Europe: Days 4 and 5, and going home

By Phil Plait | April 23, 2008 9:26 am

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Science, Skepticism, Time Sink

Comments (41)

  1. riki

    I’m glad you said “not large fractions of the speed of light”, as opposed to “not fractions of the speed of light”, which of course would be wrong :)

  2. BigBadSis

    Welcome home, Phil. I’m proud we can call you “ours” on this side of the Atlantic. By your descriptions of your trip, I felt like I was there. At least, in spirit. Where can I find a Skeptics Pub in Baltimore???

  3. vbloke

    I dread to think what you and Kelly will be like at TAM… I may have to bring a bucket of cold water or something

  4. Zombywoof

    Magnificent post Phill! I really wish I could get in to have a looksy at the LHC.

    Hehehe. It would be the most awesomely ironic thing that could be conceived of if it ends up destroying us all 😛
    LHC ftw!

  5. Good to see you enjoyed yourself in dear old blighty and if it hadn’t been my wedding anniversary there would have been an additional body jammed into the bar. Perhaps you can come back again someday soon and give a talk in somewhere more accessible as my children were asking if they could go and see you. Glad to see we didn’t poison you either 😉 Cheers.

  6. overstroming

    Actually in the UK the left is the right side of the road to drive on, and the right is wrong.

  7. DrFlimmer

    Europe is great, I knew it ever since I live here…. ok, my whole life, because I was born here…
    Anyway, the reports were excellent and I enjoyed them very much! Just go your way on! I’ll give the applause you need 😉

    Btw: Today is the 150th birthday of Max Planck. That was the guy why you can visit such a great facility as CERN today! He invented the “mathematical trick” of light as quantums, the beginning of a revolution in physics whick led to quantum mechanics!

  8. hale_bopp

    I have toured Fermilab, SLAC and RHIC, and hope to add the LHC someday. I was just over in Europe (France and Romania) but couldn’t work in the side trip.

  9. Gib

    Phil, thanks so much for coming and giving your talk. It was great seeing in in person, and in the company of so many other skeptics. I think there were at least 200 there, crammed into every nook and cranny. Even though it was so crowded, the atmosphere was fantastic.

    I agree the Brits do good food. Pity it sounds like you didn’t try a Sunday roast, which is great from pretty much any pub you find.

    I didn’t know Marcus Allen was there. I don’t remember any “woo” questions being asked. Pity he didn’t pipe up..

    See you back here soon Phil.

  10. Calli Arcale

    Forbidden Planet is justly famous. But next time you’re in London, you may want to try the Who Shop. It does carry some non-Who stuff, but mostly it’s Who. Just looking at the props they’ve collected is fun, and they get some cool celebs in for book signings. They also make some of the items they sell there, like a classic TARDIS key. (Not the Yale key used on the current series, but the more intricate thing used way back in 1963. The TARDIS key has flipflopped between that alien design and your basic run of the mill key throughout the series’ history.)

    The Who Shop is in East Ham. Take the Tube; you absolutely cannot miss the Who Shop, as you will come face-to-face with it as you leave the East Ham station.

    Omigosh, I just looked at their website ( and they’ve got a kids’ Dalek costume. MUST HAVE!!!!

  11. Jase

    And there was me thinking there was no chance I’d bump into you while you were travelling through, yet it turns out you were hanging around outside my office a mere couple of hours after I was there myself… had I known I suppose I could’ve gotten my copy of your (first) book signed or something.

    (my office overlooks the street where everyone was watching the celebs arrive for the BAFTAs – I wouldn’t normally be there on a weekend but I was in town shopping).

    Small world (but still a big universe).

  12. Quiet_Desperation

    We returned from the LHC, driving back across the ring, this time on the surface of the Earth and not 100 meters below it.

    Wow. I hope it wasn’t running. You might have been sent to a parallel universe or forward/backward in time.

    We’d better check. Your universe has the Libertarian candidate for President running unopposed for his fifth term, right?

  13. Scott

    Not only did you get to go to the UK and Switzerland, see the LHC and actually be able to say you were 100 m underground, you also got to hang out with Chris Morris. Oh how I envy you.

  14. allkom

    Were I to believe in “sins” , envy pops to mind. Great post , welcome back.

  15. Thanks again for the great evening, BA. It prompted an entry on my own blog about the motivations of the believers. My friend who was with me that night (we were the tall pair of chaps, I was the one with the long hair & a beard who got your autograph) pointed me towards an really deeply amusing moon hoax story. They apparently object on the grounds that it doesn’t square with the Sanskrit Vedic scriptures, because according to said scriptures the moon is 800,000 miles farther away than the Sun. You couldn’t make it up.

  16. Soho is a word, not an acronym. Only the first letter should be capitalised.

  17. Buzz Parsec

    QD –

    Yes, that’s this one. Zaphod is the most popular prezie ever, since he’s absolutely powerless and extremely entertaining. Unfortunately, few people realize that the lack of governmental power just causes it to devolve onto some other entity, in the present case, the International Kumquat Cartel, which controls absolutely everything through clever manipulations of the citrus fruit futures markets. Oh, Oh, I think I hear lime-green helicopters landing in my back yard …


  18. Donnie B.

    Quiet_Desperation: you meant *her* fifth term, right? Uh… right?

    I have a question about the LHC that I haven’t seen addressed anywhere. How will it compare (in terms of particle types and collision energies) with the Superconducting Supercollider that was never built?

  19. Oh, that’s funny! I am so used to writing SOHO because of the observatory that it’s just a habit! I corrected it.

  20. ioresult

    According to IMDB, the BAFTA Award ceremony happened last february.

  21. ioresult

    Ok, that was the movies part. The TV part really was last Sunday. Nevermind.

  22. Ginger Yellow

    I’m not a big fan of Forbidden Planet, but that’s because I’m more interested in the books, comics and films than in the nick-nacks. The comic selection isn’t very good (for a store of its size) and the films are absurdly expensive. It’s good for books, though.

  23. Yeah, FP is a toy shop, not a comic shop.

  24. I thought that the tallest fountain in the world was in Fountain Hills, Arizona. By my math, it jets 170 m into the air. (Guiness apparently stopped listing this category, so I’m not sure where to determine who the record-holder really is.)

    Yeah, I know: nitpicking. Sorry, Phil. :-)

  25. Sounds like you had a fantastic time Phil! Welcome home.

  26. james

    Was about to take you to task for saying the london FP was the original, but I prudently wikipediaed first.
    FP International(previously FP Scotland) is a different company from FP in london, although they were all started by the same people.

    Petty I know, but the global brand is a scottish concern.

  27. JB of Brisbane

    Of course I knew there was a huge fountain in Geneva. It used to be featured prominently in the intro to the UK TV series The Champions… or was that never shown in the USA?

  28. tacitus

    We’d better check. Your universe has the Libertarian candidate for President running unopposed for his fifth term, right?

    Nah. Even in a many-worlds-theory multiverse, such things cannot happen.

  29. That must have been wonderful, seeing the LHC up close and impersonal like that. I can’t wait to read what you write when its first useful results are announced…

    Very pleased to hear that you enjoyed our British hospitality. I was in Geneva over a decade ago and that fountain was magnificent at night – I’ll never forget it. Very cool city.

  30. Edw

    Panini is italian.
    Sorry for british cuisine 😀

    I’ve been an intern at CERN for 6 months. I’ll always remember the LHC as one of the greatest accomplishment of humanity.

    Until the space elevator.

  31. Kimpatsu

    Phil, the fountain in Geneva was used as a backdrop for the opening titles of the Champions, a sci-fi action show from the late 1960s. You would like it, I think.
    BTW, the reason for the name “Soho” in London is different from the reason in New York; in NYC, it’s SOuth of HOuston square, whereas in London, it comes from “Slow-Ho”, which is the opposite of “Tally-Ho”, and was used to slow down horse-drawn carriages so their occupants could enjoy the many vices on offer in the area.
    Just thought you’d like to know…

  32. Robert Clarkson

    Hi Phil,
    It sounds that you might be happier living in the UK or Europe. Glad you enjoyed the new experience anyway. Robert

  33. csrster

    That’s the thing about the interweb. You may be a very minor celebrity, but you’re a _global_ minor celebrity. Come to Denmark next time.

  34. Sue Mitchell

    I remember the original Forbidden Planet, in Denmark Street I believe it was. It was amazing, and it’s no exaggeration to say that you had to wait for someone to leave before you could go in, because it was totally packed out.

    They also had the first AD&D Players Guides and DM Guides in the country, and husband happened to be in London on both days that they arrived. 😀

  35. barber_of_civility

    Phil –
    I’m glad you had such a great time on the other side of the pond.

    Thanks for sharing it with us!

  36. capaccino?
    cappuccino! 😉

    oh, btw, you’re my new most envied man on earth after visiting CERN!
    (sooner or later i’ll be able to figure out how to take a tour of the gran sasso laboratory here in italy)


  37. The BA is that rare person, that in person looks exactly what you’d expect from his blog and website.

    It’s always nice to find out there is still somebody out there that is “the real deal”

  38. Acleron

    Thank you for your Moon Hoax presentation in the London Pub. Science, humour and I thought stamina, considering how much you did in a few days. A great evening.

  39. Oz Engineer

    Another nit picker… Your reference to “a literal quantum leap in learning and understanding” is not correct on two levels. Firstly, a quantum leap is the smallest possible action, not something large, as presumably you mean to infer. Secondly, a leap, whether quantum-sized or otherwise, may be a concept and hence virtual, but cannot be literal.

    Keepup the good work, but please be aware of unscientific cliches.


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