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. 📢 KLAXON: the next application deadline for summer internships is 31st January 2020. 📢 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 restart 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 Einsteins famous equation of mass–energy equivalence E=mc². What this means 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, 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
  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


May 3, 2012

Need to re-invent the Web (badly)? There’s an App for that!

The Mobile App Trap

The App Trap: Why have just one Web App when you can have hundreds of mobile Apps? A selection of popular Android apps from Google Play, also available for iPad and iPhone from the Apple App Store

I love the convenience of mobile applications but hate the way they re-invent the wheel and are killing the Web. What can be done about it?

I’m in love with the mobile Web

I’ve been smitten with the Web since first venturing out on the information superhighway back in the nineties. This love affair is taken to a new level with the advent of the mobile Web. As an incurable information junkie, having access to news is on the move is great. Using location based services like Google Maps is fantastic, on foot, bike or in the car. I love nerdily scanning barcodes to read Amazon book reviews while browsing the shelves in bookshops, much to Tim Waterstone’s annoyance. And it can be great to have wikipedia in your pocket to settle arguments down the pub.

I hate the mobile Web too

But there’s a big problem with all this appy clappy mobile fun, it’s killing the Web through fragmentation, both for producers and consumers of information. Let me explain.

One of the great things about the Web is that you there is one app to rule them all; a “killer app” called a Web browser. There are several flavours, but they all basically do the same thing using similar technology: they let you surf the Web. One software application (a browser), gives you access to an almost infinite number of Web applications. Wonderfully simple, wonderfully powerful – we’ve got so used to it we sometimes take it for granted.

Now compare this to the mobile Web where each page you visit on a mobile suggests that you download an app to read it. Where there used to be just one application, now there are thousands of glorified “me too” Web browsers apps many of which have re-invented the Web, badly.

Consider the applications in the table below and illustrated on the right. They are all accessible from a Web browser on one of the “four screens ”:  desktop, mobile, tablet and smart-TV:

Native mobile app Purpose Web app
Amazon mobile Online retailer Amazon.com
BBC News mobile News and propaganda news.bbc.co.uk
The Economist mobile More news and propaganda economist.com
eBay mobile online garage sale ebay.com
Flickr mobile photo sharing flickr.com
Guardian mobile Even more news and propaganda guardian.co.uk
Google Reader mobile Feed reader reader.google.com
Google Maps mobile Maps and navigation maps.google.com
MetOffice mobile UK Weather metoffice.gov.uk
PostOffice mobile Postcode / Address finder royalmail.com/postcode-finder
Google Search mobile Search engine google.com
Google Translate mobile Language translator translate.google.com
Twitter mobile Entertaining time-wasting application twitter.com
Wikipedia mobile Encyclopædia en.wikipedia.org/wiki
WordPress mobile Blogging tool wordpress.com
YouTube mobile Videos youtube.com

As you can see, users are encouraged to download, install, understand and maintain sixteen different apps to enjoy this small part of the mobile Web. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, there’s bucket-loads more apps like this in Google Play and the App Store. As a user, you could just use a mobile Web browser on your phone, but you’ll be discouraged from doing so. We’ll return to this later.

Producers and consumers both suffer

As well as being a pain for users who have to manage hundreds of apps on their phones and tablets, the pain is magnified for producers of data too. Instead of designing, building and maintaining one Web application to work across a range of different screens (a challenging but not impossible task), many have chosen to develop lots of different apps. Take twitter for example, in addition to the desktop and Web apps, twitter currently makes no fewer than five different applications just for tablets and phones:

    1. twitter.com/download/ipad (for iPad)
    2. twitter.com/download/blackberry (for Blackberry)
    3. twitter.com/download/wp7 (for Windows phones)
    4. twitter.com/download/android (for Android)
    5. twitter.com/download/iphone (for iPhones)

So a challenging task of delivering content onto a range of different devices has now been transformed into an almost impossible task of building and managing many different apps. It’s not just Twitter, Inc. that chooses to play this game. Potentially any company or organisation putting data on the mobile Web might consider doing this by employing an army of android, blackberry, iPhone and windows developers on top of the existing Web developers already on the payroll. That’s good news for software engineers, but bad news for the organisations that have to pay them. Managing all this complexity isn’t cheap.

Not Appy: How do we get out of this mess?

In the rush to get mobile, many seem to have forgotten why the Web is so successful and turned their back on it. We’ve re-invented the wheel and the Web browser. I’m not the first [1] and certainly not the last [2] to notice this. Jonathan Zittrain even predicted it would happen [3,4] with what he calls “tethered devices”. One solution to this problem, as suggested at last months International World Wide Web conference in Lyon by some bloke called Tim, is to develop mobile Web apps rather than native mobile apps:

There are lots of examples of this. Sites like trains.im provide train times via a simple Web-based interface, no app required. Many Web sites have  two versions, a desktop one and a mobile one. Wikipedia has a mobile site at en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki, Flickr at m.flickr.com, The Economist at m.economist.com, BBC at m.bbc.co.uk/news and so on. But in many cases these sites are poor cousins of the native mobile apps that software developers have focused their efforts on, diluting their work across multiple apps and platforms.

Maybe it’s too late, maybe I’m suffering from the suspicious of change” syndrome described by Douglas Adams like this:

  1. everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
  2. anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
  3. anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

The mobile Web makes me suspicous because many apps re-invent the wheel. I’ve argued here that it is against the natural order of the Web, we’ve waved goodbye to the good old Web [5] and its the beginning of the end. I really hope not, it would be a tragedy to carry on killing the Web as it’s given us so much and was designed specifically to solve the problems described above. Let’s hope native mobile apps gradually turn out to be alright really.


  1. Gary Marshall (2011). Could smartphone apps be taking us back to the days of “best viewed with … ”? Net Magazine
  2. Jason Pontin (2012). Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps: The future of media on mobile devices isn’t with Apps but with the Web Technology Review
  3. Jonathan Zittrain (2007). Saving the internet. Harvard Business Review, 85 (6) PMID: 17580647
  4. Jonathan Zittrain (2009). The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop It Penguin, ISBN:014103159X
  5. Hamish MacKenzie (2012) Web 2.0 Is Over, All Hail the Age of Mobile, Pandodaily

May 1, 2009

www2009: Twentieth Web Anniversary

www2009: Madrid, SpainThe 18th International World Wide Web Conference, www2009 finished last week in Madrid. In times of global economic, pandemic and ecologic crisis, the value of attending international conferences is questionable, so for armchair delegates like me, here are some www papers and www links that are www worth a look. Obviously, virtual conference attendance via the Web is no substitute for The Real Thing® in Real Time with Real People® , but it is cheaper and has a considerably smaller Carbon footprint than actual conference attendance. So, in no particular order, some www interesting www stuff: (more…)

April 17, 2009

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Google

GoogleVia the Official Google Research Blog at the University of Google, Alon Halevy, Peter Norvig and Fernando Pereira have published an interesting expert opinion piece in the  March/April 2009 edition of IEEE Intelligent Systems: computer.org/intelligent. The paper talks about embracing complexity and making use of the “the unreasonable effectiveness of data” [1] drawing analogies with the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” [2]. There is plenty to agree and disagree with in this provocative article which makes it an entertaining read. So what can we learn from those expert Googlers in the Googleplex? (more…)

September 12, 2008

Blogging Professors: Big Boffins with Blogs

Jeffrey Bates by Julian CashI’ve been hunting all over the interweb looking for Professors that have blogs. While it would be a good thing if there were more, (see the science blogging challenge 2008), there are surprising amount of big boffins that already blog. I should say that by big, I mean (full) professor. By boffin I mean a person practicing science including biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering and hell, even computer “science” and the “dismal science” of economics too. By blog I mean, a web-log or a lab-log which is personal, frequently updated (with web feed) and allows comments. Here is my collection of big boffins with blogs, with a little help from friendfeed.com [1]. It is ordered alphabetically by surname and I hope it gives a flavour of some of the bloggers out there on the Web. If you know any more, please let me know. (more…)

December 12, 2007

Mapping the Internet

Internet mapAs of 2007, the Internet is mostly still a wild untamed jungle. Many people have tried to chart the territory, but what should a map of the internet look like?

One of my favourite maps is “The Web Is Agreement” by Paul Downey. Paul’s map has a Tolkien-like Lord of the Rings feel to it, so instead of Microsoft we have Mordorsoft. The all seeing eye of Sauron is Google of course, helping search, but raising privacy concerns.

Paul is not the only cartographer busy drawing maps, Randall Munroe has drawn a nifty map based on Internet Protocol (IP) addresses (available as a poster, for hard-core geeks) and an online communities map, shown at the bottom of this post.

If the atoms of the Internet had numbers, you could organise them into a map like the Periodic Table, just as Mendeleev did. Hence we have The Periodic Table of the Internet by Wellington Grey, which uses PageRank (instead of atomic numbers) as a means of charting the Internet.

Periodic Table of the Internet

And of course there’s some bloke called Tim who, showing his British roots, often draws more abstract maps that look like the London Underground, shown below.

The map is not the territory but you can learn a hell of a lot by looking at the map before you head into the jungle. Using the map below, you’ll find nodalpoint, down South in the warm “blogipelago“, past the “Gulf of YouTube” below. Bon voyage!

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

July 19, 2006

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