Colliders, Sundials and Wonder: When Science Is Your Destination

Inside the Globe of Science and Innovation at CERN.

Towering clouds threatened rain as I biked near the French-Swiss border. My sturdy vélo de ville rolled over every type of surface, and complained only when I steered it into runnels of mud. The trail meandered past dormant vineyards, through forests and fields of cabbage, and under the watchful eye of a hawk. At one point I stopped to walk through an old cemetery and found Roman ruins.

The whole morning was so moody and atmospheric that often I forgot the world’s largest machine lay several hundred feet below. But then the trail curved in a way that evoked the Large Hadron Collider, the reason for my visit to the outskirts of Geneva. I had just begun a weeklong trip focused on science, and my first stop was the particle collider at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It houses the 17-mile-long ring that is arguably the world’s most famous science facility.

Credit...Alex Cretey-Systermans for The New York Times

In fact, CERN is so popular that free tours are often snapped up within seconds of being released. After monitoring CERN’s website for about two months, I finally found open spots at the end of January, which luckily coincided with modest winter airfares to Europe. So I booked a flight and started brushing up on my physics.

The Large Hadron Collider accelerates subatomic particles called protons to nearly the speed of light. At full speed, each proton zips around the collider 11,245 times every second while CERN scientists encourage them to smash into each other. Enormous detectors and worldwide computer networks comb through the debris of these collisions to try to find something novel and interesting.

In 2012, the Large Hadron Collider discovered the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle even smaller than a proton whose existence had long been theorized but never found. Actually proving that it existed gave physicists confidence that the standard model, the theory underpinning their discipline, was sound.

It also helped CERN become a tourist attraction, although that process had already begun when it was featured in Dan Brown’s best-selling novel “Angels & Demons,” as well as the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Most of all, though, CERN drew the media spotlight in 2008 as the Large Hadron Collider was about to become operational. Several people not affiliated with CERN claimed there was a slight chance the collider could cause a world-destroying “micro black hole.” Although the claim was debunked, it helped CERN become a household name.

The morning before my visit to CERN, I biked along the Passeport Big Bang route, which traces the path of the underground ring. At a bike rental shop near CERN headquarters, I grabbed a free trail map as well as a pamphlet that introduced the Large Hadron Collider through Tintin-like cartoon characters. Whoever at CERN put it together had a lot of fun devising multiple-choice questions like: “Which of these particles circulate in the LHC? a) simpletons b) protons c) croutons.”

After biking for several hours, I was dangerously close to missing my long-awaited tour slot, so I turned back after making it a quarter way around the ring. I raced back to the CERN visitor center with a few minutes to spare, locked up my rental bike and tried unsuccessfully to wipe the countryside mud off my hands and pants.

The small welcome area was mobbed with visitors. Our guide was Klaus Bätzner, a retired CERN particle physicist whose giddy excitement at the institution’s accomplishments more than made up for my limited comprehension of what he was saying. It wasn’t because of his accent. Particle physics is so complicated that it was like trying to understand a foreign language, particularly since high school physics was 25 years in the rearview mirror.

Our tour began with a presentation about CERN, and perhaps in a nod to lingering public awareness of the debunked micro black hole claim, we were told that during the visit we would receive less radiation than from dental X-rays. Thus reassured, we walked across the Geneva-bound tramline to the control room of the Atlas detector, one of the two detectors that discovered the Higgs boson. Next to the live video feeds of the detector was a plaque that summarized its lofty mission: “to advance human knowledge, to continue an endless quest to learn where we come from and why the Universe is as we see it today.”

Later, our group visited the building containing CERN’s original particle accelerator, the synchrocyclotron, built in 1957 as a way to help European science regain its feet after the destruction of World War II. The synchrocyclotron looked like the figment of someone’s fevered imagination: a Rube Goldberg device bathed in the fluorescent lights of a European dance club. We walked out of the building and the mountains shone crisp and clear in the afternoon light. Images of these progressively larger machines chasing ever-smaller subatomic particles stayed with me as I returned to my hotel — all those decades of scientific research steadily adding to humanity’s storehouse of knowledge.

The next morning, the rain that had been threatening finally arrived. It was cold, too, but I was fortified by strong coffee and the kind of buttery, flaky croissants that seem to occur by magic only in France and Switzerland. As I walked down to La Perle du Lac, Geneva’s exceptional lakefront park, rain clouds scudded grimly across the sky and the city felt like it was still asleep. I had another visit planned to CERN that afternoon, but first I wanted to go back in time several hundred years, at the Museum of the History of Science.

The museum occupies a 19th-century villa originally built for Parisian bankers. Gold-filigreed walls and inlaid wood floors presented a striking contrast to the Calvinist practicality of Geneva buildings. Each room contained science instruments dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries: hand-carved celestial globes, sundials, astrolabes, Crookes and cathode ray tubes (which led to the discovery of X-rays), the first microscopes, oscillators and electric motors, as well as a vast array of glass eyes.

I could have spent the whole day in that small museum, mainly because of the beauty of the instruments. Made of brass, wood, mirrors and the first fumbling electric wires, these machines still thrummed with the discoveries they enabled. I peered through a 300-year-old microscope and imagined what it must have been like to see the once-invisible hairs on a flea for the first time.

Outside, the rain still fell in cold, heavy drops. Before heading to CERN, I walked along the edge of Lake Geneva to look at the museum’s outdoor exhibition, a series of displays that featured old drawings and photographs accompanied by descriptions of these images by local scientists. Marc Ratcliff, a University of Geneva professor, chose an 18th-century drawing of aquatic microorganisms. “At the time this plate was produced,” he wrote, “very few people believed that invisible things existed.”

The tram ride from the museum to CERN was short and efficient, 20 minutes that spanned several hundred years. As I walked to the visitor center, the rain clouds lifted to reveal a stunning vision on the nearby foothills. I could see the exact altitude where rain had turned to snow, like a cosmic line drawn through the trees.

At CERN, I met Ana Godinho, the Portuguese director of the institution’s education, communication and outreach programs, as well as her Belgian colleague François Briard. We discussed CERN becoming a worldwide household name, as well as the institution’s plans to build more facilities for visitors. “The mystery around CERN works in our favor,” Ms. Godinho said. “It’s such a huge endeavor. Everything is big here, although we study tiny particles you can’t even see.” She marveled at the worldwide interest that engulfed CERN when the Higgs boson was discovered. Even non-physicists were drawn to the adventure of trying to find it, she said.

Maybe it’s my background as a diplomat, but I was also drawn to the collaborative nature of this research. During a time when strident nationalism has regained strength, the facilities that I visited during my week of travel seemed blissfully immune. Physicists, governments and universities from around the world contributed to constructing and building the collider. It’s a culture of working together that predates the Large Hadron Collider, as I was to learn later.

Because CERN was in the midst of its annual winter shutdown, which usually occurs between the end of December and mid-March, Mr. Briard was able to take me down to see the actual Atlas detector deep below ground. I stood on a small observation deck and gaped at this several-stories-tall machine, its interior pulled open for maintenance. The detector was a vast network of mirrors and wires that looked like the blown-up photograph of an insect’s eye I had seen that morning at the museum. I took dozens of pictures, but none of them truly captured its scope and grandeur. At the end of 2018, the Large Hadron Collider will begin a two-and-a half-year shutdown for major upgrades. Tours to CERN will not be affected, and there even may be a bonus for those visiting in 2019 and 2020 because of potential opportunities to visit underground detectors, according to Mr. Briard.

As I finished my visit and walked out of CERN, my ears perked up at the familiar sound of American-accented English. I peeked into CERN’s main hall and briefly listened to a presentation on DUNE, the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. This international collaboration will beam neutrinos back and forth like tennis balls through 800 miles of bedrock. I vowed to learn more, but instead that evening I shared a raclette-and-wine dinner with a gregarious Swiss couple, and promptly forgot about it.

Days later, though, I stumbled back upon the DUNE project in the Chicago suburbs. I was ending my week of science tourism with a visit to Fermilab, a national laboratory of the Department of Energy located in Batavia, Ill., about 45 miles west of the city. It houses the Tevatron, a predecessor of the Large Hadron Collider.

Like CERN, Fermilab is open to the public, conducting regular tours and also housing permanent exhibitions in its striking, midcentury Wilson Hall headquarters. While waiting for my tour to begin I discovered that the DUNE experiment is actually based in Fermilab. The facility’s proton accelerator will hurl neutrinos to a detector now being installed in Lead, S.D. CERN is helping to build DUNE’s detectors, just like Fermilab helped build significant parts of the Large Hadron Collider.

I peeked into DUNE’s primary control room until it was time to begin the once-a-month free tour of the Tevatron’s 4.26-mile ring and DZero, its primary detector. During its operational lifetime from 1983 to 2011, the Tevatron was a primary site of international physics collaboration, just like CERN is today. Tevatron researchers discovered the top quark, another subatomic particle, and helped lay the groundwork for CERN’s discovery of the Higgs boson.

It’s been only seven years since the Tevatron last fired up its particle beam, but it seemed like a much longer time ago. Today the Tevatron is a time capsule underscoring the blisteringly rapid advances in science, machinery and computing. Our tour group walked down a stairwell illuminated by the buzz and flickering of fluorescent lights, and entered an area that smelled like my grandfather’s basement tool room.

Compared to CERN’s gleaming, space-age facility, where retina scanners are used to access the elevators leading down to the Large Hadron Collider, visiting the Tevatron is seriously old school. In the DZero control room, notepads and pencils still lay where they were left many years ago, the monitors looked like they were repurposed from the Apollo Space Program, and a spare Macintosh IIci (property of the United States government, according to a prominent sticker) sat in the corner. Next to it was a well-thumbed-through Fermilab phone directory from 2000.

Two stories down, we walked through the DZero detector. It was a warren of narrow corridors, accessible via a series of ladders that were probably bought from a nearby hardware store. Dozens of handwritten warning notes decorated levers and handles. The air was cold down there, and musty from a combination of old electronics and disuse. Still, as I climbed up a rickety ladder to enter the two-story detector, I felt a giddy sense of adventure. I stood there, mouth agape, staring at tens of thousands of red and green wires, mirrors, rectangular detector panels and blinking control lights. A decade ago, this was all cutting-edge stuff.

After the tour finished, I took an elevator to the visitor’s gallery and observation deck onthe top floor of Wilson Hall. In the fast-disappearing light of a winter afternoon, I could see the circular berm that traces the route of the buried Tevatron. A nearby exhibit proclaims, “A beam of particles is a very useful tool” and goes on to list all the applications derived from this research. For example, we can “shrink a tumor, make a better radial tire, detect an art forgery, prospect for oil, and package a Thanksgiving turkey.” Similarly, CERN publicizes the fact that one of their researchers invented the World Wide Web in 1989. But to me these applications aren’t nearly as impressive as the basic research itself and the excitement of trying to answer the most fundamental question out there: Why is there something rather than nothing?

It was dusk when I left Fermilab, and the last rays of sun turned the prairie red-orange. As I drove toward the exit, an enormous coyote stared at me from a copse of broken stalks and cattails, its eyes immediately searching mine to determine whether it should run or stand its ground. Before visiting CERN and Fermilab, I probably would have just enjoyed that wildlife sighting and moved on to something else. This time, though, I went home and immersed myself in facts about coyotes.

During my week in Geneva and suburban Illinois, I visited an exuberant foreign country called science. It reminded me of so many reasons to travel — for sheer pleasure, to gain new perspectives and knowledge, or to feel more connected to someone you love. (I threw that last one in because my sister is a scientist.) However, I didn’t expect to be so inspired. Particle colliders and 300-year-old lab equipment revealed the better angels of our humanity.

An object from Geneva’s Museum of the History of Science lingered in my mind for weeks afterward. It was a slender tower made of copper, zinc, felt, glass and wood and it gleamed with the promise of a new era. This was the world’s first battery, built by the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta in the year 1800. Like everything else in the museum, its invention was a necessary building block to arrive at the wonders contained in Fermilab, CERN and our everyday devices. The battery “domesticized electricity,” said the note accompanying Volta’s invention. I liked the image of this: a fierce lightning bolt tamed, patted on the head, and placed into a container for future use.

Since then, I have imagined contemporaries of Volta, and the physicist himself, gazing at that first battery and reveling in the joy that comes from discovering new things, simply because it’s in our innermost nature to do so. It’s why I loved being a science tourist, visiting these places at the forefront of human knowledge. It was a rejuvenating tonic, one that left me excited about the future. I felt Volta’s joy too.

This is the first of a two-part series on science tourism.

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