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


June 1, 2012

An Open Letter to the Royal Society: Please employ a wikipedian in residence

Dear Professor Nurse

Fellows of the Wiki Society?

To improve public engagement with Science and Scientists, the Royal Society should employ a wikipedian in residence. Here’s why:

The Royal Society is a National Academy of Science which represents some of the world’s leading scientists. The stated aim of the society is to:

“recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.”

Despite the elitist nature of many scientific societies, a significant part of what the Royal Society does is engage with members of the general public of all ages through a wide range of events. The annual Summer Science exhibition, Royal Society Blogs, Policy Centre and Royal Society television channel are just a few examples from amongst many more.

Many Fellows are of interest to the general public and already have extensive biographies in wikipedia which are up to date, well-written, well-referenced and conform to the wikipedia guidelines for the biographies of living persons. Wikipedia biographies often appear top of the list of google search result for a scientists name, for example see:

However, many other scientists do not have pages about them on wikipedia. Unfortunately, alternative sources of information such as academic homepages are often out of date and not particularly engaging. Most scientists are too busy doing Science to spend time updating their home pages, as neatly illustrated by cartoonist Jorge Cham. At the time of writing, less than half of the notable and distinguished Fellows elected in 2012 have biographies on wikipedia, see below of details.

Putting scientific information into wikipedia isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Alex Bateman at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute [1], PLoS Computational Biology [2] and many others [3] have already made considerable progress in improving the scientific content of wikipedia. This information is immediately accessible to a huge global audience.

Wikipedia is arguably one of the greatest ever opportunities for public engagement in Science. By employing a wikipedian in residence, the Royal Society could improve and influence the scientific content of wikipedia, while engaging even more with the general public around the world, who are often just as interested in the scientists as the science itself. As the current president of the society I hope you will consider this proposal.

Yours Sincerely

Dr. Duncan Hull
University of Manchester, UK

(this letter has also been sent by email)


  1. Daub, J., Gardner, P., Tate, J., Ramskold, D., Manske, M., Scott, W., Weinberg, Z., Griffiths-Jones, S., & Bateman, A. (2008). The RNA WikiProject: Community annotation of RNA families RNA, 14 (12), 2462-2464 DOI: 10.1261/rna.1200508
  2. Wodak, S., Mietchen, D., Collings, A., Russell, R., & Bourne, P. (2012). Topic Pages: PLoS Computational Biology Meets Wikipedia PLoS Computational Biology, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002446
  3. Xiao, L., & Askin, N. (2012). Wikipedia for Academic Publishing: Advantages and Challenges. Online Information Review, 36(3), 2. Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Appendix: Fellows of the Wiki Society

As of June 2012, only 21 out of the 52 of the Royal Society Fellows elected in 2012 have a biographical page on wikipedia. Where biographies currently exist, they are linked to below

Of course, 2012 is just the tip of the iceberg, there are also the Fellows elected in 20112010 and so on back 350 years to 1660.

January 20, 2009

Donald Braben on Scientific Freedom

The Elixir of Civilization?Donald Braben was in Manchester last week, to give a seminar on scientific freedom, here is the abstract of his talk:

Every major scientific discovery came unexpectedly out of the blue.  Until a few decades ago, creative researchers were free to explore. The unpredicted harvest was prodigious. Nowadays, academic research is subject to unprecedented levels of control.  Consensus rules.  In industry, companies focus on “core business“, and severely restrict the range of their research.  Consequently, caution is encouraged everywhere, and highly original research is curtailed.  As a result, there has been a dearth of major new scientific discoveries in recent years.  The significance of the problems and their possible solutions will be discussed.

So who is Donald Braben? Don has held a senior position at the Cabinet Office in Whitehall, and a has a visiting Professorship at University College London (UCL) . He has written two books [3,5], going against the currently prevalent views on science funding. To overcome the problem of the lack of scientific freedom, Braben proposes the creation of a twenty first century “Planck Club”, (named after some bloke called Max Planck). The Planck Club consists of an elite group of the very best scientists who are completely free to explore their ideas without submitting their project proposals to peer review (what Don calls “peer preview”).

Most of the audience were sympathetic to what Don had to say, and his talk provoked an extended discussion about the best way to fund the best Science. All this reminds me of the Skunk Works projects and the infamous “20% time” given to engineers at Google – freedom in Science (and engineering) really matters, but it isn’t always so easy to decide who deserves it and why. Thanks to Don for an entertaining and thought-provoking seminar, and thanks to Paul Popelier for organising it.

If this kind of stuff interests you, take a look at the references below.


  1. Peter Augsdorfer (2008). Book review: Scientific freedom ChemBioChem 9 (17), 2889-2890. DOI:10.1002/cbic.200800670 “The real value of the book is that it shows that unconstrained funding can really work and it tells us how.”
  2. Tim Birkhead (2008). In praise of fishing trips: The tyranny of ‘the hypothesis’ has made science too timid Times Higher Education 2008-07-31
  3. Donald Braben (1994) To Be A Scientist: The spirit of adventure in science and technology, Oxford University Press, isbn:0198522908
  4. Donald Braben (2007). UK Science must not roll over and play dead Times Higher Education 2007-12-07
  5. Donald Braben (2008). Scientific Freedom: The Elixir of Civilisation, Wiley, isbn:0470226544
  6. Donald Braben (2008). Why peer review thwarts innovation New Scientist 2644, 2008-02-23,
  7. Donald Braben (2008). Shoot for the blue skies: The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) constrains academics Times Higher Education 2008-12-22
  8. Zoe Corbyn (2008). Kill peer-review, save civilisation. Times Higher Education 2008-04-17
  9. Tom Feilden (2008). Searching for Einsteins: Is Science stagnating? BBC blogs (and Radio 4 Today programme) 2008-12-11
  10. Krebs and Braben (2009). Don Braben and John Krebs discuss is funding for scientists is under threat Today programme 2009-02-27
  11. Mark Gilbert (2009). Being judged is hard, not being judged is worse Times Higher Education 2009-01-15
  12. Douglas Kell (2009). Scientific Freedom at the UK Research Councils BBSRC blogs 2009-01-05
  13. KFC (2009). How Google’s PageRank predicts Nobel Prize winners arxivblog.com, the physics arXiv blog 2009-01-21
  14. Michael Nielsen (2008). Three myths about peer review michaelnielsen.org 2009-01-08

November 30, 2007

Burn semantic Web, Burn!

Taking down A.I. town?

Danger! Religious Wars!The Semantic Web is (quote) “a new form of Web content that is meaningful to computers”. It will “unleash a revolution of new possibilities” using a magical “new” artificially intelligent technology called ontology. So says a much-cited article in Scientific American published back in May 2001. Most people who have read this article, fall into two camps: “believers” and “non-believers”. Let me tell you a short story about a religious war between these two groups…

An Old War Story: Chapter 1

This is a work of fiction, though as they say in Hollywood it is “based on a true story”. Characters names are real.

A crusade of semantic web believers, is started by three people called Jim Hendler, Ora Lassila and Tim Berners-Lee. At the heart of their faith is a holy scripture and a suite of sacred technology called the semantic web stack. If people use this technology, the crusaders believe, the Web would be a better place. Search engines like Google, for example, would be even smarter than they already are, because they would intelligently “know what you mean“, when you type your keywords. All this new magic comes from using good old fashioned logic, metadata and reasoning. Better Search Engines is one of the mantras of the semantic web troops as they pour onto the battlefield towards the promised land. Viva la Webolution! Charge!

A counter-attack is launched by the non-believers of this vision of the future. They rally behind a man called Clay Shirky who roars “the semantic web is doomed” at the top of his voice. Many others echo Shirky’s sentiment, including Peter Norvig, Rob McCool, Cory Doctorow and Tim O’Reilly. General Shirky makes powerful allies in battle, and he has a two-pronged attack. “Ontology is over-rated” he jeers. Led by Shirky, the non-believers capture the sacred technology, add their own firewood and put the torch to it in a very public place. The flames leap into the sky, visible for miles around.

“Burn semantic web, burn!” the non-believers cry as they gleefully dance around the fire.

The battle rages, the believers will not take this heresy lying down. They regroup and surge forward again. Death to the blasphemers! With the help of some biologists, they seek revenge using the Gene Ontology as deadly ammunition. The non-believers are confused by this tactic, they don’t know what genes are and neither do the biologists. Unfortunately, the biologists unwittingly find themselves in the middle of an epic battle they didn’t start. There are ugly skirmishes involving logic and graph theory. Dormant and hideous A.I. monsters are resurrected from their caves, where they spent the A.I. winter. These gruesome monsters make the Balrog beast from Lord of the Rings look like a childrens cuddly toy.

From the relative safety of their command centres, the leaders orchestrating the war look on. Many foot soldiers and PhD students have been slayed on the field of battle, tragic young victims of the holy war. Understandably the crusaders are unhappy. Jim Hendler isn’t pleased as he surveys the carnage and devasation. Ora Lassila is also disappointed.

“We never said that, you completely minsunderstood. You are all burning the wrong thing, using fuel we never gave you. You lied, you cheated, you faked, you changed the stakes!”

There is a lull in battle. But confusion reigns, especially among the innocent civilians and bewildered biologists.

(End of chapter 1)


As of the winter of 2007, the semantic web fire is still burning. While I warm myself next to it, using all the juicy metadata as material for my PhD, it is still too early to predict just how useful the technology is going to be. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a “believer”, a “non-believer” or completely agnostic about the semantic web. The religious war beween the two sides tells you more about human behaviour, than it does about the utility of the technology. Optimists profit from making bold claims to get noticed on the battlefield. Critics are more cynical, furthering their own careers by countering the optimists claims. Other people interpret the interpretations of the cynics second-hand. Thanks to cumulative error, or the Chinese whispers effect, everyone gets really upset. The original optimists vision has been changed in ways they didn’t expect.

It’s a very natural and human story amidst all the “artificial” machine intelligence.

Ora, Jim and Tim have done quite well out of the fighting. Google Scholar reckons their original article has been cited nearly 5000 times. That is a lot of attention, in scientific circles, a veritable blockbuster hit. At the time of writing, not even Albert Einstein can match that, and his ideas are much more important than the semantic web probably ever will be. Many good scientists with important ideas can only dream of publishing a paper that is as heavily cited as that infamous Scientific American article. So which do you think would most scientists prefer:

  • Being internationally known and talked about, but misunderstood by large groups of people?
  • Being relatively unknown, ignored but well understood by a small and obscure group of people?

Neither is ideal but I think in most cases, there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

We have reached the end of chapter 1 of this little story. Wouldn’t it be nice if Chapter 2 was less bloody? Perhaps the two sides could focus more on facts and evidence, rather than the beliefs, opinions, marketing, hype and “visions” that have dominated the battle so far. As the winter solstice approaches and the new year beckons, can we give peace, diplomacy and above all SCIENCE a chance?

The Moral of the Story (so far)

The moral of this old war story is simple. Religions of various kinds have been known to make people commit horrendous and completely unreasonable war crimes. Nobody is innocent. So if you don’t like a fight, steer well clear of religious wars.


  1. The “burn” idea comes from Leftfield with John Lydon (1995) Open Up “Burn Hollywood, Burn! Taking down Tinseltown
  2. Thanks to Carole for the idea of using fiction to illustrate science see Carole Goble and Chris Wroe (2005) The Montagues and the Capulets: In fair Genomics, where we lay our scene… Comparative and Functional Genomics 5(8):623-632 DOI:10.1002/cfg.442 seeAlso Shakespearean Genomics: a plague on both your houses)
  3. This post, originally published on nodalpoint

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