Talking with Titans

In just over a week I’ll be packing my things and getting on a plane to Geneva, Switzerland. I’m going to be working at the ATLAS detector at CERN, the

European Organization for Nuclear Research. It is the world’s largest Physics research complex! Every day for two months I’ll collaborate and talk with people who are just as crazy about Physics as I am, and that is saying a lot! It’s a dream come true for me.

Although I’ll see it with my own eyes shortly, for now, my mental image of CERN consists of dream-like silhouettes of science. There are plenty of pictures of the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), and the ATLAS detector online. But it’s hard to grasp their sheer magnitude.

Before teaching the class Big Science at Sprout, I did some research on CERN, and I came upon a few numbers that hint at CERN’s marvel:

  • 99.999997 – percent of speed of light at which particles travel in LHC
  • 1800 – physicists working at ATLAS detector
  • 210,000 – DVDs worth of data per day analyzed by Data Centre
  • 600 million – particle collisions per second in the LHC
  • 13 billion – estimated dollars spent to find Higgs Boson

But these numbers only scratch the surface of CERN’s scientific prowess and its influence on society. CERN scientists discovered the W and Z bosons, which are carrier particles for the Weak Nuclear force, and the Higgs Boson, whose field gives particles mass. Even the internet, which I am using to write this post, was invented at CERN.

The ATLAS experiment, situated in a cavern dug into the Large Hadron Collider, is one of the biggest sites at CERN. Its detector weighs as much as the eiffel tower, and stands five stories tall. Along with its sister experiment, CMS, the ATLAS experiment was instrumental in discovering the Higgs Boson.

While ATLAS is short for A Toroidal LHC Apparatus, it seems to me an apt acronym. In Greek mythology, Atlas was the Titan who held the world in his hands. As the Titan of navigation and astronomy, Atlas also became associatedwith cartography and maps. I think it’s fitting that in a collosal cavern, a titanic detector is piecing together a different type of map – the map to the fundamental particles.

Right now Geneva seems as far away as Mount Olympus; all I see is a silhouette in the distance. But I can’t wait to talk with the titans of physics, and, hopefully, to hold a little bit of the world in my hands.