial discovery of the Positron and the Muon in the 1930s.  

After lunch in one of the CERN canteens, surrounded by researchers and engineers, we travelled back to central Geneva where we enjoyed a tour of the United Nations ‘Palais des Nations’, including the Assembly Hall, the largest room there. Inside the complex’s heavily guarded walls were vast marble hallways betraying the building’s original incarnation as the site of the League of Nations. The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations room were particularly striking for their architecture. We spent the evening eating pizza and bowling, with many expressing their surprise at Adrian Picciau and Mr. Hindocha’s bowling prowess. 

Saturday morning saw us appreciating some of the more conventional tourist attractions, including Lake Geneva and the huge Jet d’Eau. 500 years ago this year marked the protestant reformation and so the Reformation Wall monument including a statue of John Calvin wasn’t to be missed. The eclectic yet charming weekly market required the next hour or so before lunch in the town.  

Returning to enjoy the CERN official tour, we visited the ‘Universe of Particles’ exhibition, demonstrating the wonders of the universe and how the detectors at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) give us an insight into our universe’s fundamental particles. Afterwards, we visited the Computer Centre including a glimpse of the servers which handle and distribute the immense quantities of data generated at CERN, before exploring the amazingly named “Anti-Matter Factory” including the anti-proton decelerator. In contrast to the LHC, the scientists here were concerned with slowing down the antiprotons created when the original protons collide with an iridium target, trapping them in magnetic fields. This allows the researchers to better observe the highly unstable particles and discern the differences between these mysterious particles and their more common counterparts. The experiment aims to understand more about why we live only in a ‘matter’ universe and where all the antimatter went. With this uniquely intimate experience with the cutting edge of science still fresh in our memories, we returned to Geneva Airport and eventually, home.  

In being such a memorable few days and a perfect way to start the half-term break, our trip to the facility will surely aid us in our studies of Particle Physics later in the year, allowing us to anchor the theory to what we saw.”