About 80,000 people visit the Large Hadron Collider each year. Now, thanks to the Web, thousands more can make the visit—without ever leaving their hometowns.
In the control room of ATLAS, one of four major experiments at CERN, glowing computer screens bathe physicists in soft light. Each scientist stares at a group of monitors, supervising collisions of protons in the giant 7000-ton detector buried 80 meters below their feet. It was in these tiny explosions that evidence of a Higgs-like boson recently appeared.
Visitors peer in through a glass wall, studying the researchers in their natural habitat. The physicists don’t take notice of the spectators, nor do they seem to mind the interested guests who have found their way into the room. The scientists hail from different countries and different schools and are at different points in their careers, but they all have one thing in common with those visiting their workplace. They are curious.
“We’re exploring new worlds,” says Steven Goldfarb, outreach and education coordinator for the ATLAS experiment and a physicist from the University of Michigan. “Basic research is a fundamental function of humans—just as we eat, sleep and make babies, we also explore.
To appease the inquisitive nature of those who may not have the time or funds for an in-person visit to CERN, which sits on the border of France and Switzerland, ATLAS offers virtual visits. Started in 2011, the program has escorted thousands of curious guests through the ATLAS control room, thanks to the Web.
Visitors from around the world commute to the control room via a combination of video conference and webcast. From Palestinian university students to participants in a science festival in Spain, all guests are greeted by a member of the ATLAS collaboration.
“I love talking to the public this way,” Goldfarb says. “The look on students’ faces when their questions are answered is well worth the effort.”
Goldfarb leads many of these visits, and on this day he’s greeting a group of American high school physics teachers. He stands in the control room with a microphone in hand as graphs showing the detector’s performance and images of collisions flash onto the wall behind him. A camera embedded in the ceiling tracks his movements. On a flatscreen television, Goldfarb watches the high school teachers lean forward in their chairs, eager to see the action.
Starting with an overview of CERN, Goldfarb first shares a bit of background on the LHC and its three other experiments (CMS, ALICE and LHCb). Once those experiments are acknowledged, he dives into the details of ATLAS.
As he wraps up his talk, the questions fly. Many of them regard the search for the Higgs boson, but soon the discussion turns to how to get students interested in physics.
“We’re looking into the world’s most powerful microscope for new things,” Goldfarb says. “And everyone can be a part of it. For me, the inspiration is as important as the information.”
If you would like to arrange your own virtual visit, sign up through the ATLAS Virtual Visits webpage, where you can also watch video from past visits.