21 December 2018

At the start of the Christmas break, a group of 40 travelled to Geneva in Switzerland to visit the varied scientific facilities in the region. During the time there the students learnt about the historical significance of Switzerland in the development of science and got to see the cutting edge technology that is pushing forward the boundaries of modern physics.

Upon arriving in Geneva the group travelled to the History of Science museum. Here many important artifacts are kept showing the history and development of scientific instruments, many of which are from the original observatory founded by Jacques-André Mallet in 1772. The telescopes found here played an important role in the development of Genevan society. They allowed the accurate study of the night sky which attracted many scientists who did not want to make the long trip to Paris or Greenwich.

Even more important than this however, was the implication that telescopes had on time keeping. The big problem faced by sailors in the 18th century was that there was no easy way of knowing your location at sea, the solution to this problem was to create books of data and coordinates that could be taken on the ship and were used by referencing the location of significant stars in the sky.

In addition, the focus on accurate time keeping allowed watch makers to calibrate all their watches to an unmatched standard. It was fascinating to see how one building was crucial to making Geneva what it is today. Following this, the students divided into small groups to complete a walking tour treasure hunt of the city, finishing back at the hotel.

This involved visiting the old town with buildings dating back to the 12th century and the ruins of roman temples dating back to the 1st. The maze of small streets and picturesque squares overlooked the lake of Geneva including the Jet d’Eau, a massive water jet stretching 140m high and throwing 7000 litres of water into the air at any given time.  

The following day we again took the tram service but this time to visit the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire or CERN where the LHC is located. The Large Hadron Collider is the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator making headline news with the discovery of the Higgs boson in July 2012.

The 22 member countries of CERN spent around 1 billion euros in building the equipment and conducting the experiments. Protons are accelerated by supercooled Niobium-Tin magnets to 99.99999991% of the speed of light around a 27 Km tunnel, they make this journey 10,000 times a second. The protons are sent in packets so that an alternating magnetic field will boost their speed, one packet is sent clockwise and the other counter clockwise, they collide at set points where the detectors are placed.

When they collide a lot can happen, through Einstein's famous E=mc2 equation, energy and matter are related so the smashing of two packets of protons creates a lot of energy and subsequently lots of different particles to be released. Now the job of the massive detectors and even bigger supercomputers is to try and figure out what happened.

For every 1 billion billion protons that collide only 1000 Higgs particles are produced so the chance of observing one is very low, luckily there are 600 million collisions per second  to increase the chances, the downside of having so many collisions is that there is huge amount of data that need to be processed at the data centre, so much so that it has to export its data to other supercomputers.

The astronomically large numbers associated with the LHC were awe-inspiring and truly it’s a marvel of modern technology. The highlight of the visit was getting to see the antimatter factory, the only facility in the world producing antimatter at this scale.

Other interesting visits included the Geneva plasma physics centre studying the stability of plasma for use in fusion systems helping to research how to effectively achieve nuclear fusion in power plants such as ITER and DEMO. The new Geneva observatory responsible for finding many new exoplanets and housing modern telescopes far more advanced than that of the telescopes found in the museum.

The SeuJet hydroelectric dam helping contribute to producing 56% of swiss electricity with the other two hydroelectric dams in the country. As well as exploring the sites from Geneva the group travelled to the city of Lausanne to visit the EPFL university and the exhibitions on machines and big data there.

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