Being Politically Correct About Particle Accelerators

Attending ETH Zürich is practically synonymous to attending “nerd school“. The sole reason for visiting Geneva, or Genève if you want to politically accurate, was for CERN. Little did we know that you’d need more than a team of computer scientists and a determined physi(ology)cs student to visit the particle accelerators of the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire. I can still remember my frantic conversations with almost 15 people about forming a group to by-pass the line for individual guided tours. This was at least two weeks before the predicted trip.


The main facilities at CERN was decorated by a coloured depiction of particle physics. For example, the muon is an elementary particle similar to the electron, with an electric charge of −1 e and a spin of 1/2, but with a much greater mass.

The difficulty with booking CERN tours is the scarcity for individualized attention and general misinformation about the content covered on said tours. Please refer to the following links below and select the most appropriate tour for your purposes:

  1. For individuals
  2. For larger groups (12+ people)

You see, being surrounded my masterminds in physics, chemistry, and computer science; there was a lot of interest in my exchange group to visit this holy ground. CERN and the possibility of witnessing the particle accelerator in action was basically a common wet dream among our crowd. For the record, no one is allowed in the caverns when the machines are active. All the analysis is completed in the safety of metal cubicles above ground.


A portion of a retired (smaller and inactive) particle accelerator.

After tirelessly scrolling through open time slots every morning at 7:00, Zach and I finally decided to gather 10 other friends for a private tour. There are several language options, but English is by far the most popular. In most cases, tours are booked three months in advance, so if you know you’re interested, book as early as possible to avoid our kind of stress. Although these numbers are generally used as benchmark for the providers, CERN will email you with a confirmation to make it official. With the electronic consent in hand, the group of us bought tickets to Geneva.

Leaving the residence at 5:00 was not something new, but it didn’t get any easier. Being a four-hour train ride away, the group of us (which eventually diminished to five brave soldiers) had to budget additional time to travel from Geneva to Myerin. Main CERN facilities are located slightly outside the city grounds, so be prepared for a quick bus ride to the revolving doors. And thank goodness we had some leeway because our train broke down midway in a small town along Lake Geneva. With the limited French in our arsenal, Will and I determined the time and location of the next train out. Teamwork at its finest.

Once the pleasantries of travel were behind us, we were overly excited for our guided tour of the CERN grounds. Without too many spoilers, the tour provided a good overview of the history and general workings of the organization. As science students, our personal guide, although a tenured scientist of the facilities, did not adequately answer our questions. Perhaps to better explain our curiosities in laymen terms, the CERN guided tour was a little underwhelming. We were under the impression that we could visit the particle accelerator or at least view a section of the 22km Large Hadron Collider. However, in weeks to come and coincidently drinking champagne in France, Alex and Zach bumped into a fellow Princeton friend who hooked us up. The real treasures are underground.


From left to right: Alex, Zach, Grace, Brandon, Will. Quote of the day – “HE FIT THE WHOLE THING IN”!

Leaving slightly disappointed, but at least warm from mostly indoor activities, Alex, Brandon, and I suggested trekking all the way to the United Nations (UN) Headquarters. Taking a couple buses back and climbing up several hills lined with government buildings, we finally arrived at the gates to diplomatic heaven. Then we realize that these gates were only for show and the main entrance was actually located around on the other side of the circle grounds. Well-kept grass and high security aside, the five of us were lucky to have snagged a spot on the next English guided tour of the UN Offices. Once entering the grounds, I precariously read the sign “欢迎光您” out loud and made Will question his views on facial recognition technology. The backstory still makes me chuckle. Make sure to ask me in the comments below for the full details.


The (fake) gates to the Palace of Nations. United Nations Headquarters in Geneva.

I can only imagine the sense of awe to be able to work at the UN, especially the Geneva Headquarters. The great minds that walked these halls are a testament to the collaborative efforts between nations to maintain and promote peace. Human history can be bleak, stained with the blood of our ancestors. The children of today and future representatives of our human race have the opportunities to pave a new road – write a new chapter for brighter beginnings. This can be seen by the different designs of each conference room. Miquel Barceló in particular created the vibrant dome above the human rights council. There was a session during our visit, so we could only watch from the stands above. The unique painting technique left dripping stalactites and the effect was absolutely stunning.


When human rights meet sea and sky. Interior of Human Rights Council, session in order.

Following our impromptu UN visit, we had limited time to explore the city. The boys and I were running on a tight schedule, needing to make it back to Zürich for an ESN party. Quickly weaving through the streets of Geneva, we were disappointed to see that the Jet d’Eau was off for the season. The sky was a little gloomy, so we didn’t stay around long to find out when was the next spray. In all honesty, the photos are comparable to the Old Faithful geyser located in Yellowstone National Park. I digress from the external continental travel tip. To my surprise, there was a Ladurée shop in Geneva! Even though France was planned in the next couple of weeks, it was nice to see the luxury pastry shop across borders.


Views across Lake Geneva on a cloudy day in March.

All in all, the trip felt overly rushed, but completely worth it due to the pleasant UN experience. If I remember correctly, to travel to and from Geneva could cost a pretty penny. However, my friends Alex and Zach recently obtained a GA and graciously utilized their companion pass option for the Halbtax holders. The concept works by allowing the travel companion to hold GA privileges for a fraction of the price of a regular travel pass. We eventually did buy a regular Swiss pass for the day and split the three tickets among the travellers. Overall, the trip cost less than 75CHF, which is more than half off of a round trip to Geneva on any day. Didn’t have a chance to try any food on the French side of Switzerland, but I hear many Swiss cross the borders for grocery shopping in France. Similar on both fronts, I guess.


Broken Chair is a monumental sculpture in wood by the Swiss artist Daniel Berset, constructed by the carpenter Louis Genève. It is 12 metres high. A giant chair with a broken leg standing across the street from the Palace of Nations. It symbolises opposition to land mines and cluster bombs, and acts as a reminder to politicians and others visiting Geneva.

Later that evening, we basked in the hydroxyl glow with newfound exchange students. Geneva was definitely the classier part of our day. There was so much to learn and so little time. Hopefully I’ll be able to return one day and see the actual fountain in action. Until then, I’ll be dreaming about cute French accents heard in the region.


From left to right: Zach, Alex, Will, Brandon. Main travel group, also known as “Da Boyz”.


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