Europe: Days 4 and 5, and going home

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Apr 23, 2008
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And so my adventure in Big Science ends.

We returned from the LHC, driving back across the ring, this time on the surface of the Earth and not 100 meters below it. We got back to the hotel, and I found myself dropped back in to the mundane world where protons were just constituents of what I saw around me, and travel speeds were measured in kilometers per hour, not large fractions of the speed of light.

I prepared for dinner, washing up and basically relaxing for a few minutes. It was hard to believe -- maybe the best word under the circumstances -- that I was done. Still, I was in Europe, in Switzerland, and there was still fun to be had and friends to enjoy.

We went to Geneva for dinner, parking a kilometer from the restaurant so we could walk through the magnificent city. Did you know that in Lake Geneva there is a fountain, the tallest in the world, jetting water straight into the sky 140 meters high? It was magnificent. Chris's son thought it was a volcano at first, and I could hardly blame him.

We walked through old Geneva to the restaurant, and there we sat for several hours drinking, eating, and enjoying ourselves immensely. Chris told us about a new film project he's working on, and we laughed ourselves hoarse thinking up outrageous scenarios and ridiculous titles. We chatted about protons, and muons, and relativity. Gia and I shared stories about our respective pasts, and our potential futures.

It was wonderful.

But the next day, Monday, I got to play tourist. Brian had to go to his house in Manchester to prepare for some talks he had to give, and from there he had to go back to CERN. We said goodbye, and he left me in Gia's care. She took me to London, and we walked for kilometers, sightseeing. She took me to Forbidden Planet, a wonderful science fiction bookstore. There's one in NYC I'd been to once or twice, but this was the original (well, the original original store moved once they got too big for their storefront). They had a ton of Doctor Who swag, and I picked up a plastic articulated Dalek for The Little Astronomer (and an extra one for reasons I'll figure out later). There was a paper model TARDIS on display, but sadly there were out of the kits. I'll have to find one online.

We had Thai food, and a capaccino, and walked through Soho: the music section, the shop section, the, um, physical pleasure section. We came out one street to see a mob scene: the road was blocked off by the police, and there were literally hundreds of people lining the sidewalks. Gia, herself in the TV industry, realized it was the British Annual Television and Film Awards show! We stayed for a while, watching people watching the stars as they were delivered by van, limo, and taxi. I got a kick out of it, not recognizing a single person who received the accolades of the crowd and had their name shouted by the paparazzi. I had hoped to see David Tennant, or at least someone from Doctor Who or Torchwood, but was sadly disappointed. Still, it was fun.

That night had one more event to unfold, though: Skeptics in the Pub, a monthly gathering of London skeptics. We arrived to a packed pub, where there must have been well over 100 people jammed into the bar. After a quick meal (a wonderful ham and cheese panini; don't believe anyone who says British food is awful) I was on! I gave my Moon Hoax talk to the crowd, and was overwhelmed with the reception. The audience was raucus, warm, friendly (very friendly; hi Mark and Kelly!) and the Q&A session went on for quite some time. I got lots of laughs using British slang, and all in all it was the psychic equivalent of being carried around on peoples' shoulders. And I have to say, it's quite odd to come to a tavern in England thousands of kilometers from home and see so many friends, old and new. Tracy King from Skepchick was there, and Richard Wiseman, and Sid Rodrigues, and many people who had been at the meetup the week before. I also met several e-friends, like Maurizio, and Tom Siefert. Also attending, of all people, was Marcus Allen, the editor of Nexus magazine, who is, well, let's just say he's perhaps not a supporter of the idea that the Moon Landings were real. But we chatted amiably, which goes to show that just because two people are on opposite sides of an issue, even one like this, doesn't mean they have to be wankers to each other.

I also met Gia's friend Violet, a blogger and TV host who I really wish I could have spent more time with. She struck me as yet another Brit with a lot to say and the intellect to back it up. I found myself thinking this so many times... in fact, without exception, I liked every single person Gia and Brian introduced me to. They clearly travel in a good crowd, and on Day 3 or so I suddenly realized that they included me among them. What an honor!

I had lots of time to think on this trip -- mostly at 3:00 a.m., struck by jet lag -- and my thoughts have been good ones. I cannot really convey in words what this trip has meant to me. I'm pleased that Brian thought enough of me to invite to CERN so I could see it and be interviewed for their podcast (which will go live shortly). I'm in deep gratitude to both him and even more so to Gia for hosting me, and taking care of me and supporting me in a country where everyone talks funny and drives on the wrong side of the road. I'm still a bit overwhelmed from the support of the crowd of skeptics at the pub -- battling nonsense on a daily basis is more draining than you can imagine, and hearing their applause will keep me energized and in fighting trim for months to come.

And I keep thinking of the LHC, and what it may mean to science. This is no joke, no exaggeration: it has the capacity to revolutionize science, to jump start new fields of physics, give us a literal quantum leap in learning and understanding. If that were the only aspect of my trip I took home, it would be enough. But I'm glad there was so much more. My horizons have been considerably broadened by the past week, and for that I am very grateful.