The MacGuffin

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I Almost Accidentally “Outed” Someone on Twitter Today…Or Did I?

Posted by Lauren Rugani on September 5, 2013

We got word via internal all-staff memo today of a new hire coming on board later this month. As I would be working closely and frequently with this person, I took to Google. There, just three links down, was this person’s Twitter profile. Neat! I thought. I’ve been told this person is a superb science communicator, and I was really excited that they also had a social media presence, something of an oddity in my slightly older, more conservative, science/academic institution.

I clicked over to the profile and immediately started to pen an excited “Welcome aboard!” message. A public message. Not a DM.

Then, right before I hit Send, something stopped me. There was nothing in this person’s Twitter feed about the new gig. Perhaps fortunately, USA Today science writer Dan Vergano tweeted his career move over to National Geographic earlier today, and my own Twitter feed was awash in congratulations and well wishes for Dan. The Twitter feed in front of me had no such messages.

Would I totally be stealing someone’s thunder by offering congratulations before they were able to make the announcement on their own terms? Or worse, would I let the cat out of the bag had they not notified their current employer or family members yet? Some things in life deserve a special moment – engagements, pregnancies, job promotions. I would hate for someone to ruin that for me, especially if it was premature.

I didn’t hit Send. Instead, I hit Follow. If they follow me back, then I’ll send a DM saying, “Welcome aboard!”


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The Time I (Sort of) Plagiarized and Why it Still Scares the Bejeezus Out of Me

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 12, 2013

I’m not going to rehash the Jonah Lehrer saga that prompted this post. I’m not even going to link to it, because it infuriates me.

What I am going to do is tell you a story. [In full disclosure, this story is based solely on my own memories — and 20+ year old memories at that — so there are likely to be some inaccuracies. I didn’t seek outside sources for factual confirmation.]

When I was in third grade, I got in trouble for plagiarizing. I vaguely remember my teacher talking with my parents (who are also teachers) and slightly more clearly remember getting sent to my room to “think about what I’d done” when we got home. But I vividly remember the knot in my stomach because of all of it, a knot that’s there now, just thinking about it.

My version is this: I was reading a book about the solar system, I think, and there was a poem about each of the planets (including Pluto), the sun and the moon. I remember really liking one of the poems. Let’s say it was Saturn. Because I couldn’t take the book home from school, I decided to write the poem down so I could take that home instead and read it whenever I wanted to.

My teacher came over to my desk and asked what I was doing. I probably said something like, “Writing a poem.” I had meant it matter-of-factly, the way kids usually do, like, I’m literally just writing down this poem. But my teacher thought I had meant that I was in the process of authoring an original work.

The year before, I had placed second in a state-wide science poetry competition, so it was probably natural for the teacher to assume what she did. I don’t know how long it took her to realize the poem was “plagiarized.” What I do know is that it made me feel like shit. I didn’t do anything wrong (in my mind), but I understood that what they thought I had done was wrong. And I would be damned if I ever, ever did that again.

Thankfully, that episode didn’t deter me from writing. I love writing. Like I tweeted earlier, I write because it physically overwhelms me not to write. In fact, writing this is helping to ease away the rage, or nausea, or whatever emotion it was that I felt listening to Lehrer’s apology rationalization for his actions.

When I write it’s because I have something inside me that I desperately need to get out, whether it’s a ranty blog post like this one or an important story. But I don’t take my readers for granted, ever. Like I also tweeted, I’m terrified of making a mistake.

I know mistakes happen, and learning to own up to them when they’re honest is actually a very helpful and rewarding skill to have. I don’t strive for perfection, but I do strive for thoroughness and honesty. I’ll hold something back if I’m not sure I can say it with confidence.

Which is why it pisses me the FRICK OFF that Lehrer is “apologizing” for his “mistakes.” Plagiarizing and fabricating quotes are not mistakes. They are conscious choices.

My pseudo run-in with plagiarism put the fear of God in me. Even though I maintain my innocence, or at least my naivete at the time, it taught me an important lesson — one that I clearly have not forgotten, and never want to.




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Two Days in Paris

Posted by Lauren Rugani on July 26, 2011

Last month I spent a weekend in Paris and crammed just about as much touristy stuff into 36 hours as possible.

Immediately upon arriving by train we tried to visit the Catacombs, but we walked and walked and never came upon the end of the line to get in, so we reluctantly gave up. Our disappointment didn’t last long, as our next stop was the Centre Pompidou, an amazingly huge modern art museum. The view from the observing deck was spectacular.

See more photos from Pompidou

Next we went to Notre Dame, but again the lines to go inside were a bit long considering our limited amount of time, so we admired from the outside.

Then we saw the Arc de Triomphe, the monument to the soldiers of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars; it also houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.

By the end of the afternoon we made our way to the Eiffel Tower. At first I was slightly underwhelmed, but the closer we got the more impressed I became. The architecture is truly stunning, and it is a magnificent sight at night. Of course, we did the touristy photos, picking it up by its tip and giving it the ol’ Godzilla treatment.

See more photos from Paris

The second day we woke up early and went directly to the Louvre to beat the lines. It was practically empty when we got there, which made for some quality photo taking.

We spent the majority of the day there, and managed to see several exhibits, including ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and China. One of the first major items we saw was the Code of Hammurabi. We also managed to see the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa, the statue of Ramses, and a few sculptures by Michelangelo. The Renaissance wing was impressive, with paintings as big as the outer walls of my house.

We relaxed in a park for the rest of the afternoon before catching the train home. Paris is certainly a beautiful city, but it’s huge, crowded and a bit smelly. I would love to go back though, now that I got all the tourist stuff out of the way, and take the time to truly appreciate the beauty and sense of history that defines this city.

Don’t forget to check out the links to my photo sets from around the city!

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Cinque Terre

Posted by Lauren Rugani on July 3, 2011

About a month ago I had a 4 day weekend and went to an amazing part of Italy known as Cinque Terre, literally five lands. It’s five small towns nestled in the mountains right on the coast, with about 11 km separating the furthest towns and hiking paths and a train connecting them all. We stayed about 45 minutes away in an agriturismo, which is basically a farm that rents rooms to travelers for a decent price and provides home cooked meals. We never made it back in time to have dinner, but the breakfast was all fresh breads and jams, which were delicious. The hosts didn’t speak very much English (and luckily my co-traveler was Italian!) and I managed to learn a few new Italian words for some of the foods.

The first morning we headed to Cinque Terre with the plan to see the first three of the five towns. The first one, Riomaggiore, was one of my favorites.

We spent a good part of the morning there, then walked along the coast toward the second town, Manarola. Along the path there is a spot where you are supposed to kiss, and tradition has it that if you fasten a lock here, your love will be sealed forever.

The path between the second and third towns was closed because of a rock slide. We could have taken about a 4-minute train ride, but we opted instead to hike up and over the mountain to the next town, which was about a 2 hour walk. It was a steep climb, and I began to regret the decision, but once we reached the highest points, the views were spectacular and made every sweat-soaked step worth it.

We were relieved to get to the third town, Corniglia, where we poked around for a bit and enjoyed a glass of local wine before heading home.

The second day was rather dreary weather-wise, so we decided to skip Cinque Terre and drive further down the coast to another town called Portovenere. It had an old castle (although we didn’t have time to walk through it) and a church dating back to the 13th century. I marvel at how these buildings were erected stone by stone, with nothing but simple tools and pure manpower, and have withstood the test of time.

We enjoyed a wonderful lunch there with fresh seafood, pesto, and of course, more wine. Then we drove a bit inland to the town of Lucca, where my father’s family was originally from. We visited the old part of the city, which is surrounded by walls that are something like 15 meters thick. Lots of churches, plazas and towers that have been transformed into modern shops and cafes.

The next day we went back to Cinque Terre to visit the last two towns. The first one, Monterosso, was amazing. We spent the first part of the day on the beach. The water was a tad cold, but refreshing. We explored the rest of the town and enjoyed some more unbelievable scenery.

We took the train to the final town, Vernazza, which unfortunately was a bit disappointing. We didn’t spend much time here, and were tired from the sun, so we headed back early.We had left the agriturismo that morning, so we drove instead to another inn closer to Portofino, the town we wanted to see the next day.

Portofino is beautiful. It was quite small, but we took a walk out to the lighthouse and through the area where supposedly several celebrities (Madonna, Elton John) own houses. The prices here certainly reflected its status as an exclusive community. There was yet another castle, but we didn’t care to pay the entry fee.

It was a jam-packed few days, but worth every second!

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Some Thoughts on the (non) Rapture

Posted by Lauren Rugani on May 22, 2011

If you’re reading this I guess it’s safe to assume you weren’t raptured.

Although most of the world filed claims about the impending apocalypse under ‘K’ for “Ka-RAY-zee,” I think there are some aspects of the whole non-event that deserve a closer look.

Most of us have a hard time comprehending how someone could give up a job, a house, a family or any other earthly possession for something that seems (to us, anyway) so ridiculously implausible. But plenty has been written about the psychology of cults – from the masterminding leaders to their blindly obedient followers and what happens when the predictions (inevitably) fail to materialize.

Often an incorrect doomsday prediction does not alienate believers, but rather reinforces their beliefs. This counter-intuitive response is a well-studied phenomenon in the theory of ‘cognitive dissonance,’ where two simultaneously held beliefs contradict one another. In this case, the expectation of the raputre was met with, well, nothing. The rapture didn’t happen. According to the theory, it’s human nature to try to decrease the level of dissonance between the two ideas, which is often achieved by rationalization. The last time Harold Camping incorrectly predicted the end of the world, he admitted that he hadn’t finished studying the Bible and forgot to include some key calculations. Seventeen years – and millions of dollars – later, his following was as strong as ever.

We’ve seen this before, the most recent example being the Birthers. Hard, unequivocal evidence meant diddly squat. If anything, it just provoked new, more creative conspiracy theories.

As outsiders, we expect believers to wise up and reject their beliefs after they are proven wrong. But this is because we see the event as isolated, and they see it as a minor flaw in a complex web of beliefs. It’s far easier to tweak their ideology than to reject it entirely. That the rapture didn’t happen doesn’t mean they were wrong, it just means they failed to take everything into account.

And then I realized, this happens in science ALL the time. Someone comes up with a theory. Observations either support or weaken the theory. The theory is updated to be consistent with data. Repeat.

Scientists, for example, have been looking for the Higgs boson for 50 years trying to prove its existence after a theory suggested it should be there. That they have continually failed hasn’t stopped them.

The biggest difference between scientists and doomsday fanatics is that, as a community, science is willing to admit defeat when the data don’t support the idea — alchemy and geocentrism immediately come to mind. I’m sure there are others.

But after that, the differences are more subtle. Where do theories originate? In science, new theories either arise as a way to describe an unexplained phenomenon (such as the popular account of Newton coming up with the idea of gravity after being hit on the head by a falling apple) or to provide a solution for a problem (a far more esoteric example, but supersymmetry allows the Higgs boson to have a small mass, which allows the theory of the Higgs boson to remain self-consistent). Doomsday prophecies often emerge from religious texts. But both kinds of theories are interpretations based on some sort of foundation – they don’t pop up out of nowhere.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about this particular end-of-the-world-is-nigh prediction is that Harold Camping – a former engineer and Berkeley graduate – didn’t claim to hear voices or receive messages with instructions on how to prepare the world for the endtimes. No. He used math. The language of science. How could people not believe him? It was right there in the numbers. The math.

Of course, his math was based on his own interpretation of a millennia-old document. I’m not worried so much about the actual numbers as I am about the fact that he used math – however flaky it was – to validate his claims. To me, this says that Harold Camping knew exactly what he was doing.

Millions of people have submitted to far crazier doomsday scenarios on far shakier grounds. Camping easily could have staged miracles or talked of redemptive spaceships. So why base his claims in math? Perhaps because that’s the language he understands. As with any fraud, convincing others is easier if you believe it yourself. Perhaps he used math because, as a trained scientist, it was something he could stand behind.

Along the same line, it’s also been claimed that the longer someone lies, the more they start to believe it. By 2011, perhaps Camping truly did believe the end of the world was coming. But I don’t think it started out that way. I think he used math as a way to scam thousands of people.

Various news reports have said that followers donated millions of dollars to fund his non-profit broadcasting organization, Family Radio; that, unlike his followers, he did not sell his business or his house; that he left a farewell note and instructions to keep his business running; rumors are circulating that he made plans to flee the country after May 21. The last time his prophecy failed, Camping was in the media, admitting that his calculations were amiss. This time, the shades on his California home are drawn and he is nowhere to be found.

As for his followers, they are divided over whether to be mad at Camping. The rest of us are divided over how sympathetic to be toward his duped devotees. Personally, I think the real victims in this are the families of those who chose to believe Camping, especially the children, who were given no choice of their own. People who truly believed May 21 would be their last day on Earth are now faced with mortgage defaults, mounting credit card bills, unemployment and mouths to feed.

I’m curious to see if a legal suit will come out of this. In fact I’m kind of hoping that it does, because I’m curious to see evidence from both sides trying to prove either that Camping was knowingly manipulating people for personal gain or else he was just another misguided believer himself.

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Who is Osama bin Laden?

Posted by Lauren Rugani on May 3, 2011

The latest hullabaloo on the web is that –gasp!– teenagers don’t know who Osama bin Laden is. Specifically, 13 to 17 year-olds made up about two-thirds* of people using the search term, “Who is Osama bin Laden?” on Yahoo, following reports of his death late Sunday night.

Freelance writer Ned Hepburn brought attention to the phenomenon when he collected Tweets containing the same phrase.

What followed was a wave of mean-spirited incredulity:

@katgurl83 Can someone explain 9/11 to these ignorant teens?

@lexipanda Sad Statistic: Teens Led Search Spike for ‘Who is Osama bin Laden?’

@Johnnyphlo wow “who is Osama bin laden?”?!? “@hi_jelee: are these people serious?? GO EDUCATE YOURSELVES.

@AlbertQMoy wow…they are people that actually live underneath a rock

@BobTRoberts Who is Osama bin Laden? Teenagers don’t know who Osama bin Laden was. What ARE schools teaching re: wars in Mid-East?

@innerdaemon It’s official, humanity has diverged. There’s us and the Celebrotwats

You get the idea.

It’s really easy to play the “stupid teenager” card here. Too easy. And unfair.

Today’s teens were at best learning how to write in cursive and at worst just learning how to talk on 9/11. They have grown up in a post-terrorist-attack world, and, to their credit, have most likely heard bin Laden’s name before but just don’t equate it with a day that forever changed their lives.

When I was three, a plane blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. Two years ago, the man responsible for this act of terrorism was released from prison and returned to Libya, to the outrage of many Americans. I can count on one hand the number of my peers who knew who this man was. (This excludes people I know from my alma mater, Syracuse University, which holds a memorial service each year in memory of the 35 SU students aboard the flight.) I can feel the counter-points coming at me like spears, so yes, let me acknowledge that it didn’t happen on American soil (though most of the victims were American), the number of lives lost on 9/11 was far greater (but no more or less valuable), and we didn’t fight two wars to bring the guy to justice (though it did take 13 years to put him in prison). But my larger point is that twenty years later people who were old enough to comprehend the situation still harbored angry feelings, and those of us who weren’t just took the news in stride. And yes, some of us may have Googled, “Who is the Lockerbie bomber?”

I hate to bring up this next point for fear of inciting accusations of racism, but I’m going to do it anyway. Since 9/11, how many times has a Muslim name appeared in the news in connection to some attempted bombing, foiled terrorist plot, regime overhaul, or other conflict in the Middle East? Without the raw emotion attached to the name bin Laden, perhaps teens simply just didn’t know why he was different than any other Islamic extremist, and why we seemed to care more about him than the others.

Put the shoe on the other foot: how many of you can name the man who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor? Just because teens don’t recognize bin Laden’s name, doesn’t mean they don’t recognize the severity of the 9/11 attacks or support our troops or remain blissfully unaware of the wars we are fighting and the losses that we suffer every day.

So rather than chide and taunt the teens who immediately took to the web to gather information, let’s applaud them. They knew what they didn’t know, and set out to fix that immediately. (Whether the public schools are to blame for their lack of knowledge is not for me to judge.) They searched for information, they asked their peers. They even asked strangers, blindly requesting the world to feed them information, only to be served a healthy dose of ridicule by adults (who, by the way, are the parents and teachers of these supposedly ignorant teenagers).

These “Celebrotwats” could have gone on gossiping about the latest Hollywood couple, illegally downloading movies and songs, or sexting, but they didn’t. They could have had drunken fist-pumping sessions at major national landmarks (looking at you, grown-ups). But they didn’t. They  simply wanted to know.

I find this tweet particularly apropos: @JustineBateman Pro Tip: Google “Osama Bin Laden” before you Twitter “Who is Osama Bin Laden?”

Uh, that’s exactly what they did. Cue teenage mantra: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

*It would follow that one-third of the people asking this question are adults.

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The Perks of Work

Posted by Lauren Rugani on March 30, 2011

I haven’t updated in a few weeks, mostly because I haven’t been home! Work is going really well and I’ve gotten to do some pretty unique things lately.

Last week a film crew from the TV show Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman came to CERN to film on location and interview a scientist. It’s our office’s job to host any US media that come to the lab, so I basically tagged along with the crew all day and got to see them in action.

In the morning we filmed on top of the water tower, which was just beautiful, although I was slightly unnerved by having to climb up a ladder and through a hatch to get to the roof, where nothing was keeping us there except a thin handrail. We went to a few other places on site and it was interesting to see how a TV show gets made. They film the same things over and over again, from different angles, and not at all in the order they will appear in the show. I can’t wait to see the final version!

Last night I went to the US Mission to the UN to hear a talk by US astronaut Steve Smith. He’s logged nearly 50 hours on spacewalks and flown more than 16 million miles in the space shuttle. I was able to chat with him for awhile after his talk (and told him my brother works on the engines – had to brag!). I also met a lot of people from CERN and other organizations around Geneva.

Apart from these days where I get to do really cool things simply because of my job, I’ve been writing a lot. For those of you who haven’t seen, these are my first three stories:

SUSY search still going strong

Buzz Aldrin visits the LHC

Rare particle decays could indicate presence of new physics

I’m also continuing to learn French, both with online lessons and because I have several hours of meetings each week that are conducted almost entirely in French! Nothing forces you to learn like having to take notes!

Sorry for all you New England folks, but the weather is just beautiful here. This weekend should get up to 70 degrees, and I plan to fill it with hiking, barbecuing and chocolate. I went to Zurich last weekend, but I’ll save that for a different post, along with pictures once I finish putting them together.

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Can’t Catch a Break

Posted by Lauren Rugani on March 19, 2011

I know most of you own (or know someone who owns) a little book called A Piece of Mind. Go find it.

Now turn to the page about Rugani vacations and read it.

Read it again.

Done? Good. Now multiply that by a hundred. That is what this experience has been like for me since day one.

Don’t get me wrong, I am having an absolute blast. I’ve been to beautiful cities and the scenery is breathtaking. I’ve met a small group of people to share these experiences with. I really love my work.

But I feel like the Karma Gods really don’t want me here. Let me start from the beginning.

October 2010 – Received verbal offer for position at CERN. Tentative start date: November 15, 2010.

November 29, 2010 – Received written offer for position at CERN. Tentative start date: January 17, 2011.

December 2010 – Swiss visa secured.

January 2011 – French visa denied, because someone filled out the paperwork in Paris incorrectly. Instead of asking for the correct information, it sat on someone’s desk for almost 2 months. Solution: wait 4-6 weeks to reprocess, or travel to Switzerland anyway. Took option B. Start date: TBD.

February 2011 – Travel authorization from U.S. denied, pending completion of online safety training course. I followed the directions to create an account and could not log in. Again because someone failed to submit paperwork properly, there was no foreign travel request in my name so I was unauthorized to participate in said online safety training course.

Account set up. Safety training completed. Second request for travel.

I cannot travel because my payroll is not set up. Fed-Exed my passport to Chicago because they would not accept scanned copies of ID documents.

Passport returned. Travel booked. Official start date: February 21, 2011. 4 months after initial offer.

February 18, 2011 – Flight delayed.

February 21, 2011 – First day of work. Went to the user’s office to apply for CERN ID. The person legally allowed to sign the paper and the three people below him who could sign in his absence were all conveniently out of work that day.

Second attempt  – Signature acquired. They saw I had no French visa, would not issue a CERN ID. Thanks to my boss, who gently but firmly reminded them that it was their fault I had no French visa, and that someone in their office told me I could come without one, they agreed to issue my ID.

Ongoing, February/March 2011 – Impossible to open a bank account in Switzerland as an American citizen. Solution: Open a bank account in France. Problem: Without a French visa, I cannot live in France. French banks are in euros. If I had a French bank I would have to pay to exchange USD to euros, and again to exchange euros to Swiss francs. Plus I would have to find a way to get to France while the banks were open. Not a reasonable solution.

Ongoing, February/March 2011 – Housing is impossible to find in Geneva. I visited at least 2 or 3 apartments after work each week. Finally I found one that was within my budget. A bit far from work, but doable.

March 13, 2011 – Moved from CERN hostel to new apartment. There was no bed. I slept on the floor.

March 15, 2011 – Roommate/landlady sent email informing me that her sick mother would be coming to live with her, and in fact I could no longer stay there. Update: there was now a bed in the room.

March 16, 2011 – Found a new place to live. Higher rent, but more convenient commute.

March 17-18, 2011 – Withdrew large sum of money from the bank so I could pay rent when I moved into the new place. (I did not, thankfully, pay anything up front to the first place.) Said large sum of money went missing from my wallet. Several suspects, no proof. Must withdraw the same amount again, costing me nearly one month’s salary in a span of 3 days. (Not to mention 3 weeks of salary for the 3 weeks I spent in the hostel. I’m losing money by the second here.)

Today – moving day. It is pouring rain.

The End.

Epilogue: Somehow, despite all of these things, I have remained relatively calm. I am trying to maintain the attitude that what is beyond my control is not worth getting upset over. Despite the ridiculous regulations, Geneva is a beautiful city and I manage to keep discovering new things and places. In fact, now that I’m broke I’ll probably spend a lot of my time just wandering around with my camera, discovering even more. Losing all that money will set me back for awhile, but it’s just money. I’m not starving, freezing or without shelter. I prayed that whoever has the money now took it because they were starving, freezing, or without shelter. I prayed that they will realize it was wrong and ask for forgiveness, and I prayed for their forgiveness.

However, if some rich douchebag took the money and used it to by an Armani suit or a bottle of champagne, the Irish in me prayed that the fleas of a thousand camels infest his nether regions.

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Two Weeks, Two Countries

Posted by Lauren Rugani on March 6, 2011

I’ve been in Switzerland for two weeks now and it’s amazing how much I’ve seen. I went on four more tours at CERN to learn about the various experiments and they were all incredibly cool.

Thursday I spent the entire morning the control center, where they (obviously) control the various components of the LHC. I learned how complex it really is to circulate a beam of protons around a circle 11,000 times a second! They have to control the exact position of the protons with magnets, otherwise the beam could stray off course and blow a hole right through the pipe. They also have to control the exact fraction of a second that they shoot new protons into the ring so that they are in step with the protons already there. There are dozens and dozens of screens on desks and on the walls that are constantly updating with information about all the parts of the accelerator. People there watch them closely for any sign of a problem so that they can either correct it right away, or “dump” the beam before it causes any serious damage.

In the afternoon I went to an experiment called ATRAP, where they take anti-protons and positrons (the anti-matter equivalent of the electron) and bring them together to form anti-hydrogen. This experiment was the inspiration behind Angels and Demons, where they steal vials of antimatter and try to blow up the Vatican. Unfortunately there are no glowing blobs of antimatter floating around, but the premise is the same – very powerful electromagnets control the position of the anti-hydrogen and can theoretically keep it there for days, weeks, months or years so long as the power supply isn’t cut. Once the scientists figure out how to trap enough of it (about 1000 atoms – nowhere near enough to cause any damage) they will shine lasers on it and measure the absorption spectrum (come on, think back to high school chemistry) to see if it looks like normal hydrogen. Depending on the answer, they will know a lot more about the state of the universe and why we are made up of matter and not antimatter.

Friday morning I tagged along with a high school tour, where we went to an area called SM-18 that houses spare accelerator parts and models of the accelerator. I had been there once before but the guide was really knowledgeable about the history of the accelerator and the functions of the various parts. He also had a great way of explaining the scale of things. For example: the protons travel so fast that if light left earth and hit another star 2 light years away, the proton beam leaving at exactly the same time would only arrive 2 seconds later (that’s like .9999999991 the speed of light). Also, did you know that the LHC is both the coldest AND hottest place not only on Earth, but in the universe? The cryogenics keep the accelerator pipes just a fraction above absolute zero, and when the protons collide inside the detectors they create energy more intense than in the center of the Sun. (That will be a question on Jeopardy some day, mark my words.)

Then we went to the computer center where they keep the servers that store all the data from the proton collisions and send it all over the world. This is also the building that showcases the computer used by Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web.

After lunch I went to another experiment on the LHC called ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment). It’s much smaller than ATLAS and CMS, the experiments I saw last week, but no less impressive. Instead of protons, ALICE studies the conditions created by colliding lead ions together (which are dozens of times heavier than protons). They create a substance called quark-gluon plasma, which are the particles that make up protons, and were thought to have existed for the first 400,000 years (short by the universe’s standards) after the Big Bang, until the universe expanded and cooled down enough for them to coalesce into protons and atoms.

I was completely exhausted after these two days, so Friday night I got to bed early to rest up for my day trip to Lyon on Saturday. Five of us met up at the train station around 7 am and took the two-hour ride to Lyon, which is the second largest city in France, after Paris. It helped that the day was gorgeous with blue skies and balmy temperatures, but the city was just beautiful. It was very French in every sense of the word. Traditional architecture, ornate and intricate details on everything, bistros and pastry shops everywhere. (The first thing we did was find a place to have coffee and croissants.) We walked to the Saone river (just west of the Rhone) and then to the old town — narrow cobblestone streets and centuries-old buildings with secret passages. We walked up a long and steep flight of stairs to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere, which is without a doubt one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life.

We took a long and relaxing lunch at one of the restaurants and had a very traditional Lyonnais meal. I had a Lyonnais salad, which is greens, bacon, croutons and a poached egg; blanquette du veau, or veal stew; and a caramel custard for dessert. Of course, we washed it down with a nice glass of Cotes du Rhone red wine.

After lunch we took the subway to a few other parts of the city, the shopping district, an old bohemian village and a park. We came full circle back to the place we had breakfast, and the streets were much more alive. Music was playing, the bars started opening, people were milling around and going to dinner. There was one street with carts of seafood set up outside restaurants with guys shucking oysters and selling fresh seafood. We left Lyon around 930 and got back to Geneva rather late, but the trip was well worth it. Definitely a place I’ll visit again.

Today I slept in for what felt like the first time since I got to Geneva, then rode into the city to look at more apartments. I found a place that I really like, is in an amazing part of town, AND is within my budget. Keep your fingers crossed for me that I’ll get it!

Turns out my blog is not so friendly to me uploading hundreds of pictures, so I put the full set from Lyon on Facebook, and then a smaller set of my favorite pictures here on Flickr.

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A Tale of a Town and its Cheese

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 27, 2011

I took my first day trip yesterday to a small village called Gruyere. Some of you might recognize that name, as it is the birthplace of Gruyere cheese. It was about a two-hour train ride, which went by rather quickly because we were all getting to know each other. (The trip was sponsored by a site called, where expats can join and meet other expats, arrange events and social activities, etc.) I found myself at home as there were a large number of Americans as well as fellow employees from CERN. But there were also people from all over Europe and the world, and it was so interesting to hear everybody’s story. I think it’s safe to say that Europeans by far have a greater hunger for travel and culture than Americans.

Our first stop on the trip was to the factory where they make the cheese. They have huge tuns of cows milk that are heated and churned, then drained into smaller basins when they reach the right texture. The bottoms of the basins are fine mesh, so the water drains out, leaving the cheese. Then they put huge metal plates on top to condense the cheese for 24 hours, and finally the wheels are  moved to a storage room where they age anywhere from 6 months to several years. We got to sample the cheese from 3 different stages in the aging process. Verdict – 8 months wins.

From there we walked to the old village of Gruyere, which has been standing for over 1000 years, never falling into enemy hands. It’s been somewhat touristified, as the main street was mostly fondue restaurants and souvenir shops, but you could tell it was old. The doors and staircases were extremely tiny, and the architecture was representative of the gothic style.

Our first stop inside the village was chocolate fondue with fruit for lunch. Very good, but very sweet and rich. Then we walked through the village to see the church and other buildings. The big attraction was of course the castle. Unlike every historical tourist attraction in America, you can actually explore and touch things. They have some things roped off in the rooms, like 14th century beds and dining room sets, but for the most part we had access to the whole site.

After the castle we had Alien Coffee. This was a strange bar/coffeehouse based on the movie Alien, because the movie was based on the artwork of a native of the area, H.R. Giger. The Giger Museum was also there. Alien Coffee was of course coffee, plus meringues that you dip into homemade sweet cream. Soooo yummy. Then we walked around for a while longer to give people a chance to buy souvenirs or cheese if they wanted to.

Our last stop was dinner at the Chalet. Most of us had a dish called Raclette, which is a close relative of fondue. It’s a block of cheese placed on a heated stone, and as it melts you scrape off the top of the cheese and spread it on bread and potatoes. The dish also came with pickles and pickled onions, which helped to cut the heaviness of cheese. It was delicious and of course I had to experience the local customs, but my arteries will be glad if I don’t do that again for a long time 🙂

We left Gruyere at 8pm and got back to Geneva around 10. I met so many awesome people and a group of us decided to try and meet up again. We might take another day trip to the French city of Lyon next weekend.

Here is a slideshow of many pictures I took at Gruyere. It’s about 100 photos and takes about 5 minutes to play the whole thing. Enjoy!

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