In Part 5 of The Invisible Photograph, investigate how photographic technologies are being used to visualize the subatomic world at CERN—where photography and the world’s most advanced particle physics research collide.
This is a response by Divya Rao Heffley to Part 5: Subatomic: The European Organization for Nuclear Research

Photographing the Invisible at CERN

Picture this: you’re standing 100 meters underground. You’ve just taken a one-minute-long elevator ride down the equivalent of 30 stories and gone through a series of locked doors that slam resoundingly behind you. The final set of doors opens and you’re confronted with a dazzling array of colors and shapes that confounds the senses, at a monumental scale that takes your breath away. Suddenly the picture resolves into an enormous machine and you’re dumbfounded. You realize you’re only glimpsing a minute portion of the whole, standing where only a select few have been granted access, and seeing where world history was made. Oh, and by the way, you’re buried underground. In Switzerland. What rises first to your mind? Thank goodness I’m not claustrophobic

This is—give or take—the sequence of emotions I experienced when first confronted with the ATLAS detector at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). One of the four critical parts of the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, the ATLAS detector was instrumental in the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the so-called “God Particle” that unlocked fundamental mysteries about what happened during the Big Bang (and I’m not talking about the hit CBS TV comedy here). There as a film crew member and producer of The Invisible Photograph documentary series, I also spent a considerable amount of time behind my own camera lens, shooting thousands of photographs that I would later stitch into five high-resolution GigaPan images, such as this one taken inside the ATLAS detector at CERN.

Each one of these GigaPans is composed of hundreds of photographs, taken serially in a matrix pattern with the aid of a robotic device. It’s a mind-blowing piece of camera technology, one that I was honored to take with me across the Atlantic Ocean en route to CERN (despite the quizzical looks I got from Swiss security personnel upon touchdown at the airport). This GigaPan took me roughly 45 minutes to shoot, enough time to allow me to capture Arthur Ou—creative director of the series and Agent of the Hillman Photography Initiative—at both the left and right extremes of the Gigapan. If you look closely, you can see him shooting the cavernous space with his own large-format, 4x5 field camera. Arthur and I were joined by a core group of close-knit travelers and film crew members, who you can sometimes glimpse in these GigaPans, from Jeffrey Inscho (our sound man and web and tech initiatives manager), to Adam Ryan (our production assistant and font of photographic knowledge), and David D’Agostino (our director of photography).

In the months leading up to our once-in-a-lifetime trip to CERN, I had been hard at work, setting up the interviews that contributed to this fifth and final episode of The Invisible Photograph documentary series. Of course, our first stop was the ATLAS detector, the construction of which was a mind-blowing human achievement that rivals Notre Dame (which coincidentally matches the ATLAS detector in volume). On the exterior (shown here), an amazing mural by American artist Josef Kristofoletti hints at the wonders within, but it’s only when you see your certified CERN escort undergo a retinal scan upon entry that you realize: This is the real deal.

My next opportunity to put my little robot to work was on one of CERN’s central outdoor spaces: the main lawn (shown here). That blue tube-like structure you see in the center of the image?  It’s a dipole magnet. Over a thousand of those can be found in the roughly 17-mile loop that the LHC carves under the French and Swiss countryside. They create the magnetic force that propels subatomic particles through underground beam pipes at speeds that defy comprehension and create the collisions that are assiduously recorded in a multitude of ways by the scientists of CERN.

Next, we traveled to Antiproton Decelerator Hall, the go-to place for anyone interested in experimenting with anti-protons. In this GigaPan, you’ll see a mélange of company logos that represent the many skilled beings in this world who traffic in such (anti) matters. It was here that we learned the high degree of devotion that CERN scientists have for The Big Bang Theory (and I’m not talking about the theory of particle physics that explains how the universe came into being). According to Michael Doser, the CERN particle physicist who leads the AEgIS experiment, the hardy CMOA film crew has done what the CBS film crew for The Big Bang Theory has yet been unable to do: visit CERN. (CMOA, 1; Hollywood, 0.)

On our last day at CERN, a lucky meeting with a CERN fireman led us to the discovery that we could travel up a three-person elevator to the top of CERN’s water tower and have a precious 60 minutes to take as many photographs as we wanted (see here). If traveling into the bowels of the ATLAS detector was awe-inspiring for the enveloping experience of underground discovery, then our emergence at the top of the water tower was breathtaking in its sublimity, in the final realization that the juggernaut of CERN was but a small part of a much bigger, universal puzzle. 

Thank goodness I'm not afraid of heights.