I spent the past week in Switzerland, on a trip with some of my high-school physics students.
What we did
We spent a day in Bern de-abstractifying an icon the Einstein museum, contemplating food waste at Äss-Bar (which sells second-day products from bakeries), and admiring marvels of nature and architecture at the bear pit and cathedral respectively. Our trip at CERN took us to the original Synchro-Cyclotron, which has been reimagined as a superbly-lighted display piece; to mission control at ATLAS, where a dozen physicists looked remarkably busy during a scheduled shutdown; and to a wonderful lunch-chat with my friend Sarah, who then took us back to her lab to talk about radiation-hardened electronics and detectors. We finished the afternoon with a trip up the téléphérique at Mont Salève. On the third day, we took a tour at Webster University in nearby Bellevue, where the students got a lot of good advice about university applications, before walking around the campus at the Université de Genève and spending a couple hours at the superb Musée d’Art et d’Histoire.
Outreach done right
CERN devotes a significant amount of time and money to outreach. Researchers volunteer to lead tours, all the labs seem to have some sort of visitor display, and there are numerous programmes targeting students. However, it doesn’t always seem to come off effectively. Our tour guides have usually been enthusiastic about physics, but are unfamiliar with how to speak to people educationally: wait times, asking questions to maintain engagement and determine understanding, and finding ways for the ideas to explain themselves whenever possible.
The big ideas — the standard model, how the LHC works, why it is so big and expensive — are important and rightfully are thoroughly addressed. However, my students were much more engaged with Sarah talked about her own work. For them, photo-multiplier tubes and fibre-optic cables are just as exotic as the 1200 precision-engineered dipole magnets that largely make up the LHC ring, while also being more tangible. Sarah talking about her specific efforts to reduce the size and study the material effects of opto-electric connections was more effective than the lecture about the dipoles (and higher-order multipoles).
At the time we visited, the Globe was closed for (comprehensive, by the looks of it) reconstructions, and the Microcosm exhibit in the visitor reception building was much smaller than it has been in the past (representing the present LHC experiments only). CERN has decades of brilliant, revolutionary physics apparatus that the public never gets to see. Sarah stopped to tell us about Gargamelle, which is sitting in an unkempt courtyard behind the reception building, but there is otherwise little indication of the great CERN experiments of the past. I would love for CERN to show off some of the great artifacts they are surely storing, as a way to preserve the history of the institution.
Oh, and if you can use Lego to make a model of something, do it!
In Geneva, we sometimes heard this cliché phrase about the city’s international character. The city is famous for its banking, high-end watches, and lax taxation laws — consequently drawing in a population of haves from around the world. Yet while reminders of the multicultural character of the city are ubiquitous, this is a city of the well-off, and not a city of the world. The high cost of living, paucity of opportunities for the working poor, and surfeit of high-priced hotels ensure that this city of diplomacy is rooted in 19th-century notions of inter-state affairs, rather than to the idea of governments and diplomats as servants of the people.
This effect, where the world is flat for the moneyed but round as ever for the poor, is something familiar to those of us who work in international schools. I need to think deeply about how to instill the ideals of social justice for such a community.
One thing Geneva does well is food. We had some great meals, including Ethiopian, Lebanese, and Swiss cuisine. Like a friendly discussion in the Middle East about hummus, maybe food can be a way to bring us together. Yet it cannot be the meat of multiculturalism — and I have thinking to do about how to involve my high school students critically in our upcoming International Day pot-luck + song/dance performances.
Women in Physics
During the trip, I read Mary K Gaillard’s memoir, A Singularly Unfeminine Profession. The quality of the writing and editing is unpolished, but the anecdotes speak clearly of a culture quite resistant to the inclusion of women physicists at the top levels, both at CERN and in the United States.
Sarah spoke with the students, and especially with the women interested in pursuing careers in STEM. Challenges remain, and both unhealthy environments and unacceptable behaviour from male leaders persist. However, Sarah was optimistic, saying that she had never felt like there was anything she couldn’t do.
Thus, moving forward, the task is to remain vigilant about bad situations and people, and to focus our efforts on the intangibles, like culture, that are driving the current gender gap.
The Museum of the History of Science in Geneva is a special place, and I was happy to share it with the students. Here are two things that struck me: