A group of Sixth Form physics students visited CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. During their whistle-stop tour they saw two exhibitions, two separate facilities and had an in-depth talk on the cutting-edge physics that takes place at the internationally funded research centre.
Founded in 1954, the organisation is perhaps best-known for the Large Hadron Collider, a 27 kilometre circumference circle that is slanted at between 50 and 175 metres underground. It is so large that it spans the border between France and Switzerland. Scientists accelerate particles close to the speed of light around the collider, then smash them together and study the results.
The 21 students were accompanied by Mr Tiktin, Mr Goodman and Miss Whiting. Mr Tiktin said: ‘They learned a lot. CERN is looking at the minute internal structure of a nucleus. They hope to understand more of what happened in the Big Bang, more about the universe still expanding. These are real physicists and engineers at the cutting edge of research.’
The students explored the Microcosm and Globe exhibition centres before an intense tour. Mr Tiktin said: ‘Around the circumference there are experimental sites and workshops where they are actually assemble the massive equipment which goes underground. Our guide was able to show us the insides of all the tubes and how they were freezing them down to nearly minus 270 degrees C and what had gone wrong when they first switched the Large Hadron Collider on. We then looked at the big Atlas experiment. The students looked into a room which was like a space control centre; very modern with massive display screens and lots of physicists tinkering away, fine-tuning the experiments. It was an eye opener for them to see that physicists actually have real jobs!’
Such is the large volume of data produced at CERN that only one per cent is actually examined in detail, kept at universities scattered around the world, though a further ten per cent is retained in case they need to go back and re-examine the figures at a later date.
Mr Tiktin said of the Large Hadron Collider: ‘Particles are accelerated around two different tubes and at one stage you decide to cross the two beams so you smash them into each other and look at all the bits that are produced. Originally they were just using the centre of the hydrogen atom, known as a proton, which is the lightest particle you can get which is in the nucleus. They are now actually smashing real nuclei into each other so they are smashing carbon into each other, iron into each other, really probing deeply.
‘It is the place to work if you want to do theoretical physics, there are enormous numbers of people working there. Original research sometimes just stays original research, but the computer started from someone playing around with tiny crystals of germanium. Modern plastics started from a burned lump in a high-pressure chemistry experiment. This is real pure research, just to find out what happens. It may be a very expensive piece of pure research or there may be massive things coming out of it.
‘The upper sixth have been doing work on sub-nuclear particles and they are going on to do work on fusion and fission and will produce a 2000-word report. Basically if you are interested in physics you want to see what is happening at CERN.'