Adventuring in Switzerland

Let me begin this blog with a list of some things which it is not:

  • It is not a description of my infatuation with science-fiction and how this links to my interest in science itself.
  • It is not a defence of sci-fi or an attempt to blow away the stale stereotypes that are wheeled out when the limelight is thrust upon it.
  • It is not a slightly distracted amble into feminist territory as I get carried away with myself and how far-reaching my generalisations go.

I had planned to ramble on about these topics (with an appropriate amount of witty anecdotes), but I somehow found myself taking an impromptu trip to Switzerland this weekend and haven’t yet been able to give the subjects the time they deserve.

However, feeling that I needed to cling to some sort of scientific credibility, I did manage to visit the European Organisation for Nuclear research, better known as CERN. Tours around its 27 km-long particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, were fully booked for months in advance but there were two free, permanent exhibitions on show that did credit to the institution’s ability to communicate very abstract topics in an entertaining manner.

The Universe of Particles and CERN showing off its piping

The Universe of Particles and CERN showing off its piping

The Universe of Particles was first: housed in an appropriately futuristic sphere, my first impression was both one of wonder and a sense of “Fear and Loathing”-style trippyness. A darkened room with only neon globes to light the way, it quickly excited my inner child and I found myself running from sphere to sphere to see what they had to offer. Each one displayed facts¹ about the organisation, explaining a little about the different areas that were investigated in Geneva. A few had cushions inside that you could curl up in and listen someone explaining the wonders of the universe. All very immersive stuff.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the exhibition didn’t focus entirely on the media-friendly Higgs Boson, but also mentioned CERN’s less publicised work. This included dark matter – the invisible, undetectable stuff that theoretically accounts for the fact that we can’t find about 95.1% of the universe’s mass – and the imbalance between matter and antimatter² at the beginning of time that allowed stars and planets to condense from the Big Bang.

My younger self was screaming incoherently at this point.

Suddenly, the lights dimmed even further and five screens appeared on the walls and floor. What followed was six minutes of intense music, weird CGI-d images of fundamental particles zipping across the room and a female voice-over that sounded very similar to that scene in The Lord of the Rings. Needless to say, I felt exhausted afterwards.

Microcosm was next. This was a more conventional look at the evolution of CERN over the years, with a few areas disappointingly out of bounds for renewal. Nevertheless, it was very impressive, highlighting how incredible leaps forward in computing power have occurred there due to the sheer volume of data necessary to process. There were also mentions of the fact that the internet was actually created at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee which is pretty damn impressive. Well done Tim. After that, a few obligatory appearances from Brian Cox in the short films on show there and were all that were needed to satisfy my physics needs for the day.

There is, of course, more to Switzerland than just CERN, but I have very little understanding of anything of a geographical nature so it might be best to end there. More elaborate adventures (from less exotic locations) next time.

¹Never factoids. What the hell is a factoid? Is is somehow not quite valid enough to justify the “fact” moniker? Is it too inconsequential to regard it as a truth? Please justify yourselves! My spellchecker recognises it and it doesn’t even recognise “spellchecker”. Ho hum.

²For every normal particle, there is an antiparticle with the opposite charge that will annihilate with its partner producing a flash of energy. That bit of energy could have been you, if the laws of physics had been different.


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