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Aspiring Scientist Gets to See World's Biggest Hadron Collider
Posted 11/30/2016 10:00AM

By Anastasia Kolesnikova ’18

The room was filled with the racket of the exercise bike and the quiet cheering of the group inside it. The lamps on the other wall lit up one by one, and then the blow dryer started blowing, and the radio started working, and everyone thought that the last appliance of all would light up, but alas, the boy on the bike huffed and stopped.

“Aws” of disappointment turned into laughs, and our group continued through the interactive exhibition in the power plant.

Small episodes like these stick with you for the rest of your life. They are in part what makes the whole Academic Travel experience unique and worthwhile because through these small episodes you learn as much as you would in the classroom, both academically and socially.

Academic Travel is a week where students go on a trip relevant to their classes to make the most out of their class experience. Being a veteran of TASIS, I have gone on quite a few of them, such as an Ancient History trip to France, a World Literature trip to Florence (we were studying Dante then), and a number of grade-level trips, including Naples and Sorrento, Zurich, Barcelona, Outward Bound, and Swiss Adventure.

On my latest trip—for IB Physics II students—we started out on a Monday morning, reached Bern by the afternoon, and spent a few days there looking at the nuclear, wind, and hydroelectric plants. Then on a Wednesday we headed out to Geneva, where we visited the CERN complex, a hydroelectric plant, a solar farm, and the History of Science Museum.

Day One

Academic Travel is an interesting experience socially. For a week, you get put with a group of students who can be your classmates, friends, or practically strangers who you may have seen once or twice before. I find that the amount of fun you can have on a trip is directly proportional to how well you can adjust to the group and the people in it.

Our school is a diverse community and people with different cultures and values wind up on the trips, so it is vital to be able to look past our differences and make new friends or strengthen old bonds. Our trip consisted of 12 students—three girls and nine boys—with eight countries represented.

I wasn’t close to many people in my group, with most of them being my classmates and not close friends. (Most of my “squad” was on another trip, together—not that I was slightly bitter about that when I found out.)

We didn’t know each other well, which manifested itself in an awkward silence at dinner, but we managed to overcome it by the end of the evening.

Despite the awkwardness, we enjoyed our first day in Bern. Entering the city in the bus was one of my most vivid memories—it was the first time I saw something like it.

I looked out of the window to see a fairytale come alive. It was a city in a crater, surrounded by a river and mountainous hills. It was both grandiose and miniature, like a village from a Disney movie, with houses squashed close together, and the grey cloudy sky giving the town a magical atmosphere. It was beautiful, and beauty is a virtue that our founder wanted us to learn and appreciate, but I find that not many people do because we take things like that for granted.

Walking around the city and visiting the Bern bears was a great experience. My excitement grew, and I couldn’t wait to get to the nuclear power plant the next day.

Day Two

The second day found us and our bus in the middle of nowhere as we made our way through the fields towards a nuclear power plant.

It did feel a little bit bizarre seeing all the fields and sheep when we were supposed to be heading to a nuclear power plant.

When we arrived, we were invited into a room where two guides explained what goes on in the reactor, how power is generated, and the safety measures. We could finally experience what we studied, even though we didn’t get to see much because of the dangerous radiation inside the power plant. That did sour my mood a little bit, but deep inside I knew that I was being a little unrealistic about my expectations.

After all, it’s not easy to see a nuclear reaction with the naked eye.

We then made our way to the hydroelectric station. The lecture there was a tad dull and not quite what we were in the mood for after a very tiring morning. A few of us almost dozed off but woke up as soon as we started walking around.

We woke up completely when we entered a working electricity-generating turbine. When we entered, a wave of sound and wind welcomed us, tousling our hair and bringing smiles to our faces. It was a unique experience, and I doubt that many people can say they’ve gone through something like that.

The turbine cheered us up but also wore us out, so when we came back from our tours and got a few hours of free time, we all went to our rooms to nap, very much surprising the teachers. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if we were one of the most tired groups—napping was a daily occurrence on our trip.

Day Three

On our third day we visited a wind power plant. The bus drove us out into another field on some mountain and from there, we walked for about 20 minutes to our final destination. The walk itself was easy, the atmosphere reminding me of one of my past academic travels called Outward Bound—a pseudo-survival trip that contained a few hikes.

One of my friends was on both my Outward Bound trip and this trip, and we had some fun reminiscing about those times. We bonded over our experience as navigators last year, which is something I’m grateful for because trips like Outward Bound are great once-in-a-lifetime, let’s-get-through-this bonding experiences.

We arrived and had another lecture about wind power, which wasn’t long, but we had to work through the heavy French accent of our guide.

One of my favorite topics in my physics class was nuclear physics, so I was already radiating excitement, looking like a kid at Disneyland, when I came down for breakfast.

The turbine itself wasn’t very big inside, barely fitting our group and the equipment, but what amazed me most was the “state-of-the-art” elevator. It could only fit two people inside and was made of metal sheets polka dotted with holes.

I am no designer, but I appreciate the little nuances in things like that.

We then made our way to Geneva, also a new experience for me because the last time I was there was when I was a kid. One of my friends and I had a bit of fun exploring the picturesque city.

Geneva was nice—lively and big without having much of the “big city” feel, although the crowds in the streets could compare to Milan. We had dinner (Thai) and enjoyed a quiet night in getting to know each other better.

Day Four

Day four was the day I was waiting for most since we got on the trip.

It was the day we visited CERN, the world’s biggest hadron collider. One of my favorite topics in my physics class was nuclear physics, so I was already radiating excitement, looking like a kid at Disneyland, when I came down for breakfast.

We had a bit of free time and went to see an exhibition describing how the particle accelerator and the data collection work at the four colliding stations: CMS, ATLAS, ALICE and LHC.

We were then invited into a hall for a lecture, which was boring at first, when it described CERN, but interesting when it got to into the particle physics. I was very much excited to continue and got even more excited when I found out we would be visiting one of the colliding stations, CMS.

We took a bus there and then watched a video on the collider before we were led around the building itself by our guides, an excited engineer and a flamboyant physicist. When the engineer was done talking about how the collider was built, he said that we could go down to see the actual thing.

I can say that I maintained my composure pretty well, but inside I was jumping from happiness.

We went through heavy doors, put on helmets, took the elevator down to the collider, exited, and went through the data storage room and down a corridor until we reached a dead end.

“Behind this seven-meter-thick wall is the CMS itself, but you will not be able to go inside because they’re doing some maintenance work.”

Let’s face it, I knew it was going too well to be true.

A little crestfallen, I made my way back up to the surface with the rest of the group. But I stayed positive, and lunch at the CERN cafeteria, amidst all the scientists working there, cheered me up a lot because how cool is having lunch amidst the people who may be making history at the moment?!

Day Five

Packed and ready to return home, we set out for our last excursion, the hydroelectric and solar complex. We were a little cold as we waited for our guide, but he soon arrived. After a quick talk about the hydroelectric plant, we climbed onto the top part of the dam to look at the solar panels there.

The panels themselves weren’t too interesting, and neither was the lecture, but there I saw something that has stuck with me ever since the trip.

I noticed the piles of trash floating on the water, held back by the dam, and to the right of that scene was a biomass power plant, one that burns waste to produce energy and a horrible smell that I could faintly sense.

Such pictures either open your eyes to something you were blind to before or let you see your usual daily life from a different point of view. To some, these piles of trash floating around would be a normal thing: they wouldn’t think twice about it. On the other hand, a future ecologist, or even someone like me who is not interested in ecology, sees the dirt and pollution that people are causing and asks themselves, is this really how it should be?

It’s a different type of learning—a hands-on, see-it-feel-it-touch-it type of learning that is from my perspective as important and as needed as the classroom learning we have at school.

It’s a different type of learning—a hands-on, see-it-feel-it-touch-it type of learning that is from my perspective as important and as needed as the classroom learning we have at school. I took that lesson with me as I boarded the bus back.

The trip was an experience only comparable to a caramel macchiato I drank at a Starbucks in Bern while listening to the chit-chat of my friends. It started out hot and exciting, with expectations soaring and general hype, continued into a plain, familiar taste as I was grounded by the experiences themselves, and finished with a sweet caramel note, comparable only to the sweetness felt when arriving home from a mini odyssey in a faraway (or not so far) land. Lessons were learned, friendships were strengthened, and eyes were opened to the diversity, beauty, and knowledge that this world can show me, both in and out of the classroom.

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