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BCO Conference Special: learning from the origins of the universe

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Femi Oresanya, physicist, architect and vice president of HOK, on the visit to the large hadron collider at CERN

You would probably expect someone who obtained A-levels in Pure and Applied Maths, Physics and Chemistry to go on to study either physics or mathematics. And in a way, that is what I had planned to do – at the age of 16. However, by the time I sat my A-levels in the mid-1980s, I was seduced by the world of architecture (where art and science meet in the design of buildings and other physical structures). So I went on to become an architect. However, the adolescent fixation of trying to understand how and why things work, what electricity, power is or how the universe is formed never really fades away.

So the opportunity to visit CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) or in anglais, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the BCO tour and listen to a fully-fledged scientist of the establishment for an hour or two was an opportunity too good to miss. The competition for places to get on top the tour high but I got one of the lucky ‘golden tickets’.

The sprawling CERN campus is just inside Switzerland’s borders, although the 27km circumference LHC strides the Franco-Swiss Border, is a mish-mash of buildings (functional but architecturally forgettable buildings) dating from the late 1950s to the present day. The one exception is the recently completed 27m high Rolex sponsored spherical timber visitor centre, beautifully crafted in timber - which we saw but didn’t get to visit.

However, you could understand why, as CERN is very much about creating, designing and building highly sophisticated and sensitive machinery  to operate 100m below ground level to smash these infinitesimally small protons together to ‘see what happens’.  

The talk and subsequent tour given by Dr Madjid Boutemeur, a professor of nuclear physicist was fascinating, entertaining and informative in equal measure. I was in awe of this slightly built, highly intelligent professor who readily admitted to us that after spending 30 or so years trying to understand the Big Bang theory, he knew less now than when he started. He described it quite simply that the study of Physics is like a sine curve – just when you think you are at the top the curve and you think you know the answer, something else pops up and you just go back down to the trough again. These means then having to hypothesise a new set of ideas and then find a way to prove before climbing back up, only to be confounded with a new set of problems. Despite this he went on to explain in minute detail what they were trying to do at CERN – to understand the basic building blocks of our universe.

Although the tour party did not get to go underground , we did get to see the circa 300 x 50m portal framed shed, which staff travelled around on red foldable bicycles and was the heart of the operation. This is where the super magnets are made and tested. The superconducting magnets in the LHC are  built from , amongst other materials, niobium-titanium alloy coils (a type II superconductor) to within tolerances of 1mm in 10m (10,000mm) 0.00001%  and need to operate at a temperature (using liquid helium) of between 0 and 3 Kelvin (-273 and -270 degrees Celsius) requires very precise manufacturing technology.

In addition to the super magnets made on site, we were introduced to Zell, Alex and Samantha – 3 super magnets from USA and Japan, which were being tested and studied to see how this technology could be improved upon and made more cost effectively.

While we in the design profession are always striving to design bigger, taller, smaller, more complex and multifunctional buildings to deliver all kinds of results and benefits for the building user and owner alike, it’s refreshing to know that there are people out there trying to build equipment and facilities understand the basic building blocks of our universe.

So for those of you who give up thinking about what happens after boiling water turns to steam under heat, spare a thought for Dr Madjid and his band of PhD researchers, who have used this technology to create the sophisticated MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) Scanning machines, as well as trying to solve about the origins of the universe over a pint or two in the perfect collaboration meeting space – the campus bar.


[1]Structure Design : Hervé Dessimoz of Groupe-H Architects, in Geneva, and wood engineer, Thomas Büchi of Charpente Concept.

Exhibition Design: Atelier Brückner


[i] CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research. Its business is fundamental physics, finding out what the Universe is made of and how it works. At CERN, the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments are used to study the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles. By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists learn about the laws of Nature.

The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.

Founded in 1954, the CERN Laboratory sits astride the Franco–Swiss border near Geneva. It was one of Europe’s first joint ventures and now has 20 Member States.

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