10 January 2020

Almost as soon as the Michaelmas Term had ended, a group of 46 lower sixth physicists, accompanied by five of their teachers, flew off to Geneva for a four-day intensive pre-Christmas physics blow out, visiting not just CERN, but taking in the History of Science Museum, the hydro-electric dam on Lake Geneva, the Observatoire Astronomique, two master classes at Geneva University and time at EPFL (the Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne) where they, amongst other things, got up close and personal with a Tokamak fusion reactor. Also on the trip was Abingdon’s distinctly non-physicist Deputy Head Academic, Mr May who was thrilled to be along for the ride even if he feels that he understood only about half of what was being talked about at any one time.

The ‘work’ began immediately on arrival on the first day, with each boy having prepared a talk for his group on an aspect of the History of Science Museum. Amongst other things there were a series of telescopes to inspect, one of which was trained on the Swiss Alps which of course formed an impressive backdrop to the whole visit. This was followed by a ‘treasure hunt’ get-to-know-Geneva walk before checking into the hotel and finding somewhere for dinner.

The next day was the trip to CERN and all things hadron. The boys were treated to a talk on the history and philosophy behind CERN before going on to explore various elements of the site (including a trip across the border into France for one part!). Particularly fascinating was to be able to see ‘science in action’ in that the corridors the boys were walking down were ‘living’ exhibits, with offices open on all sides with plenty of evidence of serious science work going on, if the complex figures on the various whiteboards were anything to judge by.

The next day was the trip to the observatory, where one of the things being focused on (excuse the pun) is the discovery of exo-planets, with one of their new telescope satellites being launched (from Peru) just the day after our visit. The afternoon had the university masterclasses – a physics one containing (of course) a Van der Graaf demonstration and some very cold nitrogen; and the chemistry one being a hands-on exploration of chirality. That evening was the group meal – a traditional Swiss cheese fondue of course – much enjoyed by most of the group though a few did feel a bit over-cheesed by the end!

The final day started with the trip to the hydro-electric dam, which had the boys going down into the depths of the machinery, standing right underneath the vast turbines, as well as taking in the amazing views back up the lake. On then to EPFL where, apart from discovering some very curious chairs, the highlight was definitely the Tokamak reactor tour, which saw the boys being allowed to get as close as anyone can to the reactor itself and literally walking around it, ducking under and around various pipes and metal work along the way.

Then it was back to the airport and a late arrival into Abingdon – a very full, exciting, absorbing and rewarding four days that thankfully was followed by two weeks’ rest. Many thanks are due to the physics staff accompanying the trip and in particular to Mr Simmons (Head of Physics) for his consummate organisation and running of the whole thing.

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