My Visit to CERN
This past week, I was treated to one of the most wonderful surprises of my life. My youngest daughter, Gwen Gardner (Guard Up Camper and Monster Camper Alumni) has been at CERN in Switzerland since January as a physicist conducting research. CERN is the home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which spans 27 kilometers at the foot of the Alps from just outside of Geneva, across the Swiss border, and into France. The physicists working at CERN were responsible for the creation of the internet and the invention of the MRI among many other achievements. They also discovered the Higgs Boson particle in 2012. The LHC is the largest, most complex machine ever made by humankind. And last Monday, I got to see it in person.
As a surprise, when we were visiting her in Switzerland, Gwen made arrangements for her father, her grandfather, and me to actually go below ground and see the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) Detector in person. The CMS is one of the 4 detectors at the LHC and is located deep underground in France. Since the underground facility is not open to the public, Gwen’s friend and co-worker, Dr. Bora Akgün, an immensely generous particle physicist from Turkey, had the security clearance to bring us on a private tour to see the CMS in all its gorgeous glory.
If you haven’t heard of the LHC or CERN before, that’s okay. Particle Physics wasn’t a topic covered in my high school science classes either. But as an avid reader of Scientific American magazine, I had followed the accomplishments of CERN since the LHC was first brought online in 2008… when Gwen was just 10 years old. I never expected that Gwen would find a passion in physics, let alone accomplish being invited to intern and then work at the most prestigious and iconic organization for particle physics in the world. And I never expected to actually witness the CMS Detector first-hand. I just read about it in a magazine because I was curious. And that’s a good place to start.
As an introduction, here of some interesting facts about the CMS and LHC:
- The CMS experiment is one of the largest international scientific collaborations in history, involving 4300 particle physicists, engineers, technicians, students and support staff from 182 institutes in 42 countries (February 2014)
- At CMS, scientists are looking into the unknown and trying to answer the most fundamental questions about our Universe, for example: “What is the Universe really made of and what forces act within it?” and “What gives everything substance?”.
- The LHC produces 30 petabytes (a petabyte is 1 million gigabytes) of data each year the LHC is on line
- The CMS by itself weighs 14,000 metric tonnes (almost 31 million pounds), is over 21 meters long and 15 meters in diameter (70 feet x 49 feet)
- Right now, the entire LHC is in a 2 year shutdown as the physicists and engineers conduct maintenance and upgrades. Gwen is working on circuit boards that will be used in the 7 year upgrade which will reside in the end-cap of the CMS.
So now that you know a little more, back to my story.
Before taking an elevator down to the subterranean tunnel where the CMS resides, our guide, Bora, gave a wonderful explanation of how the different parts of the detector work. He used hand gestures, visuals, models, multi-media, and superb storytelling to weave his lesson… his voice filled with excitement as he shared the subject of his life’s work with us. He patiently fielded questions and made extremely complex concepts and processes more comprehensible with analogies and metaphors. Bora isn’t just an accomplished physicist. He is also a superb educator.
After fitting our hardhats and Bora clearing access via the retinal security scanners, we descended 175 meters below ground. Bora brought us through the computing centers and showed us the massive computing power for collecting the vast amount of data (see facts above). Then we moved into the hall before the Detector and Bora pulled open the doors to the CMS. I walked in and was immediately struck with an overwhelming sense of awe. Right there, in front of me, was the 6 story tall Compact Muon Solenoid. I have seen many photos of the CMS. But they all pale in comparison to seeing it in person. It wasn’t just stunning in its magnitude and complexity, it looked as if it was an intricate piece of sculptural art. The color-coded cables and geometric shapes gave it an equal sense of grace and gravity. The vast array of massive sections, components, and connectors made it utterly obvious that this machine required the cooperative research, design, construction, operation, and effort of countless brilliant people from all around the world.
As I stood on the walkway and took it all in, I felt the level of awe that I experienced when I stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or at the foot of the ancient Redwood trees in John Muir Forest. Except this time, instead of the pervasive feeling of the smallness and youth of humanity, I felt an overwhelming sense of the power and greatness of our collective vision, global cooperation, and deeply ingrained curiosity. We are beings capable of such exceptional accomplishments when we come together in support of a common cause. And this cause is nothing less than to further our understanding of the nature of existence: What makes us what we are… and how all of this came to be.
Here’s the thing: This machine wasn’t conceived of by people who just memorized equations and learned how to apply them. It wasn’t designed by people who learned to how to take tests. It wasn’t built by isolated individuals who stick to their own specialties and talents. It isn’t operated by people who only want to measure what they’re currently capable of measuring.
This machine and all of its discoveries came about when people pulled together to share their knowledge and to learn from each other. It was accomplished by visionaries who understood that innovation is built on doing things differently. It was and it is one of the greatest scientific collaboration in history because enough people knew that they didn’t have all the answers… but they definitely had about 14,000 metric tonnes of really good questions. And that is a good place to start.
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Very little on this planet exemplifies these four areas of study as much as CERN. And yet, an impressive knowledge of those four subjects is not enough. We have to help our students do so much more than learn facts and formulas. They need to know how to think… not just outside of the box… but in some cases, to get rid of the idea of a box altogether. We still need the contents of the box. Without the foundational knowledge, we would spend all of our time re-inventing the wheel. And yet some of the greatest discoveries happened when someone became suddenly curious. The most impactful inventions were built by people who were “just messing around”. And the largest moments of exploration came when we were willing to lose sight of the known shoreline… or planet.
This is the function and purpose of Informal Education. Stay tuned next week for my article entitled Informal Education: What it is and why it’s important. Stay with me on this journey as we examine what, how, and why our society is educating our students (of all ages) in a manner that only addresses half of the equation necessary for truly innovative solutions. I’m referring to solutions that can give us giant particle accelerators and huge detectors like the one I was privileged to experience. It’s a good place to start.
About the Author: Meghan Gardner is the founder of Guard Up, Inc. which owns and operates Wizards & Warriors and Zombie Summer Camps, programs and events. These educational camps and events are STEM and story-based experience where instead of watching movies or playing video games about heroes, mythological creatures, mystery, and adventure, the campers get to live it. Kids and teens spend the summer playing a character of their own design and fighting monsters with foam swords or NERF Blasters, physics, biology, chemistry, and more. Gardner is also a STEM Curriculum Designer for ST Unitas (the parent company of The Princeton Review), a guest lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education and other major universities, and an international speaker on the topic of Informal Education and Learning for all ages.