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.