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When CERN goes out to meet people

Pauline Gagnon on talking about particle physics in the unlikeliest of places


CERN is really a unique place and people want to hear more about what we do. With the internet, people are keeping abreast of the latest scientific developments and many crave the opportunity to meet scientists and find out more about what is going on at CERN. So do not hesitate to contact local colleges and astronomy clubs. Get yourself invited to talk about our research.

Last autumn, I gave a series of public lectures all around the province of Québec (Canada) and in the Shetland Islands (Northern Scotland). Both tours took me to remote areas where I was amazed to see the public interest for lectures in physics.

In Québec, one of my six stops was Chibougamau, a town of 7500 people (and probably as many moose) located roughly 900 km from Montréal. About 40 people attended each of the two conferences, one on the Higgs boson, the second on dark matter. This may seem small but the equivalent percentage of the population in a city would fill a stadium! The audience was mostly composed of workers given that only nine science students were enrolled in the local college hosting the talk. These lectures also attracted many retired people who have time for new enthusiasm in physics.

In the Shetland islands, answering the invitation of a high-school physics teacher, I spoke to kids aged between 13-17 in six out of the seven high schools scattered over several islands. My journey took me over spectacular wind-swept landscapes where sheep and occasionally Shetland ponies grazed seemingly undisturbed by the relentless wind.

About 75 people turned up on a Saturday night at the Town Hall, some brought by their kids or grand-kids, others simply through curiosity to find out why their fellow countryman Peter Higgs had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

These two conference tours showed me the huge interest in CERN and particle physics. Given that 63 countries contribute to CERN research programme, with scientists coming from 99 different countries, we have the potential to reach an incredible amount of people on all continents. There are also lots of resources on theInternational Particle Physics Outreach Group (IPPOG) page, including my slides.

So hit the trail and pick up some local delicacies along the way such as fromage en crottes (cheese curds) or puffin poo. Well worth the trip!