Six of Spades: Three perspectives on CERN Open Days

 Five of Spades showing Calorimeters for ATLASStrong: Did you miss the CERN Open Day? I did, in 2004. It wasn’t my last chance.

I planned my visit to CERN far in advance, and found out on my arrival that an open day was planned for a few weeks after my departure.

Thanks to an Englishman arranging a lift, I did manage to get to CERN’s 50th birthday party in Crozet. The speeches were enlightening… I had never realised that humans could make such bizarre sounds. What they were saying in French, I could only guess. My English companion had learnt enough French at school to understand some of it. From him I learnt one of my first words of French: Cernois, a person who works at CERN.

I wrote in my travel log:

After I’d looked at everything, I bought too much stuff at the souvenir shop, just like I did at the Apple Campus. The reason is the same — ‘when am I ever going to be here again?’ and so is the answer to that rhetorical question… when I work there.

A month before writing that, I had found out that my application for a CERN junior fellowship had been rejected. While still in Geneva, I found out that I had not been accepted into CERN’s Marie Curie fellowship programme either. So when I got home, I applied again.

My Marie Curie fellowship began in April 2005 and ended two years later. Before the end of the fellowship, I had been offered a position at ETH Zurich, based at CERN, so I continued going to work as usual, inasmuch as working at the world’s largest scientific facility can be considered usual.


That September, I got wind that CERN would be having open days the following April. I sent the news to everybody I knew, hoping that with enough notice, nobody with the slightest chance of making it to Geneva would miss out as narrowly as I had. I realised that as a Cernoise, I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance of not only going to a CERN open day, but being part of it. So I signed up as a volunteer for the Cernois-only open day on the Saturday.


Weak: I arrived at CERN at 8a.m, and was given a lift to the CMS pit in Cessy by a colleague and fellow volunteer. We all had our official T-shirts, windbreakers, and polar fleeces, several sizes too large. Guides had their hard hats, the people at the info point had their souvenirs to sell, physicists had brains brimming with answers, and I… I had tables, paper, coloured pencils, and pictures of CMS for colouring in. Kids’ corner.

After lunch I found myself alone at the art table, with two children approaching. Their mother asked in French if this was where they would be minded while she went underground, and would I like to take down her phone number? Would I? I had no idea. I looked around, only to have some guides confirm that it was indeed me in charge of the kids’ corner.

I mutely took the number, and finally the mother asked me in English whether I spoke French. Oui, oui, bien sûr… I like to pretend that I do. She explained to her kids that I didn’t. By this time the kids had the idea that I was a little odd, and sat there glumly staring. I asked in French if they wanted to draw something. They didn’t. The older one started halfheartedly colouring in. I tried to bribe them with promises of prizes for good drawing. They did not respond. Not sure of what else to do, I sat and dutifully watched them, feeling like some kind of psychopath. I started drawing, in an attempt to look less like one. Anyone who had seen my drawings would not have been convinced.

To my relief, a friend appeared with his young nephews, and I talked to him for a while, occasionally checking that my charges hadn’t exploded.

When the mother finally came to rescue her children from their ill-adapted babysitter, the younger one, who had barely touched his pencils, didn’t want to go. Perhaps, in the end, I am quite interesting to glumly stare at. I probably would have held the Cernois in awe too, if I’d been a member of the public at the 2004 open day.


Electric: Sunday was the open day for the general public, and the day when I, too, would be in the general public rather than a volunteer.

The bus to CERN was almost full at its first stop. It was great to see that I wasn’t the only one excited about the open day. At CERN, there were already crowds surrounding the Globe of Science and Innovation, near the entry to visit the ATLAS experiment. I’d already seen ATLAS, thanks to a friend who was trained as an ATLAS guide, so I headed into the rest of the site to see what else there was to see.

The whole place was eerily quiet. I saw a few signs, but no crowds to show me what might be interesting. I went to the café in bulding 40, knowing that there should be some events there, or at least some coffee. There were more volunteers than visitors, and no food yet. Still five minutes until the official start of the open day.

The restaurant was not crowded. I bumped into the friend from the day before, with his nephews and the rest of the family. Was it another day for the Cernois, after all? I checked the volunteers’ interface on the web. There was a few hours wait to visit ATLAS. The amateur radio club was still waiting for visitors. Shuttles supposed to take people from the Meyrin site to visit the ALICE experiment had still not arrived. At 9:30, I heard that some friends of mine who had come from Lausanne early that morning had already been underground to see CMS. What was going on?

What was going on was that 20 000 people were going underground to see the LHC and the detectors. 20 000 out of a previously stated maximum limit of 15 000. 

The first visitors arrived at CMS at 7a.m. With queues filling the detector assembly hall and stretching hundreds of metres down the street, there was little choice but to start the underground visits half an hour early, at 8:30. The elevators ran at full capacity and full speed. At LHCb, tour sizes were kept smaller in order to allow more foreign language tours, but they still had a huge number of visitors. By 11a.m. the waiting time to see ATLAS was close to four hours.

Meanwhile, the rest of the 53 000 visitors were dispersed around the various sites, watching machines making machines, Nobel prizewinners making revelations, superconducting magnets making people and things fly, superfluids making their way up the walls of their containers, and actors making out they’d lost some protons.

By the end of the day, the forecast cold and rain had finally arrived. My friends drove me the short distance to the bus stop, where a busload of people were already waiting. One had come from London. One from Paris. One was an art student from Lausanne, who was more interested in the logo and other designs used for the event. One was a guide for CMS, who had volunteered to guide people in English and Portuguese, but ended up speaking French all day and getting a sore throat from it. When the bus arrived, the crowd surrounded it like a plague of zombies… but so much more alive.




The idea of this project is to write regularly for a year, thus miraculously turning back into a writer. So naturally, I am reading Susan Tiberghian‘s ‘One Year to a Writing Life’. This month’s lesson is on the personal essay, which is something like what I’m writing here. In it, she says:

It takes me a good month to write a personal essay.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a month… and that is my excuse of the week. In the end I didn’t even get time to finish reading that chapter of the book.

I intended to do a full write-up of this year’s open day, and I did write up all of Saturday, but it was starting to sound more like a travelogue entry, and I was starting to ramble, and getting tired, and even getting bored myself. So I’ve collapsed it down to three fairly short snapshots which can each be associated with a fundamental force, and some connecting text to unify them. That’s where the F comes in. Technically ‘Electric’ should be ‘Electromagnetic’ but that doesn’t have the same double meaning, and magnetism is already demonstrated in the photo.

I posted this seconds before midnight, and was still writing the ‘Electric’ section seconds before, so don’t expect that section to be polished. I knew what I was going to write about more than a week ago, and yet, I still didn’t start it early enough. When will I learn?

During a photo session with a rubber duck, I decided there was no excuse for my shockingly bad photographs of playing cards. I’ve purchased some essential photography equipment (alphabet magnets) which allows me to both take better photos and show the letter of the week in the photo. I’ll redo the previous photos when I have time.

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  1. #1 by PowerBill on April 14, 2008 - 7:22 am

    Ah, you spend your time photographing rubber ducks, too! I couldn’t help but laugh at your babysitting experience.
    This weeks writing may be neither novel nor purely poetic but it us undeniably a “tour de force”!


  2. #2 by Mary Carr on April 20, 2008 - 12:55 am

    Yes well everyone I’ve told about you baby sitting has laughed including Dr Paul….I wonder why? You could have given them a history lesson on NZ or even the story of “the three little pigs” or such.
    If you’d been told before hand you could have taught they wee tricks with magnets??


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