I recently visited CERN for the Cineglobe Film Festival, where Eden 2045 premiered as part of the short film program.
I was vaguely aware of the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 at CERN (which stands for The European Center for Nuclear Research). The Higgs is the so-called "God Particle" that bestows mass on the matter that fills the universe, and it was the last of the particles predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics to be experimentally verified. Before visiting, I knew next to nothing about CERN - only that there was something called the Large Hadron Collider there - a set of vast circular tubes that stretch in a massive loop underground beneath Geneva, where subatomic particles collide at high speed. In my mind's eye I imagined a gleaming facility, with steel and glass buildings, multiple layers of security, and solitary scientists.
Arriving at reception, I was given a map to help me find the on-site hostel where I would be staying for the next few days. The building numbers reached into the hundreds, and they seemed to be bunched together in clusters, practically on top of one another - with no logic to their organization. Walking through them to find the hostel was like moving through a maze. But it wasn't a maze of high-tech wonder. Most of the buildings looked like this:
Construction at CERN began 60 years ago, as part of an international effort to probe deeper into the fundamental nature of matter than ever before. Many of the structures on the premises are original. The interiors feel ancient - with dark, narrow passageways and offices cluttered with yellowing papers. The most sophisticated laboratory with some of the most brilliant minds on earth feels like a sort of coral reef - with no central organizing principle, no logical layout to define it, with the new built on top of and around the old.
I had the chance to go underground and see the facility's pièce-de-résistance, the ATLAS experiment. In ATLAS, the two parallel proton-carrying tubes that run through the LHC's underground loops converge, and the clusters slam into each other, breaking violently apart. The particles the collisions produce scatter through the walls of the ATLAS experiment, where they hit a variety of cylindrical layers - each of which reacts to particles of different mass and energy. By running the experiment many times, and plotting the distributions of masses and energies that the detectors report, physicists are able to infer the identities of these particles. When the experiment indicated that the detectors were "seeing" a particle of a mass that had not been observed experimentally before, and this matched the predictions of the Standard Model, they knew they had found the Higgs.
To me, the most remarkable takeaways from ATLAS - aside from the obvious ones, like its massive size (it is the largest and most complex machine built by man, standing seven-stories tall and weighing as much as the Eiffel Tower), are the method of its construction and the fact that it works at all. For ATLAS to detect the particles from the collisions, it had to be engineered very precisely - down to the micron. A micron is one millionth of a meter - a tenth of the width of a human hair. To create a machine of such gargantuan size - at that level of precision - is a magical feat. To compound it, consider the fact that ATLAS was not built by a single team under the direction of one individual. It was built by committees of scientists in nearly 20 different countries - some of which were at war with one another. And yet, somehow, all these people came together in the pursuit of pure scientific discovery. The knowledge that the Higgs boson exists has absolutely no direct economic value. It will not power cars or take the carbon out of the air. But the buildings themselves seem to tell the story of how it came to be. It was a slow, yet relentless, non-hierarchical and intensively collaborative, endlessly frustrating progression - a sequence of never-ending problems to be solved. They solved them, one by one, until one day - nearly 30 years after they first broke ground outside Geneva - a cluster of protons collided at light speed, and we reproduced the Big Bang, in miniature, on earth.