Geert van Overloop
Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPEP) in Munich
The Rosetta stone, created in 196 BC, was dicovered in 1799 and was the key to understanding hieroglyphs as it contained the same text in ancient Greek. This provided a much deeper knowledge of ancient civilisations. When, in the 1990s, ESA (the European Space Agency) decided to send a space probe to orbit a comet and land on it, they called it Rosetta because they thought it might mean a similar breakthrough in the understanding of the history of the universe.
My highest respect goes out to the people who launched Rosetta in 2004 knowing that it would take ten years to get to a comet, a tiny speck 4 billion milies out in the universe. Imagine all the planning and calculations of the trajectory!
Earlier this year, in August, Rosetta started its orbit around the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. On November 12th, 2014, a lander, called Philae, was sent to collect more info from the surface of the comet. We visited the MPEP, which had contributed instruments for both the Rosetta probe and its lander, a week before the landing, so the people at the institute were looking forward with pride and nervosity. What actually happened last week was in the news everywhere: the landing was both a success (a lot of data were gathered and sent to Earth) and not quite a success, because Philae eventually ended up on the shadowy side of the comet, so its batteries could not be fed by solar power.
CERN European Council for Nuclear Research just outside Geneva
What struck me is one difference between the institute in Munich and the centre in Geneva. In Munich they develop small and ultra-light devices (Philae is (was?) the size of a washing machine) to study the universe, the largest things we know, in other words to do macrocosmology. In Geneva they make some of the biggest and heaviest devices (detectors) and put them in a 27km tunnel, 100m underground, to find out about the smallest particles we know and find even smaller ones (bosons, gluons, leptons, muons and all the others), which is what we call microcosmology.
What I find even more striking is that both research centres are essentially looking for the same thing, understanding how the universe works. I once heard that in order to get your message through to your students you have to repeat it AT LEAST three times. Much of the stuff about the universe that we heard at Max Planck was repeated at CERN. This means that your physics classes at school might now provide the third time, necessary to anchor the knowledge in your brains.
A Walk in the Mountains
We were lucky to find accommodation in the middle of the Swiss Alps surrounded by tops just above and just below 3,000 m. The most famous is probably the Quille de Diable (the devil’s skittle), which was also the nearest top to our hostel. It was my first idea to take you up there, but the cable lifts were not running and there was too much fresh snow to walk.
In the end we settled for a nice walk from around 1,200m near Lauenen up to 2,000m, where the snow got to be knee-deep so we decided to go back down. The place we were walking to was the Trütlisbergpass, which we actually missed, because, at the last few hundred metres, we lost the trail in the fresh snow. The views we had, or did not have because of the clouds, were of mountain tops like Wildstrubel (3,200), Tothorn (2,900), Wildhorn (3,200), Spitzhorn (2,800) and others. We did a very short part of the Via Alpina, a walking route through the Alpes in five countries (starting at the sea in Nice, France and finishing at the sea in Trieste, Italy). You can see pictures and a nice video, both without the snow, of where we walked on the following websites.
Goodbye to the Alpes
Vaduz (pronounced as fadutz), the capital of Liechtenstein, is not more than a big village. Much smaller than Krumlov, it only has about 5,000 inhabitants. This very small country lies in between the Eastern and Western Alps. We walked up to the castle of the Prince (Fürst von und zu Liechtenstein), who likes to invite all his citizens to wine and beer once a year – unfortunately not in November. Well, there are only 35,000 of them, but that still makes for a big party.
A last comment
In a world full of conflict and in times where almost every country in Europe has a region that wants to separate, the Rosetta and Philae mission and our visit to Max Planck and Cern are a welcome antidote: a successful story of human cooperation. In Munich, our guides were German, Dutch and Italian astro-scientists, in Geneva we were hosted by Swiss, French and Chinese experts on particle physics. When you listened to the hundreds of people having lunch in the restaurant at Cern, you could hear mostly English, but the English accents came from all over the world. Some of the best of science is happening in Europe and people from all five continents are working together on it. It would also be impossible for one country to finance research on such a scale.
The Final Message
To all those who could not come with us and those who did not understand all the English, WE APOLOGIZE FOR ANY INCONVENIENCE. (from H2G2)