Inadvertent Sabotage

Not long ago, a news story went around the world about a weasel that shut down CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, forcing the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to go offline for a few days.

As it turns out, it was actually a beech marten (Martes foina), a cousin of the weasel. The animal gnawed through a cable of an open-air electrical transformer, causing a short circuit.

From time to time we hear stories of animals – usually small mammals – that wreak havoc on large-scale, technologically developed installations.

Beech marten, also known as a stone marten.  Source: Chest of Books/Ray

Beech marten, also known as a stone marten.
Source: Chest of Books/Ray

Almost always, these stories are told with a kind of breathless David versus Goliath glee at a victory of the tiny over the towering, the power of the small over the great.

At the same time, there’s also a tone of uncertainty and bafflement – shouldn’t we be better at protecting Very Important Human Things against wild creatures by now?

A raccoon short circuited an electrical bus between two main feeder lines at a Seattle substation, causing an outtage for 38,000 households. The raccoon didn't survive. Source: Huffington Post

A raccoon short circuited an electrical bus between two main feeder lines at a Seattle substation, causing an outtage for 38,000 households. The raccoon didn’t survive.
Source: Huffington Post

As if the animals were intentionally trying to take us down a notch or two by showing how fragile our machines really are.

But I think the uncertainty speaks more to how we see ourselves and our achievements – it seems like complex structures that supply so much energy, or which are so advanced, demonstrate just how far removed we are from other animals on the planet.

Until we realize how easily these structures can be inadvertently rendered useless, at least for a while.

A wild vervet monkey tripped a transformer after falling off a roof at Gitaru Hydroelectric Power Station in Kenya's Eastern Province, knocking out power across the entire country. The monkey survived. Source: Kengen/Independent

A wild vervet monkey tripped a transformer after falling off a roof at Gitaru Hydroelectric Power Station in Kenya’s Eastern Province, knocking out power across the entire country. The monkey survived.
Source: KenGen/Independent

It also shows how close we still live to other life and animals for whom our fences are obstacles that don’t pose much of a challenge.

If we need protection from their intrusions, there’s probably no way to reliably protect them from wandering into the wrong tangle of wires.

For better or worse, we are all in this together.

 

An iguana caused a short circuit at a hydroelectric installation in Guyana, causing a blackout for 80% of the country. The iguana did not survive. Source: FranceTV

An iguana caused a short circuit at a hydroelectric installation in Guyana, causing a blackout for 80% of the country. The iguana did not survive.
Source: FranceTV

*I suppose in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that beech martens are also regular criminals at our place, chewing through cables in car engines and generally making mischief. They’re protected, so no trapping allowed.

We live close to CERN in rural France on the border to Switzerland, so the only aspect of the news story that surprised us was that the animal was first reported to be a weasel – everyone around here knew right away what kind of culprit it must have been.

 

Science and Peace: CERN at 60

Last week I had the privilege of attending a series of lectures, 60 Years of Science for Peace, held in the CERN Globe as a part of the celebration to mark CERN’s 60th anniversary. Considering we live just down the road from the Globe, I didn’t have far to travel, but it’s a nice journey to take nonetheless.

The CERN Globe, an exhibition and lecture hall. Photo: Jean-Claude Rifflard/CERN

The CERN Globe, an exhibition and lecture hall.
Photo: Jean-Claude Rifflard/CERN

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, was founded in the 1950s as a research institution, but it also had a key secondary function: that of fostering cooperation and collaboration between countries that had only just emerged from World War II. It provided a place where scientists could work together across political, linguistic, cultural and national lines by sharing research goals, methodology, resources and outcomes.

People from countries that had been at war worked side-by-side. Throughout the Cold War, CERN was one of the places where lines of communication remained open across the Iron Curtain.

There have been countless side benefits and developments over the decades that are the direct or indirect result of research done through CERN, from medical advances to computer technology, but seems particularly fitting that one of CERN’s major collateral contributions was the creation of the World Wide Web as a means of facilitating communication.

Sitting around me at the lectures were rows of CERN scientists, most of whom communicate with one another in English or French – but who come from dozens of different countries around the world.

CERN at 60 Source: CERN

CERN at 60
Source: CERN

One aspect of life at CERN that I’ve always found interesting is that while the scale of science that goes on there might be grand, the atmosphere is relaxed and collegial. The main cafeteria at lunch time is packed, abuzz, and the long tables and close seating encourage conversation.

Having lunch at the CERN cafeteria might mean sitting amongst a few Nobel laureates, or it might not – but what is striking is how much of the casual conversation in shared languages revolves around the free exchange of ideas. And it’s all open to the public.

This is the opposite of academics toiling away in an ivory tower.

So today I’d just like to tip my hat to the work of an organization that does more than just research the fundamentals of physical world: Truly open discussion and communication between people of vastly different backgrounds and beliefs is one of the best means of immunizing against misunderstanding and prejudice, whether intellectual or otherwise.

Organized Curiosity

The CERN globe. Photo: PK Read

The CERN globe.
Photo: PK Read

Someone once described the work that goes on at CERN, the¬†European Organization for Nuclear Research that straddles the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, as a massive exercise in “organized curiosity”. CERN is the world’s largest particle accelerator laboratory, where international researchers have been collaborating to investigate the fundamental nature of the physical universe since the early 1950’s.

It’s where some of the largest scientific equipment ever built is used to peel back the layers on the smallest elements of what makes the cosmos.

Last night, we went to a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider. Thousands of people, an orchestra with a hundred-strong choir, and the Alan Parsons Live Project accompanied by the full orchestra and choir, took up residence out behind the CERN facility on the French side, in the middle of a large field.

The two official languages at CERN are French and English, but standing in the crowd, there was the likelihood of hearing Korean, Greek, Russian, Japanese and some I didn’t recognize, all spoken within arm’s length. At one point I was standing next to one of the senior scientists, and he said that one of the things he values most about his decades at CERN is the sense of collaboration and working towards a common goal on a global scale. Twenty member states support CERN, with numerous non-members participating in a variety of ways.

We often hear the question: Collaboration is nice, but what good does fundamental research do on a practical level? With all the money spent by various countries – tax money, public funds – what good does this kind of investigation really serve?

There is an objective and true response to this question. The exploration undertaken at CERN often requires equipment that doesn’t yet exist, leading to innovations in everything from computing to medical technologies to materials science and electronics.

But there is also another, more subjective and true response: This demonstrates us, as humans, at our most cooperative and inquisitive. 800px-CERN_international_relations_map.svg

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