Is This the Nerdiest Thing You Can Do in Switzerland?

CERN, the nuclear physics science center where the world wide web was invented and the Higgs boson was discovered, is open to the public for free. And it’s awesome.

A dark dome building at CERN science center in Switzerland with a curved silver-colored metal sculpture in front

The Globe of Science and Innovation houses an exhibition, and the ribbon-like steel sculpture in front is laser-cut with 396 great physics discoveries through the ages.

Photo by Billie Cohen

Switzerland is known to travelers for many good reasons: chocolate, cheese, mountains, lakes. But “world’s largest particle physics laboratory” isn’t really at the top of their minds. Nor is the fact that they can visit that lab for free, just 25 minutes outside of Geneva. In fact, I’d argue that a visit to CERN is one of the coolest—and, admittedly, nerdiest—things you can do in Switzerland.

What is CERN?

CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire in French, or European Council for Nuclear Research) is an internationally run science center that straddles the border of Switzerland and France.

This place is a pretty big deal: It’s where the world wide web was invented in 1989, where antimatter was discovered, and where the so-called God particle (aka the Higgs boson) was identified in 2012, validating scientists’ model for how the subatomic world works. As a result, a lot of what we know about atoms and the universe—and I guess, cat memes—can be attributed to the work done here.

For nerds of various stripes, this is all major—as is the fact that CERN’s campus is the home of the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator, a 16.8-mile underground track where the world’s most brilliant minds smash tiny, speeding particles together to see what they can learn.

“What astronomers do with telescopes, we do with particle detectors,” said CERN’s head of media relations, Arnaud Marsollier, in a webinar last week. “When we look at the universe, we understand only 5 percent of it. The other 95 percent, which is dark matter or dark energy, we don’t know what it is. We know it’s there’s—we have proof of that—but we don’t know what it is. So this is exactly why we are experimenting further.”

CERN is also a rare example of successful international collaboration: A group of 23 member states manage CERN today, and more than 12,000 scientists from 110 countries use the facilities and research developed here.

Aerial view of buildings at CERN

The Large Hadron Collider is the most powerful particle accelerator ever built; it’s made of a 27-kilometer-long ring of superconducting magnets in a tunnel 100 meters underground at CERN.

Courtesy of CERN

What kind of nuclear research is going on here?

The word nuclear in CERN’s title doesn’t have to do with nuclear warheads or weaponry at all. In fact, CERN was founded after World War II by a consortium of European countries with the mission to bring scientists together to use their intelligence for peace rather than bombs. As CERN’s convention states: “The Organization shall have no concern with work for military requirements and the results of its experimental and theoretical work shall be published or otherwise made generally available.”

So why is the word nuclear in CERN’s title then? Because at the time of CERN’s founding, physics research was focused on understanding the inside of atoms—or the nucleus—and it was called “nuclear.” Today, that area of study is known as particle research. CERN develops technologies in three areas: particle accelerators, particle detectors, and computing. And the scientists here aim to answer questions including:

  • What is the unknown 95 percent of the mass and energy of the universe?
  • Why is gravity so weak compared to other forces?
  • Why is the universe made only of matter, with hardly any antimatter?
  • Is there only one Higgs boson, and does it behave exactly as expected?

In the process, their efforts have concrete, real-world applications for daily life. For example, accelerator technologies are used in cancer radiotherapy, and other tech helps with innovations in 3D color X-ray imaging and PET-scan imaging and diagnostics.

Is it safe to visit? Yes. However, over the years, some have raised concerns about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) creating microscopic black holes (it can’t) or emitting cosmic rays. So the center’s website offers detailed explanations to assuage any fears, explaining, for example, “The Universe as a whole conducts more than 10 million million LHC-like experiments per second. The possibility of any dangerous consequences contradicts what astronomers see—stars and galaxies still exist.”

Closeup of circular CERN Science Gateway

Renzo Piano designed CERN’s new Science Gateway; its tubular structure references the track of the Large Hadron Collider, and the forest planted around it suggests the connection between science and nature.

Courtesy of CERN

What can visitors can do and see at CERN?

The most innovative thing about this manicured, sprawling science mini-town is that everything the scientists do here is completely public. All of their research is accessible to everyone—and so is the campus. Free guided tours are offered in English and French and led by CERN staffers, such as physicists, engineers, and technicians. On the tours, guests can view the facility’s first particle accelerator, the synchrocyclotron, installed in 1957, and also peep into the control room that oversees the ATLAS experiment, which helped identify the Higgs boson in 2012. When I visited, my tour guide proudly stated, “Nothing is hidden.”

This month, CERN added another way for the public to engage with its work: a new exhibition and education center, dubbed the Science Gateway, designed by starchitect Renzo Piano. (He’s also responsible for New York’s new Whitney Museum, Paris’s Centre Pompidou, London’s Shard, and another Swiss beauty, the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern.)

“This will be a place where people meet: kids, students, adults, teachers and scientists, everybody attracted by the exploration of the Universe, from the infinitely vast to the infinitely small. It is a bridge, in both a metaphorical and a real sense. This building is fed by the energy of the Sun, landed in the middle of a newly grown forest,” Piano said in a press release about the opening.

On the outside, the building looks like two parallel tubes connected by a bridge—a nod to CERN’s accelerators—and is carbon neutral, thanks to 4,000 square meters of solar panels. More than 400 trees were also planted around it, creating the effect that it’s floating above a forest.

Inside, the Science Gateway has three exhibitions (Discover CERN, Out Universe, and Quantum World), and it hosts science shows in a theater and hands-on workshops (for school groups as well as for individual visitors). There are also public events, like the upcoming Dark Matter Day with a talk by Nobel Prize–winning astronomer Michel Mayor (November 3) and a live performance of The Infinite Monkey Cage podcast featuring physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince (January 12).

CERN's first particle accelerator, the synchrocyclotron, installed in 1957, shown lit in blue

Visitors can see CERN’s first particle accelerator, the synchrocyclotron, installed back in 1957.

Photo by Billie Cohen

How to visit

CERN is a 25-minute tram ride from Geneva’s city center, and some hotels may even offer free transport cards.

The Science Gateway‘s exhibitions are open Tuesday–Sunday 9 a.m.–5 p.m. (reception opens at 8 a.m.). Tours can be booked at the Science Gateway on a first-come, first-served basis.

Billie Cohen is executive editor of Afar. She covers all areas of travel, and has soft spots for nerd travel, maps, intel, history, architecture, art, design, people, dessert, street art, and Oreo flavors around the world. Follow her @billietravels.
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