The ride between Basel and Geneva was fantastic; the weather was wonderful and en route we passed through some really beautiful countryside. We’d left Basel early so could take our time and appreciated where we were.
Our host in Geneva was called Alex, he lived really close to the centre of the city so we were able to pass by the lake on our way to his place.
Our first day in Geneva was nice and relaxed. Just what we needed after a few busy days out on the bike. We woke up late, slowly got ourselves together and made our way down to the River Rhone – one of the rivers flowing out of Lake Geneva. This is a particularly popular spot for locals: here people can swim or relax on the river side. As the weather was so good, this spot was pretty busy, people had BBQ’s or picnics and the river was full of people on inflatables floating along on the lazy current. I’m calling it lazy now but when I jumped in, even the river flowing at this speed was hard to swim against.
So here we spent the afternoon. Some of Alex’s friends joined us and we swam, ate and chatted. We’d have taken some photos but with so many locals there it didn’t seem right to start snapping away.
Although we visited Geneva on out last trip, I wanted to see the old centre again so that evening I borrowed a bicycle and went for an explore. The temperature had dropped a lot by this time (although still mid 20’s I’ll bet!) making it really peasant to cycle in. During the heat of the day to do this wouldn’t have been half so enjoyable.
On my little tour I visited the iconic fountain and cycled along the lake a little way before heading up to the older part of the city. Before coming to Geneva I didn’t imagine it to have a historical area. Knowing it only for the salubrious shops and restaurants, I enjoyed visiting this older, quieter and more beautiful (in my opinion) area which seemed to contrast vastly with the rest of the city.
That night Alex treated us to dinner in a really unusual Eritrean place… What was unusual wasn’t the food as you may have expected (this was delicious) but the location. It was inside an apartment block, in someone’s house. We rung the bell and were let into the building, up some stairs and into the apartment. What would be the living room and bedrooms were full of tables and chairs as a restaurant. Apparently this place isn’t technically legal as it has no restaurant licence but is run as an ‘association’ which serves food.
Real restaurant or no, the food was really fantastic: it was like a huge pancake, served on a platter, in the centre of which was stewed beef, with lentils, spinach and salad around the edge. Eating with your hands, you simply tore off some pancake and ate. This was something we certainly didn’t think we’d try in Geneva!
As well as the beautiful lake and expensive shops, Geneva is also home to CERN. I’ve wanted to visit this place for a while now and this was one of the reasons we chose to come to this city to begin with. For me, what they’re doing in this place, the ideas that are being thrown around are so impacting and important for our understanding of life and the world.
CERN offer tours but to get tickets is very difficult, the last time we were in Geneva it had been fully booked. This time I was determined: I’d been checking on the CERN website every day for the past few weeks and eventually found tickets on the suitable day.
After fighting our way through the atrocious traffic in the centre of Geneva we made it just in time for our 11am tour. Our guide was a physicist who had been working at CERN since 1988 meaning he had been part of this project for as long as Jake and I have been alive. With him we went to two areas of the site but were unfortunately not able to go below ground to see the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) itself.
Our tour started with a short introduction about the LHC and the experiments being carried out. The LHC is housed in a circular tunnel with a circumference of 27km, which itself is between 100 and 175 meters below the Swiss/French border near Geneva.
Around the LHC are 4 different sets of measuring apparatus known as experiments; ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment), CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), LHCb (Large Hadron Collider-beauty) and finally ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus). Our tour was centred around ATLAS so I’m afraid I can’t give any more information about the other 3.
ATLAS is the largest experiment at 27 meters diameter (or 6 stories tall) by 47 meters long it is simply massive; it’s amazing how big something has to be to detect microscopic particles!! ATLAS was responsible for the latest discover of CERN; the Higgs Boson particle; again, my physics doesn’t stretch to explain what that is but I am assured it’s pretty important for physicists.
After our introduction we were taken over to the ATLAS control room, outside of which is a section of the dipole magnets that the LHC is largely made from. These components are designed to curve the path of the electron beam. Apparently electrons don’t really like to go round in a circle and so they need a enormous amount of magnetic energy to curve their path. We’re told that the magnetic power of the LHC is enough to levitate the Eiffel Tower!
Painted on the outside of the building that houses it’s control room, is a diagram of the ATLAS experiment to aide visitors in understanding it’s size. Unfortunately, however, the building wasn’t big enough to draw a 1:1 scale diagram; this is only 2/3 the actual size. Notice the scooter in the picture for a sense of scale!
Our tour then took us inside the control centre to have a look at the scientists working away. Sat behind a glass wall it gave me a bit of a feeling like they were subjects themselves. Although I’m sure they are totally oblivious to the tour groups thanks to how many people visit CERN, I still felt a little awkward taking photos. Our final “stop” of this part of the tour was a LEGO model, apparently a scale model – notice the men – of ATLAS.
Our tour was split into 2 sections, and unfortunately neither took us underground as it’s unsafe when the LHC is operating.
The second half of our tour was dedicated to the computer processing department of CERN. As you can imagine, CERN requires incredibly powerful computer processing capabilities; so powerful in fact that the scientists have pushed forward the progression of computer technology. We were taken by coach between the 2 departments as the site is so large. Apparently before the coaches, the tour required you to walk over 1.2km.
We were guided into a kind small dark room with back lite tables, displaying various types of storage media. Through the ages all the data from the experiments has been recorded on paper, to storage tapes and then to hard-drives much like we would recognise at home. Louise and I found this particular disk the most amusing, can you imagine it only holds 10 Megabytes of data – that’s only enough for 4 copies of the photograph.
We were shown a kind of montage showing just how much data the ATLAS experiment creates – even after the scientists have discarded 99.99% of the data as useless. If you were to use DVD’s to store 1 year’s worth of data you would end up with 4 stacks each the size of Mont Blanc, or to put it another way – 1 stack nearly 20 km tall, or for another ridiculous number it would be 15,653,333.3′ dvds!
We also heard about how CERN created a network to easily pass data between the sites. Firstly it was the old faithful bicycle, but this was soon outdated when computers were introduced. CERN needed a computer network, and so they created CERNET which later became the internet – just a byproduct of their research that has helped humanity to connect around the world.
Finally we were taught about the processing power needed to compute the experiments carried out at the LHC. Once again CERN has accelerated the development of computer processors, and now they have discovered that the most cost effective way is to link multiple computers rather than trying to create a single computer powerful enough. Again a massive development, CERN has created the World Wide Grid (WWG); a global network of computers each sharing the job of processing the immense data from each run of the LHC.
CERN itself only has enough resource to process 20% of the data created by ATLAS and the LHC, a further 30% is carried out by CERN’s counterparts across the globe and the final 50% is shared out to computer farms on the WWG.
Another use for this amazing system is that during a natural disaster they use it to aid the emergency services. For example, during the Haiti earthquake, they stopped recording the data from the LHC for a number of weeks and used it’s resources to map all the areas around the affected zones. Using the satellite imagery from global space agencies CERN was able to run a variety of simulations. Initially mapping out which roads were passable in a matter of minutes to running simulations on buildings, bridges and other structures to ascertain their structural integrity. With this capability, rescue workers were updated with viable paths in a matter of hours.
All around the visitor areas were big displays showing real time status of the LHC and the WWG – pictured. Although we didn’t really understand what we were looking at it was nice to see real time data – made the LHC seem actually real.
After our tour we nipped into France to buy some oil and petrol at more reasonable prices ready for our next leg down to Italy. By the way my bike isn’t a 2 stoke…it’s just old and uses oil… at least I know what’s left is always fresh! !