Tourist spike at CERN

Hundreds of people, physics lovers and those that don’t know the difference between an electron and proton alike, are making the pilgrimage to Geneva
Katie Engelhart
In this picture taken May 20, 2011 visitors get an explanation of the Atlas experiment site at the European Center for Nuclear Research, CERN, outside Geneva, Switzerland. The first of the major summer conferences in high-energy physics, EPS HEP 2011, has started in Grenoble, France, Monday, July 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)
Salvatore Di Nolfi/AP/Kestone

ON A RECENT MORNING at the airport in Geneva, a middle-aged North American man boards the bus that will take me to my hotel. “CERN. This goes to CERN?” The bus driver stares blankly. “CERN?” And shrugs. Not this bus.

A day after the long-awaited discovery of the Higgs boson was announced at CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research), pilgrimages to the ‘50s-era research site have already begun.

Later that morning, CERN’s main lobby swims with tourists. Visitors leaf through glossy brochures and browse a small gift shop, which sells slim volumes on particle physics and construction industry hard hats bearing the CERN logo.

In a few moments, my tour group gathers.

We are first ushered into a dark theatre to watch an introductory film. Those of us who have travelled to Geneva to bear witness to Higgs mania are quickly disappointed. The film was made in 2004 and is woefully outdated. Over ominous music and landscape shots of CERN’s sprawling research complex, a narrator speaks of an as-yet-to-be-discovered Higgs boson.

When the lights are switched on, Mohammed, our lanky tour guide, arrives to fetch us. He is dressed like many of CERN’s top researchers: in sneakers and a pastel blue t-shirt.

Onward, to the headquarters of ATLAS: one of the experiments that detected the boson. En route, two girls pause to take photos. Paean Sozoryoku, a 21-year-old physics student from Melbourne, has dragged her friend to Geneva’s outskirts to see the site: “to be inquisitive.” Her blue sundress flapping around her, she points—most inquisitively—to some equipment in the distance.

Her friend, who does not study physics, is less enthralled. Paean has had trouble explaining some basic concepts to her: “like, how do we know [the boson] exists if we can’t see it?”

Inside the main doors, we are separated from ATLAS’s “control room” by a single glass panel. We press our noses to the surface to watch a dozen or so graduate students at work. Computer screens flash lines of code and graphs. It is just as we imagined.

Breaking the silence, Edgar Valdez, a sturdily built American with a neatly shaved head, makes note of the building’s shabby facade. A philosophy teacher at Seton Hall University, Valdez is interested in the philosophy of science and math. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t philosophize about Higgs bosons; but he reads up about particle physics—when he is not busy teaching undergraduate classes on Locke, Hume and the like.

Next is a 3D video that chronicles, in excruciating detail, the difficulty of moving heavy machinery around the research site. And then a video game, which lets us take turns playing the role of a Large Hydron Collider (LHC) sensor.

Erik Hoogendorp, a 43-year-old artist from the Netherlands, doesn’t play along. He is too busy pressing Mohammed for more detailed information on “Z particles.” Tall and wearing the required uniform of the Euro artiste—plaid shirt and skinny jeans—Erik has travelled to Geneva to meet with a CERN physicist, with whom he hopes to collaborate on a physics-inspired art project. I peer at Erik’s iPhone, as he flips through images of his work: dotted representations of a tree, a sock. Erik says he wants his work to address “dark matter and the exotic stuff that touches the fantasy.”

On the way out, I bump into Caroline Walsh, an Irish woman who has just left a museum exhibit on the “History of the Universe.” A chemist, Caroline came to central Geneva for a UN conference on “the globally harmonized system of classification and labeling of chemicals.” She didn’t stick around.

“I skipped out of the UN early,” she whispers, with hyperbolic furtiveness. “Don’t tell my boss!”

Back in the lobby, the tourists disperse. Lazing about out on the couches, awaiting the next tour, is a high school physics group from King Edwards School in England. Henry Matthews, 17, tells me he plans to pursue “particle physics and cosmology” at university, and wants to be the scientist who discovers dark matter. If all that doesn’t work out, Henry hopes to become a music technician. (He sings backup and plays drums and guitar.) I ask him if he will write songs about dark matter. He looks bored; “I’ll write dark music.”

At reception, Marc, a calm Frenchman in charge of the information desk, confirms a spike in tourists following Wednesday’s big announcement. Weekend tours of CERN, he says, are now booked solid until early September.

But it’s not just the quantity of tourists that has changed, Marc adds. “There are tourists here now who… otherwise would not be here. In French, we would call them Monsieur et Madame tout le monde.”

With a curt nod, I rejoin the ranks of the Higgs-hunting Joe Shmoes.

Follow my trip at @katieengelhart and read my dispatch from the CERN cafeteria here.