By David Brittain
David is the founding editor of Humanistically Speaking. He led a recent trip to CERN in Switzerland (CERN stands for the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire - the European Organization for Nuclear Research).
This organised trip - to some extent an experiment - was a first for Humanistically Speaking and it had some very surprising results. We aim to develop the idea of offering special experiences that humanists might enjoy together.
Most of us travelled from Heathrow Airport, but some came from Gatwick and Bristol, and a few travelled by train or by car. The first thing I noticed when we arrived at Geneva Airport were the snow-capped mountains in the distance, a visual reminder of the sheer wonder of this small but stunningly beautiful country. Switzerland is nestled between France, Germany, Austria and Italy, which is how it comes by its three official languages. Our hotel wasn’t far away from the airport, and whilst some of us took the number 10 bus there, others walked. Public transport by bus and tram was excellent though and, although we had public transport passes, I’m not aware that anyone was ever asked to show theirs. I suspect that, as in Germany, it is a reasonable assumption that Swiss people can be relied on to be honest in this regard.
The Ibis Budget hotel where I stayed was pretty basic in its facilities, but it was clean, comfortable and surprisingly quiet given that the airport was nearby, and there was an excellent restaurant. Our gathering at 6.30pm on the first evening in the hotel lobby gave me the chance to hand out name badges and make sure that everyone had arrived safely. It was also a valuable opportunity for everyone to get to know each other, resolve any issues, and ask any questions. Then we dined and, though some of us (like me) went to bed early, others went out and walked (or bussed) around the town.
Geneva has to be actually experienced, rather than read about. The tram system in particular is excellent, although the linking of coaches to make them more like 150 metre-long trains takes some getting used to. It is also a strikingly clean city, compared to London, say, and I noticed the freshness of the mountain air. I thought to myself that this was a place where I could live very happily – well, once I got used to the prices! For all the good things one can say about Geneva, it's not cheap!
Our three-hour tour of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN was due to start from 14.00hrs the following day, but since we had arranged to dine there at the staff restaurant, we were asked to arrive before 11.30 and so, since this was a first for me, and I didn’t want to risk being delayed, we left by bus to the LHC reception. The trip was made much easier than I expected since some of our party had arrived a couple of days earlier and had already worked out how to get there. We arrived in good enough time to pay a visit to a nearby exhibition centre that was filled with laser lights, special effects, and voiceover explanations about the Big Bang, the synthesising of matter, the birth of first generation stars, then second generation stars and planets. It was all very heady and fascinating stuff with lots of lights and special effects. We eventually returned to the reception, checked in, and were given directions to be at the restaurant at 11.30 sharp (the Swiss seem to be very punctual).
The lunch experience was amazing, and it’s here that you get a feel for the sheer size of the operation. The queue was fast-flowing for sure, but it extended an awfully long way, almost to the outside at its peak. I cheerfully took many photos, only to be told later that I was not to publish any pictures of workers there, hence the disapproving looks I got and the lack of any actual staff photos in this report. But take my word for it, it was excellent food in a friendly atmosphere, and good fun. In fact some of our number actually engaged with the staff and even played table tennis! (See Stephen Milton’s complementary report for more details).
Our journey began with lectures about the history of CERN, its aims, its discoveries so far, and its prominence in the world of physics. Two things stood out for me at the start. First was the fact that the concept of the Large Hadron Collider goes right back to the end of World War II, and construction began as far back as the 1950s. Second was the realisation that collaboration was still going on between countries from all parts of the world, and this gave me a hopeful thought about what could be achieved if only people could work together in other areas. Individual people work together fine – it’s only nations and politics that seem to be so belligerent!
You can read about the actual tour in Stephen Milton’s article (Inside the Large Hadron Collider) so I will leave that to him. But I can report that the trip was amazing and awesome. The LHC is the largest scientific instrument in the world, and this feels like an understatement! Its size was driven home by the need for a bus to take us from one part of the collider to the next. The sheer size of it is truly awesome! It lies in a tunnel which is 27 kilometres (17 miles) in circumference.
Meeting up with Swiss Freethinkers
We returned to our hotel tired but inspired, and it was here that we met Andreas Kyriacou and Lisa Arnold from the Freethinkers Association of Switzerland. We had dinner together at the hotel and chatted about our various humanist aspirations – in particular, their plans for Camp Quest (a secular humanist summer camp organisation for children which aims to promote critical thinking) which started in the UK, and their enthusiasm to share the camp with children from the UK. This is an exciting venture and, hopefully, a future work in progress. Andreas is the President of the Freethinkers Association of Switzerland, and he gave us an interesting after dinner talk. It was a pleasure to meet them both - indeed their enthusiasm was infectious - and I hope we can find mutually rewarding ways of working and collaborating together.
We were due to fly home the following day, but we knew the flight would be delayed until the evening and this gave us time to explore the beautiful city of Geneva. It was a warm and clear day, and although the day was free for people to do whatever they wanted, a trip to the History of Science Museum, overlooking Lake Geneva, was a joy for a group of us. The museum itself was wonderful, and the scenery across the lake was breathtaking. After our visit, our little splinter group sat at a nearby café outside in the sunshine, almost on the lake’s edge. About seven of us then went on a free boat trip across the lake and we visited a cathedral where John Calvin is said to have preached. Humanists may not be religious, but it was hard not to be inspired by the architecture and majesty of the cathedral.
"The most enjoyable thing for me was unexpected. It was the pleasure I'd had being on an adventure with like-minded folk who share the same worldview."
At the end of the day, it was a pretty uneventful flight home (uneventful suits me when I’m in a plane!) and we got home reasonably on time, although some of our party (especially someone who lives in Newcastle) hit a rail strike and spent almost another two days getting home.
My thoughts are full of memories as I type this report, but second to the visit to the LHC itself, the most enjoyable thing for me was unexpected. It was the pleasure I had experienced being on an adventure with like-minded folk who share the same worldview. And meeting our Swiss opposite numbers was the icing on the cake.
Would I organise something like this again? Yes, I would (in fact, I have already contacted the LHC admin to set another date for another trip). But I have learned much and I would do things differently. Next time the tour organisation would be simplified. I would also add at least one more day to the itinerary because there is so much to see and enjoy in Zurich too. If anyone is interested in the next tour to the LHC, do let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I must point out though that, for personal reasons, it will be difficult for me to carry on doing this on my own. I will need to collaborate with others. If you do choose to volunteer, you might enjoy the luxury of a free pass for whatever part of the project you are involved with. So please do express your interest, and we can discuss it further. We might also organise other kinds of event. If you have any ideas about what you would like to do - viewing the Aurora Borealis for example, or walking the length of Hadrian’s Wall, or participating in an archaeological dig - then please do let me know. You never know, we might just do it!
Large Hadron Collider (WIkipedia)