On a recent trip to Lisbon, the taxi driver asked me where I had flown in from.
“Geneva,” I replied.
“And what do you do there?” he asked.
“I work at CERN,” I said.
“Ah, CERN. Where they accelerate particles round the huge tunnel,” the taxi driver cheerfully offered.
Was I surprised that someone from outside the scientific world was familiar with CERN? As a matter of fact – no, I wasn’t. Over more than a decade, concerted communications and public engagement programmes have contributed to CERN becoming part of popular culture. The start of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), in 2008, and the discovery of the Higgs boson, in 2012, captured the imagination of both scientific communities (notice the plural) and the so-called lay public alike.
CERN is one of the world’s leading laboratories for particle physics. Today, it is also recognised as a source of inspiration and engagement for citizens around the world. The taxi driver could well have been one of the over 100 000 visitors that visit CERN each year (he wasn’t), or he could know one of the close to 1000 teachers that take part in CERN’s programmes, or any of the almost 7000 students that each year participate in hands-on physics workshops at CERN.
To expand and diversify its education, communication and public engagement portfolio, CERN is preparing to build a new education and outreach centre – CERN Science Gateway. Housed in an iconic building designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, CERN Science Gateway will enable a diverse audience across all ages and all sectors of the public to engage with the science, the discoveries, the technologies and the people working at CERN. A series of three pavilions and two tunnels, joined by a bridge floating over the road running in front of CERN, will house exhibitions, laboratories for informal learning and a 900-seater auditorium. An ample and forest-like outdoor area will consolidate the vision of a village, where people will meet to explore CERN Science Gateway, and depart on a discovery of the CERN sites.
CERN Science Gateway’s permanent exhibitions will be housed in the two suspended tubes. In ‘Discover CERN’ children and adults alike will feel they are behind the scenes at CERN, interacting with technologies and discoveries in their actual setting, embedded in stories featuring real scientists and engineers. ‘Our Universe’ will be a journey through space and time back to the origin of everything we see around us today – the Big Bang. It will also be a journey into the future, inviting visitors to discover the big mysteries that govern our universe: dark matter, gravity, extra dimensions and more. Another hands-on exhibition area (located in one of the pavilions) will explore the quantum world – visitor will investigate on a macro scale the weird world in which particles move and interact.
Hands-on and minds-on is the motto for the learning laboratories in CERN Science Gateway. Through enquiry-based learning, children (from age five), students and families will work independently on experiments linked to the research carried out at CERN. Specially trained tutors will guide the visitors on their exploration into the working methods, technologies and research of the world’s largest particle physics laboratory.
The modular auditorium will provide a unique space (in fact, several spaces) for both the scientific community and for public events. It will be a privileged venue for the meetings of the collaborations of the experiments at CERN and indeed for the wider particle physics community. For the public of all ages, science shows, film festivals, theatre, performances, debates will be part of a wide-reaching and diverse programme, making CERN a hub for multidisciplinary debate, learning and participation.
This ambitious project (as all projects at CERN) costs at CHF 79 million, and is fully covered by external funds, raised through a dedicated fundraising strategy. Several important donations have been secured since the work started on the project, in 2017, setting us confidently on the path to start building work in 2020 and opening CERN Science Gateway in the third quarter of 2022.
Make a note in your diaries for a visit to Geneva in 2022, to explore Science Gateway and CERN!