January 27, 2020

Seven things to do at CERN if you’re not a Physicist


Wandering the Immeasurable: A sculpture at CERN by Gayle Hermick, picture re-used with permission from the artist

Even if you’re not a Physicist, there is plenty to see and do above and below ground at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Home to the worlds largest experiment on what is arguably the worlds largest machine near Geneva in Switzerland, CERN is a very inspiring place to visit. Consequently, CERN and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) feature in many guidebooks like The Geek Atlas [1], the Atlas Obscura, Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor.com. So what can you actually see and do at CERN?

  1. Get a well paid engineering job. Good news for engineers, there are loads of jobs at CERN. What better way to explore a place than to work there? If you’re a student see careers.cern/students for details on summer internships and year long technical student programs. If you have already graduated, take a look at the CERN Fellowships and the doctoral student program. There are also plenty of opportunities for more experienced engineers described at careers.cern/professionals too. CERN’s mission is to “unite people from all over the world to push the frontiers of science and technology, for the benefit of all”. Part of that means providing opportunities for people from CERN’s 23 member states to learn new skills at CERN and take them back to their home country. For every research physicist at CERN, there are ten engineers. [2] To run their experiments, physicists rely on massive, novel and a very precise network of machines made with millions of parts, both moving and stationary. You need an army of engineers to build, test, run and develop such a complex machine, for example:
    • Mechanical engineers develop heating & cooling systems and mechatronics (there are quite a few robots at CERN)
    • Materials engineers test novel materials, metals, magnets, microscopes, superconductors, vacuums, X-ray diffraction and apply radiochemistry
    • Software and hardware engineers develop applications, virtualised infrastructure, distributed computing and databases using a wide range of programming and scripting languages. These applications manage data in one of the most highly demanding computing environments in the research world
    • Electrical and electronic engineers work on energy distribution, signal processing, microelectronics and radio frequency technology
    • Civil engineers and geotechnical engineers develop structures, roads, drainage, both above (and under) ground to accommodate all of the above
    • There are non-engineering jobs too, in administration careers.cern/AdminStudent-projects and Applied Physics (obviously)

So CERN is full of engineers of every flavour. But if you’re not a physicist or an engineer looking for a job, there is still plenty to see and do. So let’s reboot our listicle again: seven things to do at CERN if you’re not a physicist, an engineer or job seeker:

  1. Watch cosmic rays arrive from outer space: There are two permanent exhibitions which can be visited without booking and they both have free entry. One is housed in the aesthetically pleasing Globe of Science and Innovation (GoSI) and is called the Universe of Particles. Another is opposite the GoSI and called Microcosm. There’s plenty to see in both exhibits, including film projections, spark chambers showing cosmic rays and cloud chambers which allow you to visualise ionizing radiation.
  2. Wander the Immeasurable with Gayle Hermick: Right outside the GoSI, sits an impressive sculpture made of 15 tonnes of twisted steel, stretched out over 37 metres in length and 11 metres up into the air. Covered in mathematical equations describing physical laws, the sculpture tells the story of Physics from Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece up to present day Higgs Boson and beyond. It’s a beautiful work of art to contemplate by Gayle Hermick. Having been inspired by equations the next thing you need to do is…
  3. Crunch numbers using Einsteins famous equation: You can’t visit CERN without crunching some numbers. Many people will be familiar with Einsteins famous equation of mass–energy equivalence E=mc². What this means is that energy can be converted into mass (and vice versa) and the “exchange rate” () is a very large number – the speed of light squared. So, you can turn a small about of mass into a HUGE amount of energy. Armed with your handy mass–energy calculator, you can crunch numbers, for example 1 kg = 90,000,000,000,000,000 Joules.
  4. Thank the technology mothership: CERN is widely known as the the birthplace the Web, which we should all be thankful for. Many other technologies can trace their origin to CERN. Bent Stumpe and his colleagues developed the first touchscreens as early as 1973. [3,4] Cloud computing platforms such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure have some of their roots in Grid Computing developed at CERN too. [5] Key pieces of widely used open-source software like Ceph and OpenStack have been co-developed at CERN. Where would we be without massive international collaborations? Find out more about how investment creates a positive impact on society through knowledge transfer, spin outs, startups and more at kt.cern. Many of these projects have an impact far beyond physics in areas such as medicine and consumer electronics. Thank you technology mothership. 🙏
  5. Boggle at Big Data: Data speaks louder than words. Here is some random data for your mind to boggle on:
    • When switched on, some of the LHC detectors track up to 40 million events per second.
    • The LHC Grid computing generates 30 petabytes (10¹⁵ bytes) per year, with 300 petabytes of data permanently archived in its tape libraries as of October 2018.
    • The big loop underground is 27km long. Travelling very fast, close to the speed of light, a proton laps the circuit 11,000 times every second.
    • There are 100,000 scientists from over 100 countries working at CERN
    • More boggling can be done in the CERN data centre, especially the key facts and figures. [6] Anyone can explore and play with over two petabytes of Physics data at opendata.cern.ch
  6. Contribute to the Grid: Talking of data, Physicists from all over the world work on data produced by the experiments. This requires supercomputers, very High Performance Computing (HPC) and Grid computing that no single machine can provide. This is why the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG) exists. With the improvements of the LHC more and more computing power is required to crunch the data. Anyone can contribute by joining in the LHC@home project. Who knows? Maybe you can be a part of the discovery of the new mysterious particle or the proof that physicists have been struggling with for decades. CERN’s Grid builds on volunteered resources provided via the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) middleware.
  7. Book a free tour: While the two free permanent exhibitions require no booking, the free tours do and they offer much more. Tours are typically given by knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. You can learn a lot from the permanent exhibitions, but a tour guide brings the place to life. Tours fill up quickly and provide access to restricted parts of CERN such as mission control, the ATLAS experiment, CMS cavern, synchro-cyclotron, the CERN data centre and more. [6] The cyclotron tells the story of CERN from 1957, when the first particle accelerator arrived in pieces on the back of a few lorries. Today it spans 27 km of France and Switzerland. How did that happen? Using lights and projectors, the exhibition brings the story to life in an illuminating way. At the time of writing, limited underground visits are possible as we are in the middle of the long shutdown 2 [7]. Tunnels are accessible but you’ll need to book a tour.

If you ever get the chance to visit.cern, it is well worth it. There is nowhere else quite like it. CERN is a truly inspiring place that demonstrates what can be achieved when thousands of people collaborate on a shared vision.


I’d like to thank current and former CERN technical students from the University of Manchester for their tours (both virtual and actual) of CERN and comments on drafts of this article: Raluca Cruceru, Simeon Tsvetankov, Iuliana Voinea, Grzegorz Jacenków, Boris Vasilev, Ciprian Tomoiagă, Nicole Morgan, Paul-Adrian Gafton, Joshua Dawes and Stefan Klikovits. Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments or by email.

Thanks to Gayle Hermick for her permission to re-use the picture of her artwork in this piece.

DISCLAIMER: You can probably tell from reading the above that I am not a Physicist, unless you count a very rusty A-level from decades ago. Any factual errors in this article are the combined fault of me and my Physics teacher!


    1. John Graham-Cumming (2009) The Geek Atlas: 128 places where Science & Technology come alive O’Reilly Media, Inc. ISBN: 9780596802257
    2. Did you know, CERN employs ten times more engineers and technicians than research physicists? home.cern/science/engineering Deadlines for applications are typically, end of January for summer internships and September and March for technical studentships, check careers.cern for details.
    3. Bent Stumpe and Christine Sutton (2010) The first capacitative touch screens at CERN: The story of a forerunner to today’s mobile-phone screens, cerncourier.com
    4. Bent Stumpe (2014) The ‘Touch Screen’ Revolution: 103–116. DOI: 10.1002/9783527687039.ch05 Chapter 5 of From Physics to Daily Life by Beatrice Bressan Wiley‐VCH Verlag GmbH & Co ISBN: 9783527332861
    5. Maria Alandes Pradillo and Andrzej Nowak (2013) The Grid, CERN’s Global Supercomputer Computerphile
    6. Mélissa Gaillard (2019) Key Facts and Figures – CERN Data Centre information-technology.web.cern.ch
    7. Evan Gough (2018) The Large Hadron Collider has been Shut Down, and Will Stay Down for Two Years While they Perform Major Upgrades universetoday.com


January 20, 2015

What is effective teaching? The willing definition via Grant Campbell

teaching large classes

Teaching Large Classes: Discussion. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA image via Giulia Forsythe on Flickr @giuliaforsythe

(This post is part of a series about the New Academics Program (NAP), I’ll be using this blog to scribble notes about the NAP as I work my way through it.)

Ask ten different people what effective teaching is and you’ll get ten different answers. Here’s a handy definition (let’s call it the willing definition for now) from Grant Campbell, currently Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Huddersfield. The original source may possibly be from elsewhere. [1]

 “Effective teaching is inclining people to learn willingly what they would otherwise be disinclined to learn.”

So according to this definition, good teachers make you learn things you wouldn’t normally be interested in, or as campbell puts it Teaching easy interesting stuff is easy. Teaching difficult dull stuff is more of a challenge.

Is this definition useful?

This is an unusual definition, but is teaching easy interesting stuff always easy to do? Probably not. It’s also not always obvious to teachers (or students) how hard or easy things are going to be to learn. Appearances can be deceptive.

Imagine trying to teach somebody something they didn’t want to know or poorly understood. Like the Physicist Akram Khan @ProfAkramKhan, who has been trying to teach the novelist Will Self about Particle Physics, that’s hard (especially with a deliberately difficult student like Self) but the results are entertaining. Most students in higher education are considerably more willing than Self, and more motivated to work their way through the inevitable dull hard stuff that comes with every subject, so IMHO, effective teaching is about both the dull and the exciting.


  1. Diane Salter (2013) Cases on Quality Teaching Practices in Higher Education ISBN-13: 978-1466636613

March 15, 2013

Creating with the Raspberry Pi vs. Consuming Apple Pie at the Manchester Raspberry Jamboree


Thirteen year old Amy Mather aka @MiniGirlGeek steals the show at Manchester Raspberry Jam 2013

Last Saturday, the first ever Raspberry Jamboree rolled into town, organised by the unstoppable force of nature that is Alan O’Donohoe (aka @teknoteacher). The jamboree looked at the educational value of the Raspberry Pi (a $25 computer) one year on from its launch on the the 29th February 2012. Here are some brief and incomplete notes on some of the things that happened in the main room, aka ‘Jamboree Central’. The workshops and other events have been covered by Jason Barnett @boeeerb.

A key feature of the Raspberry Pi foundation (and the Jamboree) was neatly summed up by Paul Beech (aka @guru) who compared the Raspberry Pi to various Apple iThings. Paul’s view is that when it comes to computing, Apple gives you a “sandy beach, sunbed and cocktail” to passively consume digital content with while the Raspberry Pi gives you a “desert, knife and a bottle” to actively create new things (see his tweet below).

Consuming Apple Pie on a sandy beach, with a sunbed and a cocktail

Engineering evangelist Rob Bishop used Apple Inc. to illustrate what the Raspberry Pi is about in his talk ‘one year on‘. Rob pointed out that a huge amount of effort at Apple Inc. is put into making Computing invisible and seamless. This is great if you’re consuming content on your iPad or iPhone, and what many users want – easy to use, with all the nasty internal gubbins tucked away, out of sight. This is tasty Californian Apple Pie, which many of consume in large amounts.

However, invisible computing is a problem for education, because it is difficult to demonstrate the Wonders of Computer Science (Brian Cox’s next TV series) with a device like the iPad.  Many of the internals of modern devices are completely inaccessible, and it’s non-trivial for budding young engineers to build anything very interesting with it particularly quickly.

In contrast, the Raspberry Pi can be challenging to setup, just getting the Operating System up and running isn’t always straightforward. However, there’s a ton of interesting stuff you can build with it: Nifty robotics, bionic bird boxes, musical hackery, twittering chickens, live train departure boards, internet radiossinging jelly babies and loads of other pideas. Try doing that with your iPad…

Creating with Raspberry Pi in the desert, using a knife and a bottle

Most of the jamboree focussed not on Apple but on the things that can be created with Raspberry Pi: the What and Why and When And How and Where and Who with keynotes from Steve Furber [1] and talks and panel sessions from:

A highlight of the jamboree was the closing keynote given by the thirteen year old Mini Girl Geek on what she’s been doing with her Raspberry Pi. MiniGirlGeek (aka Amy Mather pictured above) stole the show with her demo implementations of Conway’s Game of Life in Python. [update: see video below]

What’s interesting is that Conway’s Game of Life is used as an exercise for first year undergraduates in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge. So it’s great to see teenagers mastering the “knife” of Raspberry Pi, and reminds us that Raspberry Pi is no “sunbed and cocktail” but with a little patience, ambition and talent there’s plenty to capture the imagination of young people about Computing.


  1. Steve Furber et al (2012). Computing in Schools: Shut down or restart? Royal Society Report

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