CERN

Cern lobbyFriday morning I was excited! This is what I had been waiting for! As soon as I decided on Geneva as a destination (I was originally going to go to Croatia but decided to go there in the spring when it’s warm and I can fully appreciate the beach!) I booked a reservation for the grand tour at CERN labs, home of the Large Hadron Collider – this is the place at the heart of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons and where the Internet was invented. And it was the focus of an episode of The Big Bang Theory! Needless to say, even after things like seeing Byron’s house and the UN, I was anticipating this being the highlight of the trip!

It took almost an hour to get there (tram and bus) and when I did it did not disappoint. Pulling up, the place looks like a medium size college campus…albeit a college campus with security entrances and armed guards. On the right you could see a huge brown dome. I didn’t know what it was, but it was obviously part of the complex. Unfortunately, at least for the time being, the entrance for the tour was on the opposite side of the road so I went and checked in first. The tour was set for 10am and it was 9:50 so I just sat and waited.

In the lobby, on the floor, was a piece of art which would flash every time a stray shot of gamma radiation would hit it. The flashes were randomized so it created some fun patterns and was a nice visual display about how the Earth is constantly being bombarded by the same radiation that caused the Fantastic Four. Neat, huh?

When the tour started, the group of us (about 12 in all) were taken into a small room and shown a video about the history of CERN (which in French originally stood for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire – The European Council for Nuclear Research) and was founded in 1954. It’s an open door research lab. Everything is published and, according to our guide (herself a post doc from UCLA) there is no weapons research happening. If I understood her correctly, basically anyone could take the research and do with it what they will (albeit with a licensing fee – which is how the lab partially funds itself). Research from here has contributed to a number of things we use everyday, from the aforementioned Internet (Tim Berners-Lee came up with it while working on a CERN project called ENQUIRE in 1989 as a way to share data amongst researchers. The Internet is barely old enough to drink and yet, look at all the trouble it’s caused!

After our introduction to the labs, it was time to meet our guide who was going to take us to the ATLAS facility. See the LHC had four places along the 27km circumference where the beams cross (yes, in this instance it’s okay to crass the beams) and the collisions take place. ATLAS is one of them.

Up until about 18 months ago, tours could still go down into the tunnel and see the inner workings, but ever since they actually started using the thing, about a year ago, you need very special permission and high ranking security clearances to get down there. Once those beams get going they can produce a lot of energy and the CERN folks just don’t want tourists getting hurt. Fair trade I say. What we do get to see, however, is the control room and the electronics and models and mock-ups of the interesting stuff happening 100m below our feet. The ATLAS itself is the size of a four story office building so really, not a lot to grasp by seeing it up close. Better to get the perspective to fully understand it.

After the tour, there were two museum style areas with hands on exhibits and interactive learning centers so we could explore and learn more about particle physics and various other aspects of physical science.

Oh yeah…and they have a gift shop!

After CERN, I headed back towards Geneva centre and wandered around a bit. I’d been seeing signs for the Museum of Natural History, which was free, so I decided to check that out as well. The exhibit being advertised was on volcanos, so I thought that might be fun.

Not sure what I was thinking.

First, everything is in French so actually understanding a lot of what I was looking at was not terribly easy.

Second, the volcano stuff was mostly photographs. Granted, they were cool photos but I didn’t quite get a lot of science. There was some, sure, but mostly just cool pictures.

and Third…I HATE Natural History Museums. To be fair, I don’t mind the dinosaur bones and geological formation stuff, but taxidermied animals give me the heebie jeebies! I just don’t like ’em. And here there were three floors almost completely filled with diorama after diorama after diorama. I probably spent a good 30 minutes there, avoiding the critters and seeing the more historical stuff and then I got the hell out of dodge!

On the plus side, though, I did find a grocery store so I could pick up some food to prepare back at my hotel, which I did when I got there.

Of course, that night, two friends from the same program which brought me to Hungary happened to also be enjoying vacation in Geneva so we met up for a wonderful Swiss dinner of cold cuts and cheese fondue. It was delicious and certainly something I never would have done on my own.

Let me just take a minute to say that while I’m not opposed to nice dining, it’s just not something I enjoy doing on my own. And since I most often travel on my own, I end up eating a lot of fast food and quickie meals. For me, eating is a social event and I have no problem spending money when I’m enjoying the company, but on my own, I’d rather just eat and get back to what I was doing – there’s often lots to see and do.

That said, dinner with Christie and Meg was fabulous. We met up at the train station and found (with suggestion from the concierge at the Warwick Hotel) a great locals place with a friendly waiter and perfect atmosphere. Christie and I even had a beer!

After dinner we went for a nice long walk along the lakeshore and past the flower clock and to the square with the lighted pavement pieces.

I’d decided I was going to go up to Montreux the next day to see Chillon Castle but they girls decided to stay in town and explore Geneva and France some more. We said we’d either meet up for dinner on Saturday or at the airport on Sunday (we were on the same flight back to Budapest). So after a spectacular evening, we said good night and each headed our separate directions for whatever adventures awaited us the next day.

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