Colliders, Sundials and Wonder: When Science Is Your Destination

After the tour finished, I took an elevator to the visitor’s gallery and observation deck at PK: on? the top floor of Wilson Hall. In the fast-disappearing light of a winter afternoon, I could see the circular berm that traces the route of the buried Tevatron. A nearby exhibit proclaims, “A beam of particles is a very useful tool” and goes on to list all the applications derived from this research. For example, we can “shrink a tumor, make a better radial tire, detect an art forgery, prospect for oil, and package a Thanksgiving turkey.” Similarly, CERN publicizes the fact that one of their researchers invented the World Wide Web in 1989. But to me these applications aren’t nearly as impressive as the basic research itself and the excitement of trying to answer the most fundamental question out there: Why is there something rather than nothing?

It was dusk when I left Fermilab, and the last rays of sun turned the prairie red-orange. As I drove toward the exit, an enormous coyote stared at me from a copse of broken stalks and cattails, its eyes immediately searching mine to determine whether it should run or stand its ground. Before visiting CERN and Fermilab, I probably would have just enjoyed that wildlife sighting and moved on to something else. This time, though, I went home and immersed myself in facts about coyotes.

During my week in Geneva and suburban Illinois, I visited an exuberant foreign country called science. It reminded me of so many reasons to travel — for sheer pleasure, to gain new perspectives and knowledge, or to feel more connected to someone you love. (I threw that last one in because my sister is a scientist.) However, I didn’t expect to be so inspired. Particle colliders and 300-year-old lab equipment revealed the better angels of our humanity.

An object from Geneva’s Museum of the History of Science lingered in my mind for weeks afterward. It was a slender tower made of copper, zinc, felt, glass and wood and it gleamed with the promise of a new era. This was the world’s first battery, built by the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta in the year 1800. Like everything else in the museum, its invention was a necessary building block to arrive at the wonders contained in Fermilab, CERN and our everyday devices. The battery “domesticized electricity,” said the note accompanying Volta’s invention. I liked the image of this: a fierce lightning bolt tamed, patted on the head, and placed into a container for future use.

Since then, I have imagined contemporaries of Volta, and the physicist himself, gazing at that first battery and reveling in the joy that comes from discovering new things, simply because it’s in our innermost nature to do so. It’s why I loved being a science tourist, visiting these places at the forefront of human knowledge. It was a rejuvenating tonic, one that left me excited about the future. I felt Volta’s joy too.

This is the first of a two-part series on science tourism.