What CERN is, and isn’t, doing right

Back in April, I spent a weekend with my buddy Alex in Geneva, visiting him and spending some time at CERN.


Famelab, if you’ll allow me to explain, is a competition (à la Britain’s got the x-factor idol talent) that aims to find tomorrow’s TV presenters. But it’s for a special type: they’re looking for young academics who can explain tough science concepts to a lay audience in a limited amount of time. We’re talking about the next generation of Attenboroughs, Dawkins, Degrasse-Tysons, and dare I say it, even Coxes. (“Eeee, in’t stars grand?”)

Feeling the sense of pompous entitlement that belongs to being one of their 400 million shareholders (that is, the tax paying public) I made my way down to Geneva to visit the hallowed grounds of CERN, and see them have a bash at hosting one of the heats of the Swiss competition.

This, I thought, would be a brilliant opportunity for them to reach out to the public and to show that they have a passion for getting the general public involved in and excited about what they do.

In the spirit of the event, the presenters announced, “We have a special competition for the audience here today – a quiz. The winner gets to go down and see the LHC later this year”

As my nerdgasm approached, they asked, “what spin does the Higgs boson have?”
Brilliant! I read this on a proper news website yesterday! I, a mere amateur science nerd (that is, I read A Brief History of Time rather than just putting it on a coffee table), am in within a correct-answer-out-of-the-hat’s worth of seeing the LHC in person.

Tongue of concentration extended, I prepare to draw a big fat zero across the answer paper, as she continues,
“And why does it have that spin?”

So much for outreach.

CERN, the world’s premier physics research organisation on the swiss french border, is the bleeding-edge of particle research. But its charter means its job is to show that people from any background can work together, and also to train and teach the next generation.
So this was a perfect opportunity to show off their flair.

The young scientist presenters, I should mention, really showed off their passion and talents and I actually learned some useful stuff (like how airline pilots aren’t allowed viagra 6 hours before flying). Everything around it, the overall presentation, however, wasn’t quite so polished.

As the presenter announced our first “lady scientist” onto the stage (and my cringe factor turned up to 11), I started to wonder exactly how well choreographed the whole thing had really been.

I did speak to some of the judges involved in Famelab, and brought up the diversity question (yes, the head of Diversity was there and she very much cringed too). I also asked about outreach in education – yes, they said, they agreed with me that these young presenters should be going out to schools and doing their thing: but I wonder if CERN actually put that into action?

This heat of Famelab was held just across the road from CERN’s visitor centre, called… Erm… Actually I didn’t catch the name at the time. (I’ve been told since that it’s called Microcosm, but I’m sure I never saw a sign).

But what that place could do with is a curator.

The Microcosm is one of those interactive educational places where you can try out some machines and playthings, à la Science Museum in London. I pictured the sight of groups of schoolkids wandering round with clipboards and playing with brightly-coloured toys that sneak a bit of physics up on you when you least expect it.

The rather dark, very outdated rooms belied my imagination.

There were of course a few interactive exhibits: Geiger counters, things on springs, press-button-to-listen headphones, and all that. But it clearly hadn’t been dusted for a while and there certainly weren’t great long lines of visitors queuing up to get inside.

On the other hand: stopped off in the science history museum over in Geneva itself. Surely there’d be some interactive exhibits there supplied free by CERN (who’ve been making science history for a few decades now). It’s a rather well curated museum, in lovely gardens by the Lake, in what looks like an old manor house. Inside they had some educational games alongside some examples of early telescopes, batteries, thermometers and all sorts of other things. Not one of them supplied by CERN, arguably one of the world’s most important scientific institutions (this is where touchscreens, MRI scanners, and even this very WWW where invented, for crying out loud).

I suspect it’s not really to do with funding: it’s not as though CERN is short of the occasional corporate sponsor who’s willing to throw a few thousand Francs their way (if you’ve seen how many watch manufacturers and private banks there are in that city). It just seems that CERN has a lack of awareness of what it needs to do not only to help people understand what it does, but also to secure its future.

Branding Geekery
As a little post script, an anecdote about branding. I picked up some leaflets, and a few souvenirs at the shop (you can never have too many lanyards. Or branded safety helmets).
There are a few experiments that are attached to the LHC accelerator, such as Alice, Atlas, and LHCb. These are, if I may be crude, sort-of clamped onto the LHC tunnel and they record in various ways what happens when particles hit eachother.
Reading the flyers about each of the experiments, I notice that there’s not one CERN logo, not even a mention of the host institution. Even though its what they require to exist. It looks to me like there isn’t a coordinated effort to even think about how the public perceive what the LHC does as a whole.

Don’t Bank On It

Take my advice – never use a Chinese bank.

Why? Two main reasons, really. One, paying-in slips are the devil incarnate. Two, never cross a surly bank teller ten minutes before lunchtime.

Our story starts with the hero (yours truly, naturally) wanting to pay a deposit to the travel agent in Beijing for an upcoming adventure (more of which you will hear in August, if I ever make it back in one piece). This involves taking several thousand of the currency to a local branch of their bank and paying in there. Bearing in mind the largest note is 100 Yuan, this is quite the wodge of cash.

“That’ll be the easy way,” thought I.

Form number one

Rather handily, there was a greeter at the door who helpfully wrote the payee’s name in Chinese on the deposit slip and pointed me to the counter. This was the last time I smiled. Possibly ever.

This is where I meet The Happiest Bank Clerk in the World.

First off, the way I’d written the number “8” looked “wrong”.

Tear it up. New form.

Form number two

I fill everything out again; sticking my tongue out the side of my mouth to aid concentration, I produce the finest lettering I’ve created since I was six years old and trying desperately to impress my junior school teacher with how nicely my handwriting has improved.

I ask: “Is pinyin* OK for the name?”. “Yes,” came the somewhat distracted reply.

I write. I wait. I hope.

Bank teller thrusts it back with a look that plainly says, “What sort of moron is this that doesn’t know how to use a pen?“.

“No, pinyin’s not allowed. Write her name in Chinese.” Tear it up. New form.

Form number three

Thankfully I’d printed out the company director’s name in Chinese beforehand, so, v e r y   v e r y   v e r y   c a r e f u l l y, I copy out the name in front of the increasingly-impatient-looking-ice-queen-from-hell.

She counts it out several times and then, “OK, good, that’s everything. I just need 40 Yuan from you”.


Rage levels increasing.

“Because the account’s not at this branch”.

I begrudgingly shove the cash under the window and get up to leave.

“If you could just press the green button in front of you before you go?”

I do so, but just as my digit is fully depressing the key, I realise that it’s the rough equivalent of a How’s my driving sign, and I’ve just given the sour old goat a 100% rating for her customer service.

And I thought Germany was bad.


*pinyin is the system for using Latin characters to write Chinese words, so that language learners can get to grips with pronunciation without having to spend a decade learning tens of thousands of characters beforehand.

Unfortunately, pinyin is somewhat deficient in that it doesn’t distinguish particularly well between certain vowel sounds. Also a lot of road signs etc don’t use the tonal system so it’s quite difficult to know how to pronounce if you get lost and need to ask the way!

100% Guaranteed Original Quality

I’m not completely convinced that this DVD I found at a market stall in China is legit.

Click for bigger, and check out the blurb









Oh, and check out the blurb on this Iron Lady / Tomb Raider crossover:

Click for bigger to read the blurb on the left. You know what? It almost makes sense.