7 October 2015
Yesterday we arrived in Bern on a grey, rainy and somewhat inhospitable day. Staying in the Ibis Bern Expo, we were surprised to find that a) the room didn’t even include a jug to boil water for coffee; and b) the national equestrian centre is just out the window. It’s huge. The first time I’ve had to dodge horse, rather than dog, excrement on the street (only a little, to be fair.)
It was a quiet late afternoon in, after we had negotiated our way to and from the local Migros (supermarket) on the tram, and purchased a very German dinner (and one that needed no cooking or refrigeration facilities): bread, cheese, salami and prosciutto, olives and feta, and some very cheap (CHF2.60 per litre) red wine. Followed by Swiss chocolate, of course.
But today we were out and about, discovering ‘old Bern’. The focus of our wanderings was, of course, the Einstein Museum (which is actually just part of a much larger museum), and a visit to the apartment at which Einstein was living when he did most of the pivotal work on his Theory of Relativity in 1905-6. Quite cool to have been there.
Bern is very different to Geneva and Montreux — both of which are French influenced. Bern is very, very Germanic, and German is the predominant language. Everything is immaculately maintained and tidy.
A selection of snapshots from an overcast and flat-lighted day. Some use of HDR here to try to recover some colour and detail.
6 October 2015
On our first day in Clarens-Montreux we were met at the Clarens train station by the owner of the apartment, Mrs Straub (never actually caught her first name), who — along with her miniature dog and friend who she was off to play “the tennis” with — drove us the 400m from the train to the apartment (after backing into a tree she didn’t see whilst getting out of the parking space…)
After laying eyes on us and determining that we were not Indian, she decreed that the CHF1000 bond was not necessary. (We had come prepared to part with this horrendously large fee, as it was to be returned at the end of our three-day stay. However, apparently, we didn’t fit the profile of someone likely to trash the place, so we were spared that requirement.)
The apartment was tiny, but airy and pleasant. The ’70s were alive and well in the bathroom, and someone (perhaps an Indian(!)) had nicked the plug from the kitchen so washing dishes required some lateral thinking. And, of course, no tin opener. (Why do Europeans NEVER have tin openers?) There were some other peculiarities like no double bed, just two separate kids’ bunk-type beds in a curtained off ‘bedroom’ area. And they had no sheets, just a covered duvet and a towelling mattress cover. Oh, and the door was padded…
We have learned (thanks to the Google) that New Zealand has six and a half times the land area of Switzerland (yes, you read that right; Switzerland is tiny) but twice the population (8 million versus about 4 million). So wherever there are people, they are living in close proximity to each other — because there are heaps of open green agricultural areas (but no large herds of cows. The largest number we saw all in one place was about 20). Nobody seems to live in a house; everybody seems to live in multi-dwelling buildings, so I guess they are all used to not having much space. And we also found out why everything is so expensive. The average salary in Switzerland is about NZ$113,000 per annum (according to figures in British pounds on Wikipedia converted using today’s exchange rate). New Zealand’s average salary sits at NZ$75,000. Additionally, Switzerland’s maximum personal income tax is just over 13% while New Zealand’s is 33% (again, according to Wikipedia.) I know that’s not quite apples with apples, because it ignores other taxes like GST, VAT, property tax and so on, but it’s safe to say the Swiss get a pretty good deal. Unless they have money in the bank. Our tour guide to Mt Blanc told us that Swiss banks are now paying (charging?) negative interest on bank deposits in an attempt to control the strength of the Swiss Franc.
Enough about Swiss finances.
Clarens is a tiny wee lakeside village just down the road from its much more famous cousin, Montreux, which has a population of about 9000 residents and is famous not only for its jazz festival, but for prestigious finishing schools for wealthy people’s children (apparently, according to our landlady.) More about Montreux when I get around to it later. There is a beautiful floral walkway all along the lakeside, and it is popular with walkers, runners, cyclists, people with dogs, people on roller blades and scooters, and people on roller blades carrying dogs. True.
Mission number one was to get to Chateau Chillon, a very famous castle on Lac Leman. It was a 4.8 km stroll each way along the beautiful walkway. We were surprised at how large the castle was. Apart from the irritation of guided tours, it was fascinating. I particularly loved the woodwork, hence all the photos.
5 October 2015
On our penultimate day in Geneva (2 October) we decided to have a bit of a museum day.
First up, the History of Science Museum. Free to enter, and only a short stroll from our accommodation, it housed a modest collection of old scientific instruments–very similar to the Galileo Museum in Florence, but on a much, much smaller scale. Not too much of interest for me here, and not much to make images from, as everything was housed in glass cases and the reflections made ‘clean’ photos impossible. The building, however, was set in pleasant grounds.
From here we ventured to the Gare Cornavin again and asked the oracle at the information desk which tram to catch to get to ‘Old Geneva’. From memory, tram 19 (but don’t take that as gospel) took us to the Metropole stop. From there it was a short walk to St Pierre’s Cathedral, the heart of Old Geneva. And old it it is indeed.
While the cathedral is most certainly beautiful, it was just another church. The really interesting — no, completely fascinating –part was the archaeological site underneath the cathedral. I took no photos because it is all dimly lit, and the value, really, was from the commentary provided via the audio tour. (If you want more information and some images, go to their website.)
In a nutshell, there is a vast dig underneath the cathedral that has revealed Geneva’s origins. It all began with the burial of an anonymous Allobrogian chief around about 100 years before Christ (you can still see his remains in the dig). The high altar of the cathedral is directly over his resting place — as have been the primary altars of all of the various places of worship (Allobrogian, Roman and then Christian) over the past 2200 years. Remains of each of these epochs can be clearly seen in the dig (which is all extremely accessible via metal walkways). Over 2000 years’ evidence of the uninterrupted evolution of human worship all in one place is distinctly humbling to see.
Despite me saying that the cathedral is ‘just another church’, it is just another beautifully crafted church. The current cathedral was originally constructed in the 12th century. 12th century! The woodwork inside is from the 15th century, and is intricate and very beautiful. Again, the light inside was dim, so I had to use an ISO of between 2500 and 4000 to get shutter speeds that allowed me to hand-hold the camera — so no getting around the grain. I’ve deployed HDR filters to attempt to bring out some of the detail.
Next to the cathedral is the Reformation Museum, which I would also have liked to visit — but there just wasn’t enough day!
Being in Switzerland, the home of fine watchmaking, we’d prioritised a visit to the Patek Philippe Museum. Again, no photos — because it was interdict (prohibited). However, this museum also consumed two hours with no effort. If our legs, feet and backs hadn’t been complaining so much about standing up all day we could have stayed longer. This place is a must-see if you love exquisite craftsmanship and art. We would love to have purchased the large hard-cover book about the museum’s collections… but it was 600 Swiss Francs!!! (At today’s exchange rate that’s NZ$945! For one book!) So I bought a 1 Franc pen instead…
4 October 2015
So yesterday we embarked on a supremely touristy endeavour: a bus tour to Chamonix/Mt Blanc.
Chamonix is the township at the bottom of Mt Blanc. Its elevation is about 3000 ft, and the Aiguille du Midi at the top of the cable car (or telepherique) is at just over 12,600 ft. The cable car ride is in two stages, and the second stage is the largest stretch of unsupported cable in the world: over a kilometre between ‘pylons’. And, now having been a passenger, I can see why. How they installed any of what is up that mountain is entirely beyond me.
The effects of altitude are most definitely felt. There are a number of levels within the structure at the top (as you will be able to see from some of the images below), so there are many stairs to climb. I felt light-headed and slightly nauseous and the heart was thumping away. Happily for me a wee rest and things improved quickly. But there were a number of elderly Chinese women who seemed to be finding it hard going.
The views are spectacular, and it is impossible to give a feel for the scale in photographs. It is also very cold–and this you CAN see in the images!
2 October 2015
The last two days have seen the realisation of a pilgrimage for my physics-teacher husband, Dave. We’ve been to CERN. Twice.
And it’s all thanks to the money he won in a teaching award given by his school last year. The award was for excellence in improving student achievement. It’s voted on by the students and then endorsed by the board and has a value of NZ$6000. It must be used to enhance the winner’s professional knowledge. Given that said husband has been on and on and ON for years about how cool it would be to visit the global home of particle physics, there really wasn’t any other option for how the money would be spent.
So we’re here (via Singapore, to avoid the 35-hour travel marathon required to get to Europe in one hit).
Visit number one occurred on 30 September.
We’re staying in central Geneva, in a privately owned apartment on Rue Jean Charles Amat. It’s tiny (49 square metres) but lovely, and very close to the central train station, Gare Cornavin. It’s not cheap (but nothing is in Geneva — EVERYTHING is about twice the price we would pay at home), but happily, it also comes with a free public transport card that allows us to travel within Geneva for free, anywhere, by any form of public transport. And so it was that we hopped on the number 18 tram to CERN and travelled the 20-odd minutes to probably the densest concentration of brain power and physics PhDs anywhere in the world.
Just past a field of nearly-ready-to-harvest sunflowers, the tram stopped and everyone disembarked: the brilliant scientists alongside the gormless tourists. We arrived about an hour before our booked tour and took the time to view the newly opened Microcosm exhibition. It’s very much a work in progress, but gives the physics geeks amongst us something to fizz over while waiting for the guided tour. When it’s fully installed, it looks like it will be quite impressive.
If you want to know more about the ATLAS experiment at CERN, have a look here.
Just after 11.00 our tour guide, Christiano, appeared. Young, strikingly handsome and personable (with a wonderful, hard-to-identify European accent), Christiano completed his PhD in particle physics about 18 months ago in London. He spent two of his three years of PhD study at CERN, and now works there on the ATLAS experiment. He’s looking for ‘long-lived’ particles that result from particle collisions. In other words, particles that survive long enough to travel 5 m at the speed of light before decaying to nothingness. Yes, apparently that is a long time for one of these particles to live. Nobody’s found any yet, but theory suggests they exist.
Our fellow English-language tour participants ranged in age from teenagers to retirees. (I couldn’t help wondering how many brilliant physics brains might be standing alongside me. I just kept my mouth shut to avoid confirming my extreme ignorance.)
We started with an introductory video then moved a short distance and into a building with the synchrocyclotron. (I’m just pleased that I a) remembered its name and b) spelled it right on the first attempt…)
This contraption was built in 1957 and was CERN’s first particle accelerator. It’s a wee baby, only 157cm (I think that’s what Christiano said) in radius. The whole ‘loop’ fits in one room. But it revolutionised particle physics, being kept in operation for 33 years in total.
Mothballed now, it forms part of the public tour, and serves as a screen for part of the AV show. Kinda cool (see below).
Somewhere along the line Christiano was explaining that CERN started off accelerating electrons but moved on to accelerating protons, and there are pluses and minuses to each approach. For particle collisions, the more energy the better. To increase the energy of particles, you speed them up. The heavier the fast-going particle, the more energy it has. So fast protons are better (in energy-carrying terms) than fast-going electrons because they are more massive. The downside is that they make ‘messy’ collisions: because there’s more ‘stuff’ in a proton, when they crash into other protons the by-products include a lot of sub-atomic ‘rubbish’ (Christiano’s word), which makes the process of filtering out interesting data from not-interesting data more complex.
Electrons, on the other hand, create a much ‘cleaner’ collision, so hunting for the scientifically interesting particles is easier. The downside is that you can’t get as much energy into an electron collision because they’re lightweights. So, to carry as much energy as a proton an electron has to be going faster. The downside of the higher speed scenario is cyclotronic radiation. Now, cyclotronic radiation is radiation that happens as a result of acceleration (don’t even think of asking me how/why), and it increases in a manner that is inversely proportional to the radius of the particle accelerator (the smaller the racetrack the greater the amount of radiation leaking off it). That has something to do with things turning a corner not being in equilibrium and always accelerating towards the centre of the turn. I think. So, the only way around this particular problem is to build a much bigger accelerator. The problem with this logical solution is that big accelerators tend to be prohibitively expensive. So CERN uses protons (and also, I believe, lead ions). Got it? Good, because that’s the best you’re going to get from an arts graduate who never did physics at all in high school!
From the synchrocyclotron we moved to the control room for the ATLAS experiment. Just outside the office there is a large mural of the ATLAS detector. (There are lots of these detector-themed decorative elements all over CERN, we learned later.) Also, sitting innocuously beside the building, several huge cylinders of liquid nitrogen with ice forming on the pipes. The LHC needs mind-boggling quantities of this stuff to keep things cool enough (remember that 1.9 degrees Kelvin?).
In the ATLAS offices there is a glass wall separating the workers from the onlookers–creating a fishbowl/zoo effect. The scientists are clearly used to being the subject of tourists’ curiosity: we got an enthusiastic and geeky ‘monkey in a cage’ wave from one of them.
So there we were, watching a short presentation about ATLAS while the real physics happened on the other side of the glass. Presumably the scientists were ready for it. (See the last item on the Daily Plan for Wednesday below.)
From here we made our way back to reception, and our tour was over.
Dave spent up large in the gift shop (and I walked away with a book on Particle Physics–one of Oxford University’s short introduction series; and a book all about the birth of the Internet, which happened at CERN). And then it was back on the number 18 tram home… to find, later that evening, a text inviting us back to CERN the next day!
A physics-teacher friend of Dave’s has a friend from Melbourne University (Sean Crosby) who is currently working at CERN, and Dave had been fervently hoping that Sean might be able to spend a small amount of time with us while we were in Geneva. So he was pretty excited to get the text for a 2pm rendezvous the next day.
Sean, a computer genius, is currently on a three-month secondment to CERN (which ends in a week and a bit, so our timing was excellent!) His mission is to improve the efficiency of the cloud computing system used by ATLAS and other experiments (which was 20% less efficient than using a physical-hardware-based approach). The amount of data processed by these experiments is up there in peta-byte territory; and the speed at which it has to be processed is down in the nanoseconds. Completely beyond my comprehension. Anyhow, Sean and his team of two or three others have improved the efficiency of that system by 15.5%. So, let’s just say he’s quite clever…
Sean was exceedingly generous with his time, giving us two and a half hours. We had a chat and a coffee in one of the staff cafeterias, and then ventured into CERN’s ‘inner sanctum’. The scientists’ shared office building is modelled on a detector (cylindrically shaped), and decorated appropriately.
And I can’t forget this, just hanging on the wall in one of the corridors in another building…
And then, on the walk back, a decided oddity.
Unbeknownst to me until the previous day, CERN has a religious statue — a dancing Shiva. (Apparently, it is the bane of the receptionists’ lives — with so many tourists asking either if they can see it or demanding to know why a religious item is in a science establishment.) According to Wikipedia, “Nataraja, The Lord (or King) of Dance), is a depiction of the Hindu God Shiva as the cosmic dancer who performs his divine dance to destroy a weary universe and make preparations for the god Brahma to start the process of creation.” So, while a Hindu religious symbol at an experimental physics mecca (yes, that is an intentional mixed metaphor) doesn’t seem to make any sense, perhaps it is a fitting choice of religious symbol. And, it was a gift after all.
Anyhow, it’s tucked away between two buildings. Here it is.
So that was our time at CERN.
Next was the United Nations.