Exploring the Scientific Centers in Europe

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Exploring the Scientific Centers in Europe


Ugur Akgun, Associate Professor of Physics, Coe College, and Firdevs Duru, Assistant Professor of Physics, Coe College

Attending the introductory seminar at the European Space Agency.

In May 2017, 16 Coe College physics students had the opportunity to visit many of Europe’s current and historical scientific centers and to learn about the culture of physics in Europe. We designed this three-week-long course, titled Scientific Development in Europe, based on our extensive research collaborations, and personal connections, in various European countries.

Our first stop was Amsterdam. The first day we visited the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ESTEC campus, located about an hour away in Noordwijk. ESA is an international space research center with 22 member states. ESTEC is the center for science missions—such as to the International Space Station—and spacecraft missions. Among the ESA’s many missions, Coe College students are most familiar with the Mars Express, which has been orbiting Mars for over a decade. Duru and her students use its data to understand the ionosphere of the red planet. The students had the opportunity to go on a very engaging tour that summarized all of the past, current, and near future ESA projects.

The next day we visited the Leiden University physics department. The university was established in 1575 and was home to historical figures such as Hendrik Lorentz, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, and Paul Ehrenfest. The physics department showed us great hospitality. We visited the Onnes Laboratory, where liquid helium was first made, and toured four different modern laboratories where cutting-edge imaging research is being conducted.

Leiden University Department of Physics,  historic Onnes Laboratory where the first liquid helium was obtained.

As part of the class, students were required to complete cultural tours in each country. In the Netherlands, our cultural stops were the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Keukenhof tulip gardens, and the historic city of Leiden.

After four busy days in Amsterdam, our coach bus took us to Geneva, Switzerland. Our top destination in the city was CERN, the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, with over 30 member nations. Akgun and Duru had both worked on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), where the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012. Coe students have been actively working on upgrade studies of the CMS detector since 2011.

Our collaborators took us 100 meters underground into the LHC tunnel, which was a thrilling experience for everyone. We also visited the Payload Operations Control Centre (POCC) of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) experiment, a collective effort by NASA and CERN. The AMS experiment is looking for dark matter, antimatter, and missing matter from a module on the International Space Station.

Also in Geneva, we visited the United Nations to appreciate the largest international collaboration outside of the sciences.

At the entrance of CERN, Meyrin campus outside of Geneva.

Our last activity in Switzerland was a day trip to Bern, where we visited the house Einstein lived in when he was a patent clerk. While there, he wrote the revolutionary 1905 papers that introduced special relativity, linked mass and energy, and changed physics forever.

Our trip continued to Italy. We made a cultural stop in the historic city of Milan, where we visited the magnificent Duomo, the Sforza Castle, and many small, old churches with glorious frescoes. In Trieste, we visited the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), where theorists from all over the world collaborate to discover new frontiers in physics. During the ICTP tour, students learned about Abdus Salam, the Pakistani Nobel laureate who established the center in 1964.
We then visited Italy’s Elettra Synchrotron Light Source facility, also in Trieste. Unlike the other facilities, Elettra is controlled by a single country, yet it still hosts scientists from around Europe.

We spent our final day in Italy on a trip to the magnificent city of Venice, then continued on to Prague, which served as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and was home to Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Christian Doppler, Ernst Mach, and even Albert Einstein.

At Charles University of Prague.

Charles University, established by the Emperor Charles IV in 1348, is the best place to learn about the history of science in Prague. Our collaborator, physics professor Frantisek Nemec, gave us a special tour of the Charles University Museum. The museum is located in the underground vaults of the ancient university building and showcases the almost 600-year-long history of the university, including the Chemistry Nobel awarded to Jaroslav Heyrovsky.

In Prague we also got a very detailed tour of the COMPASS Tokamak, housed at the Institute of Plasma Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences. The COMPASS Tokamak is a functional device that allows scientists to study the fundamentals of energy production via fusion. This knowledge will be used in the much larger fusion reactor ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), currently being built in France.

Our last stop on this long expedition was Copenhagen, where we visited the Niels Bohr Institute of Theoretical Physics. Here, the Copenhagen Interpretation was developed by Bohr and his disciples Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, and Paul Dirac. The institute’s historian gave us a tour that brought this very important era of quantum physics to life for our students. We also learned some interesting facts—for example, the first location of CERN’s theory division was the building adjacent to the Bohr Institute. We wrapped up our trip with a visit to Rosenborg Castle and enjoyed the eclectic city of Copenhagen.

Our motivation for the trip was mainly to show our students that the diversity and high level of international collaboration found at European scientific institutions is the key to success in modern science. Our students reflected this in their final reports, pointing out that every European they met could easily speak multiple languages and had traveled much more than typical Americans. The diversity within the scientific institutes was notable as well. For example, at Leiden University, the research scientist giving us a tour was Italian. At CERN, our guides were British and Georgian, and at Elettra the tours were led by a Turkish scientist. The Bohr Institute historian was British, and a Russian led our tour of the UN in Geneva.

The three-week trip covering ten European countries was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all of us. Although the logistics and planning were time consuming, the end product was worth the effort. Our students learned a lot, not only from visiting scientific centers and museums, but also from simply walking the streets of foreign cities.

In  Bohr’s office listening to the historian of the institute.

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