Sunday, 20 June 2010

Geneva: The LHC in The City in the City

I've just been reading China Mieville's The City in the City. What a stunning book it is. The concept is so simple and believable and yet so strange all at the same time.

Right now I'm in Geneva, just outside the city on the French side, and I'm struck by the similarities between this city and that in Mieville's book. I'm a Brit driving a Swiss car staying in France. Every day we pass across the border only ten minutes from the hotel. Yesterday I paid for a car park in Euro's and the machine gave me change in Swiss Francs. For the locals it is all so normal, so... business-as-usual. The border crossing is the real deal where you can be stopped and grilled and searched, and there's one particular car lane that is so narrow and twisting you have to creep along in first gear, threading between vicious cones that look like they could do serious bodily harm to your shiny hire car, for which you have a scary 1500 euro damage excess because you are a cheapskate.

Don't want to sound negative, though, because I love Geneva. It is a real cosmopolitan city and it feels so comfortable. Yesterday we did the tourist stuff, you know, walking out to as near to the Jet d'Eau as possible without getting totally soaked, then the wind changes and you get totally soaked, and it's fun until you have to walk around town in wet clothes. It was sunny though, and I dried quickly enough.

In the afternoon, the real highlight for me: a tour of CERN. When I booked this, a month or so ago, I knew only that it was a tour, in English. No other details. What we got (for free) was a film show, a fascinating guided tour of Atlas (one of the four detectors on the Large Hadron Collider) and a 3D film presentation about the building of the LHC. Our tour guide was one of the physicists whose day job involves working with Atlas. He was knowledgeable (as you'd guess) and full of infectious enthusiasm for the project. The highlight, for me, was seeing the Atlas control room. Okay, it was a quiet day, there were no collisions scheduled, but two beams of protons were being circulated around the LHC to test the systems, (over 10,000 laps per second). Every now and again the detectors would pick up something that looked like a collision but was, in fact, just stray cosmic rays zapping through the detectors, but hey, it was exciting seeing all the displays light up every time it happened. CERN is impressive. Way impressive. There are statistics, numbers, bandied around during the presentation and they make the mind boggle.

I came to CERN with the mind-set that this was research; that a story would come. A story didn't come (not yet). Instead I spent the day in slack-jawed awe of the place. I bought a CERN T-shirt. The note book never came out of my bag. I was a tourist. Loved it.

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