I spent the passed three days at the European Open Science Forum (ESOF), in Manchester, using a TimPix radioactivity detector on a stand with CERN. Life doesn’t get much more surreal. I’m actually in EIRO forum, a collaborative effort of Europe’s world leading research facilities. I spent three days comparing the radioactivity of macadamia nuts, brazil nuts and bananas. The most radioactive by far were Sainsbury’s bolivian Brazil nuts, which were popping out alpha particles like it was nobody’s business. I was lucky enough to be with James Gillies, head of strategic planning for CERN, a very well informed and eloquent physicist who has been in Geneva since the mid-80s. I hadn’t appreciated the historic significance of CERN: built to unite countries whose relationships and enthusiasm had been crushed by a world war, celebrating discovery and curiosity. Whilst I’m clutching at wires and trying to find an appropriate plug socket, James recounts the day they first turned the 27 km ring on and when they launched the first proton down the tunnel. There were hundreds of press officers and communications teams in the audience, mixed among the scientists and researchers, all predicting this was the day the world would end. One blue dot on the computer screen in the control room told them the launch had been successful, and when the second blue dot appeared, there were tears of joy, hugs and celebration. The significance of seeing those tiny dots popping up on the screen didn’t only move the CERN crew, but the onlookers, journos and pessimists.
Fast forward 4 years and there were tears in the ESA launch room as the Rosetta mission made its way toward Comet 67 G-P. Rosetta’s philae probe went to sleep on Wednesday 27th July 2016, when I was lucky enough to be in a room with Mark McCaughrean, ESA’s senior science advisor. So what’s cool about comets? To Mark, comets are just like the dust left over in a house from when you built it. It’s the material that’s hung around since the beginning of the universe: the water, the carbon dioxide, the organic molecules. Comets help us to understand the building blocks of the place we call home. How do you fire a rocket at a comet? It’s almost impossible to join a comet’s path, unless you ride the gravitational push of planets on the way. Our first images of the comet showed a big cliff, which McCaughrean thought might be ideal base jumping. Other than the fact it would be the most boring base jump in history. The gravity on Comet 67 G-P is so low that it would take you 20 minutes to get to land, and, when you eventually did, you’d arrive at 25 cm s-1, ¼ of your walking pace. Even the launch could kill you- the escape velocity of Comet 67 G-P is only 0.9 m s -1, which is equivalent to jumping 4 cm.
After hanging out with the CERN crew for two days, I’ve spent every minute wishing I was as chic and stylish as these European physicists. They wear great clothes and drink rubbish coffee and eat Manchester Central’s sandwiches without batting an eyelid, they query the humour of ‘Pi with the Prof’, a drop in lunch discussion, and they give cracking talks without batting an eyelid. They’re also part of the most incredible, ground breaking, world-uniting science experiment on the planet. Claire’s one of their resident researchers, a South African genius who is on a mission to study the fundamental relationships of the universe. To Claire, the world is to be explored, and the Standard Model of Particle Physics is like a menu in a fancy restaurant. Instead of ordering based on price, you order based on energy (GeV/c2), and the Higgs is an exceptionally rare dish. That’s good news for Claire- she gets to go for a lot of lunches. I took part in an ‘floating’ panel discussion on ‘keeping the science alive’ for the younger generation, and went for a fancy dinner in a restaurant that footballers go to, where your drinks menu is on an iPad. (You can’t order from an iPad, and the paper menu is on the table too). Whilst I’m in Manchester I also managed to fit in an evening a Pint of Science, who were hosting a Women in Tech night with Science Grrl. I’ve only ever seen Dr Heather Williams, chair of the IOP’s Women in Physics group, wearing fancy clothes in the marble-lined palace that is the Institute of Physics. Tonight she’s speaking to the quite surfeited crowds of Pie & Ale, explaining positron emission tomography using colourful tennis balls and a hula hoop. It works. There’s a pub quiz based on allergies (including a music round featuring songs like ‘Honey to the Bee’) and the opportunity to extract the DNA from your spit- although, this proves very difficult for me.
I had to squish in a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry and a visit to their new Wonder Materials exhibition. Wonder Materials, a celebration of the city’s discovery of graphene, is the only exhibition I’ve ever seen with a sellotape dispenser in a Perspex box. They’ve got examples of pieces of graphite from the hills of Borrowdale, pencils from the Keswick pencil museum (shout out to my childhood in the Lake District!), and a mock clean room you can dress up for. I could spend thousands of pounds in the MSI shop, from the graphene notebooks to the I love Manchester tea towels and sky drive motorised planes. After a wonderful train journey, I dropped of my bag and Medipix/ Cern @ School radioactivity detector at home and jumped on the tube to tour Makerversity in Somerset House.
Liquid assets after a late night at the Museum of Science & Industry:
An evening in Manchester means lunch with my northern family. Here’s the Feinmann Feynman Diagram: