In August 2009, I had the opportunity to visit the CERN, which is an old acronym which refers to the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It’s a sprawling compound that stretches across France and Switzerland. More than 20 European countries contribute funding and staff and they offer free tours to the public.
Even though I don’t always understand it, I am fascinated by particle physics and wanted to set at least part of the sequel to the first Tippy book at the world’s most famous and largest particle accelerator. I knew I could never write about it without checking it out first.
Well, even though I started to make my plans a couple of months in advance, all the tours for individuals were booked up! I couldn’t change my plans, so I begged them to short list me, explaining that I was writing a young adult book about the LHC and I wanted to get the details right. The very nice people at the CERN allowed me to join a group tour, and so I spent the night at a hotel on the outskirts and walked to the visitor’s center in the morning.
I do speak a little French, so I could at least make the gesture, but usually, when I try to speak French to a francophone, they shut me up fast and switch to English. The very kind old lady who ran the hotel where I stayed, asked me if I wanted breakfast and tried to make conversation about the horrible thunderstorms during the night. I understood for the most part. But I turned down breakfast with a “Non, merci,” and commiserated about the storms with a half-hearted, “Il fait mauvais.”
When I got a little turned around on my way, I was lucky that the Frenchman who trotted out from hi shed to help me spoke really good English, because it could have been a hot mess otherwise. I made it there, they made me check my bag. I sat in with two groups of high school kids, one from Germany and one from the American school in Prague, while we watched an informative video.
When we were splitting off into groups, I didn’t know who to follow, so I went with the American kids, being an American (though proud of German heritage). Little did I know, I was supposed to go with the Germans, because the American kids had a tour bus and the Germans were hoofin’ it. My cluelessness allowed me to cruise the CERN in style; in a way, I “hacked” the tour.
We drove first to the site of an experiment that was analyzing particle streams from the sun. Then we passed the housing for the LHCb, which is looking for beauty quarks. Next we proceeded to a section adjacent to the Large Hadron Collider, where a lot of decommissioned parts of old colliders were available to look at. There were old detectors, old calorimeters (I think. It’s been almost two years since my visit), it was very cool. Everything was painted in bright colors and the staff was very nice.
They took us to the cafeteria, and here I artfully extracted myself from the group and ate by myself. The food was not great and I didn’t get a chance to eavesdrop on any top secret scientific information, like I hoped. Then, I wandered back to the entrance, uttered my most complicated French sentence of the day to a security guard, “Mon sac a dos est dedans.” My bookbag is inside (pointing to a building).
They have a gift shop, but the only souvenirs worth buying were these chintzy looking magnets that said “The LHC has the coolest magnets in the world.” For the most part, the souvenirs were underwhelming, almost as if the CERN were a world class research facility, and not a tourist trap!
My thanks to the CERN for allowing me to tag along. And to that class from the Prague International School, sorry I freeloaded on your tour bus!