Curiosity-Driven Research at CERN
I noticed a semiotic wonderland of warning signs throughout the facility. There were so many signs, posters, bells, lights, reminders — sometimes right next to each, like street postings or maybe a pyromaniac’s mood board.
Straddling the border between Switzerland and France, CERN or the European Organization for Nuclear Research is the largest particle physics research complex in the world and home to the most powerful particle accelerator ever built— the Large Hadron Collider.
To give you a sense of scale, imagine a circular tunnel with a circumference of roughly 17 miles (27km) buried about 160-500 feet underground. This massive hula hoop structure houses head-on collisions of two opposing beams of protons or lead ions traveling at near lighting speed (11,245 turns every second), thus recreating the conditions for the Big Bang. On the ground are four large detectors / observatories including one named ALICE.
Like a United Nations for science, more than 10,000 scientists from a hundred countries work at CERN, are collectively tackling some fundamental questions: What is the universe? What is it made of? How did we come about? How did life begin? How does it work?
Their research is curiosity-driven as was my visit.
As a design writer, my eye was naturally drawn to the obvious signposts. This is the impeccable Globe of Science and Innovation, (or simply “The Globe”) which serves as CERN’s museum and visitor center. The structure, designed by Swiss architect Hervé Dessimoz and wood engineer Thomas Büchi was the centerpiece structure of the Swiss national expo held in Neuchatel in 2001. Once a structure that housed an exhibit about sustainable architecture, it was appropriately recycled, and re-gifted to CERN by the Swiss government.
My eye was also drawn to this colorful mural on the façade of the ATLAS experiment by Josef Kristofoletti, a young painter from Texas who made this large scale homage to Higgs Boson. Inspired by religious frescos in Italy, he applied this colorful skin to the rather standard grey cement box housing one of the large particle detectors.
The mural was a sweet eye candy but nothing really quite compares to the visual smörgåsbord within. Wires, tubes, gates, galleys, and 3,000 kilometers of cable, it was so massive that I could not really get a good angle with my iPhone camera.
I asked our guide: “So is there an architect for this structure? Was there an overall designer with a vision and a blueprint?” We were in Switzerland after all, just an hour away from Le Corbusier’s birthplace, I thought. She smiled, paused and said, “ That’s a cute question.” The young physicist pondered for a few more moments then replied, “I don’t know. No one really asks about design. We talk about the architecture of big data, but of this structure, I don’t know. The architect, you can say, is the engineer.” Parts of the Collider were actually manufactured in different parts of the world and it was assembled like a ship in a bottle. “The design is about organization — everything needs to be properly and neatly labeled,” she explained.
And speaking of signs and labels, I noticed a semiotic wonderland of warning signs throughout the facility. There were so many signs, posters, bells, lights, reminders — sometimes right next to each, like street postings or maybe a pyromaniac’s mood board.
I spotted this curious one, just before we entered the detector. For some reason, no one could decipher what it was. Was it a “tired scientist resting area”? With some sleuthing, I found a copy of the CERN Safety Signage Manual and learned that it was a warning for “Danger of Suffocation.” Great. I wondered, what good is a warning sign when no one understood what it was. There is a future design article waiting to be written about the science of safety signs at CERN.
In this awesome and rather intimidating research facility, I was pleased to fall back on my facility for research — a fluency and faculty for observation, inquiry, and curiosity developed through this program.
I fondly recall deep discussions about design and architecture in this very classroom. In school, we interrogate, investigate, and kicked the sides of buildings, so to speak. But in the real world, it seems that earnest questions about design and architecture are rare and welcome. I’ve learned this during my thesis research in South Sudan, as I did in CERN.
The purview of design and design research goes beyond chairs, fonts, monuments, and forms. Like the scientists at CERN who question the existing models to uncover new truths, I think design research is most interesting when it pokes at the status quo and questions existing modes of representation. What is this designed Universe? What is it made of? How did it come about? How did it begin? Does it still work?
We spent a whole day at CERN and on the way out, I glimpsed this perfect luminous Globe, now magnificently lit from within. But at that moment, I saw it as a dazzling architectural decoy, distracting us from the deeper (perhaps practical and overlooked) questions that we might dare to research and reimagine.