Monday, November 10, 2014

Down under at CERN

We’ve been following the experiments at CERN for the past couple years; the helium leaks that closed the accelerator, the Higgs- Boson particle. I can’t say we understand it all but we try.  The kids ask a lot of questions and I can answer most, or at least those based on the physics taught in the late 1980’s. Anything new- like dark matter- is a mystery to me and of course, what the kids are most interested in. We recently tried to get up to speed on the present state of physics with a visit to CERN and the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva.

To start, we knew we were close to Geneva but were a bit unsure how close. We can know say without traffic we are a six and a half hour drive away. The driving part was the easy part. The getting a tour of CERN was the harder part. I clicked on CERN’s website, navigated through to individual tours and then found nothing available. We finally figured out that the tours are made available two weeks in advance and fill up immediately. They are free. We stayed up to midnight one night and scored a tour. I excitedly told the kids about it at breakfast. They yawned. Phil wrote directly to the visitors’ center and got a longer tour, which we ended up taking. Once there, we realized experiments were soon to start. With the accelerator running, no tours will be available for the next couple of years. We really felt like we scored some amazing tickets; sell out performance of a farewell tour. Well, kind of.
Scientists from 22 member countries make up CERN, which started in 1954 with only 12 members. All sorts of technologies have come out of CERN, including the original computer on which the first web page was created. And they claim the world wide web was developed out of a system of communication between their member scientists. The main facility at CERN is the Large Hadron Collider, which runs underground in a 17 kilometer loop beneath the idyllic French and Swiss countryside. We learned how 2 beams of protons (from hydrogen gas) were accelerated (magnets, vacuums and helium) and crashed into each other, going in opposite directions.  And the kids kept asking when we got to go underground.
Underground was our next stop, the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector. We learned these protons are clumped together in a bunch with 100 billion protons in a bunch, 2,800 bunches zooming around the loop. We were told that collisions between protons can make 1000 particles and CMS takes 100 million snapshots per second of which only 100 pictures of particles per second are saved. With that, we put on our hard hats and took an elevator down deep, down 100 meters. It was breath taking. And just where the Higgs-Boson particle was captured for the first time two years ago.
Moving around the tour, we passed from Switzerland into France and back again. The first physicist we were with was a Spanish guy and the second a Chinese woman. They both loved working at CERN and living in Switzerland. On our long car ride, Tori had an assignment to write a poem- in French-and read the book Hatchett in German.  Tori often says she doesn’t want to be a translator when she grows up. I told the kids to consider being a physicist at CERN and using their languages there. The girls rolled their eyes but Adam said maybe, but only an experimental physicist, not a theoretical one.  He definitely got the excitement of smashing two beams of protons together and that was the main thing.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Europa Park

Our family is in the middle of an amusement park revival. While it was not a conscious decision, years of steady Hong Kong Disneyland attendance plus the annual craziness of Oktoberfest rides has kept us away from amusement parks for awhile. Then we noticed a bunch of rides near an airport we sometimes use. We stopped for a few hours before our flight and we’re hooked. Kids on the rides and parents on the no lines and cheap price. We went twice in two months, before it closed for the winter.
We decided  to break up a recent road trip with a stop at Europa Park, the biggest amusement park in Germany. We’d heard good things about it but didn’t know exactly where it was and still don’t but it’s about a four hour drive from Munich and about a one hour drive from Heidelberg (where we were).  The park is in the tiny town of Rust, somewhere between Freiburg, Germany and Strasbourg, France.  When we pulled into Rust and quickly navigating through a little residential area, it all looked similar to the village we live in. Except with huge roller coasters in the background and lots of minivans with license plates from all over Europe.
It was worth the drive, albeit the one hour one, maybe not the four hour one. The park, opened in 1975, accommodates about 3 million visitors per year, making it the second most popular park in Europe behind Disneyland in Paris.  The Mack Family runs the park and say they’ve been making vehicles since 1780, circus wagons since 1880 and roller coasters since 1921. As we pulled in one evening just as the park was closing, we left Phil on a work call and walked over to the entrance (to make sure we could do it efficiently the next morning!). We all definitely felt a buzz of excitement; the walkways, the piped in sound track, the crowds streaming out. We grabbed some maps and plotted our course the next day. It was good we did so as the park is huge- 85 hectares with an expansion planned.
The fun thing about Europa Park is the theme; all divided into countries with rides and restaurants and gift stores on theme. For example, in “England” we walked past fish and chips places and saw a ride that was made out of the red double decked buses. We were trying to make it to a Wild West buffet for lunch but lost track of it on the maps and ultimately gave up hope when someone pointed out that the Wild West was not part of the EU. We made it to Portugal or Spain for lunch and settled for tapas in front of a roaring fire, eaten in a restaurant decorated to the hilt. In “Russia,” the kids rode a Mir ride, while I waited for them outside. I noticed a structure of sorts and walked through it. Though the signs were in German and French and I don’t know either, I took the signage to say I was walking through the MIR space station (1986- 2001). Also sorts of cosmonauts had come to this site, taken photos and signed their names on different parts of the modules.  I remain unsure about what I saw; surely the real MIR must have burnt up upon re-entry? But it was exciting nonetheless.
Through the park, there were little exhibits of information, most likely for people like me, the non-ride visitors. While the kids rode a huge roller coaster called Wodan in Viking land, I walked through a Viking hut and watched a short movie on Viking sea navigation techniques. Other rides had corporate sponsorship. While the kids rode a big roller coaster in “Russia,” I sat in a room sponsored by a Russian gas company. There were video games to play depicting drilling for gas, transporting it. Geo-politics aside, I appreciated the heated room as temps were below 10C in the morning!