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Europe - LHC and Geneva

Was really excited the first day I got to CERN. I definitely feel like LHC was the most impressive thing I saw on the trip. But as it turned out, I didn't actually get to go all the way down in the pit and see the ATLAS detector directly. I was visiting two friends who were working there, and one of them had set up an "ATLAS tour" for me days before, and he had specifically asked them "will he get to go down in the pit?" and they assured him that yes, I would. But when it came time for the actually tour, we didn't go down there. I asked the tour guide why afterwards, and he said "oh, it's very difficult to do that nowadays, you have to book it at least 6 months in advance." So I guess there was some miscommunication. That was on the second day, and was a bit disappointing after all the buildup. But just seeing all the buildings and other stuff and getting to look down at the top of the ATLAS detector from the shaft above was still pretty awesome.

I went to a Standard Model meeting in building 40 on the first day. Like most experimental physics, it was very boring, but kind of neat to see all the LHC people hard at work discussing the intricacies of how to share the right data from different triggers with the right groups. Also got to see the ATLAS control room, and a 3D video of the detector and other stuff. Ate lunch and dinner in the cafeteria in Restaurant 1 a couple times, and hung out in the general vicinity for much of two days.

I took lots of pictures of both the inside and outside of building 40, because it looks to me like it was designed to look like a starship, like something out of Startrek or B5. They even have video monitors embedded into the walls periodically as you walk down the curved hallways... the video monitors appeared to show the status of the beam or the detectors or something, although I imagine it will be far more useful once the whole thing gets up and running for real. I am still uploading my Europe pictures to Flickr, but when I do I will hopefully post them here. I put about a quarter of them on Facebook already, but I didn't have any from the end of the trip yet when I did that.

There are 3 official languages in Switzerland, French German and Italian. They speak mostly French in Geneva, but the scientists at CERN speak English. I got used to hearing English there, and then was surprised when I turned to ask one of the service staff something and he only spoke French... forgetting for a moment where I was. At lunch and dinner, you hear all kinds of different languages ranging from Arabic to Mandarin, although still mostly English. I know it's cliche to say, but it is so amazing how many different countries are represented at CERN, there is a true feeling of a "global community" there.

Sent a bunch of postcards out from CERN but so far nobody seems to have gotten them so I'm not sure what happened.

Geneva itself has very few actual tourist attractions. Really the only one is the Jet d'Eau, a really tall jet of water that shoots up into the sky (see pictures later). I meant to stop by the UN building, but forgot until after I had returned to the US. What Geneva *does* have is a lot of watch stores, and a lot of stores that sell fancy pens (like Mont Blanc) and swiss army knives. One thing I noticed that seemed a bit different than elsewhere was that nearly all of the men hanging out on the street corners, even young men, tended to be dressed in nice black suits. I felt very underdressed when I walked around Geneva.

I was impressed at how open the borders were between Switzerland and France, I walked across it twice before I eventually realized where the border guard station was... just never noticed it the first couple times. Also road a normal city bus across the border and never did figure out where the border was or when we had crossed. Nobody ever asked for an id or a passport anywhere, although once they did make eye contact. We even crossed the border one time by entering CERN on the Swiss side and exiting on the French side... that way you bypass border guard stations entirely. I can't imagine the US doing anything so lax as that for its borders. Although I think part of the reason is that Switzerland apparently has a very libertarian government... very little welfare and a flat tax (* see below for caveats). Without the welfare we have, there is no reason to keep the border closed. They also have an entirely different attitude towards lawsuits and public safety than we do... basically, if you put yourself at risk, it's your fault. No suing the person who owned the property you tresspassed on like we do here. I found this one out after we took a shortcut right through a construction zone and within a foot or two of an operating backhoe. Instead of asking us to leave, we just got a nod and the guy made sure not to hit us with the backhoe. I had thought Europe was more towards socialism than the US, but Switzerland seems to be in the opposite direction on most accounts. Maybe due to a lot of their voting populace being rich bankers? I'm surprised I haven't heard more Libertarians in the US saying "I'm tired of this, I'm moving to Switzerland". Although probably my impression of their government was only superficial and there are other differences to be considered.

* UPDATE ON SWISS TAX STRUTURE (with caveats!): After writing this I realized that I had not actually gone and researched it, just relied on offhand comments my friends who are living and working there made. So I just spent a while tracking down what the actual tax structure is in Switzerland. It's pretty complicated because there are taxes levied at federal, canton (state), and local levels for different kinds of things. There is a flat national sales tax, and a flat federal "anticipatory tax" on certain types of income (interest and dividends mainly). There are no federal taxes on regular wages, this is left up to the Cantons. So if you live in some Cantons you will have a hefty progressive income tax to pay, while in others it is completely flat. Overall, their taxes collected as a percentage of the GDP is on par with the US, but certain regions of Switzerland are considered "tax havens" that attract wealthy businessmen and corporations Sources: (http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/archive.html?siteSect=883&sid=8539252&ty=st, http://www.taxarticles.info/2009/06/the-tax-system-of-switzerland, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxation_in_Switzerland)



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 23rd, 2009 08:31 am (UTC)
I'm envious of your trip to CERN. I need to go back for a visit sometime soon!

Yes, Switzerland is pretty conservative. People mix it up with the other famously neutral Sw____ country in Europe that is postively the model of socialism. You might also enjoy reading La Place de la Concorde Suisse by John McPhee, about the swiss army (every adult male is on reserve and you'll notice drill instructions on the bus stops!).

I haven't heard more Libertarians in the US saying "I'm tired of this, I'm moving to Switzerland".

I don't know what it takes to live and work in Switzerland, but it's almost impossible to become a citizen (unless born to swiss parents).
Jul. 23rd, 2009 07:20 pm (UTC)
Ah, yes making it very hard to become a citizen also makes open borders matter less.

Do you know if they at least grant citizenship automatically if you're born there (but first generation)?
Jul. 23rd, 2009 07:47 pm (UTC)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_nationality_law says:

"Jus soli does not exist in Switzerland, hence birth in Switzerland in itself does not confer Swiss citizenship on the child."

I think that granting citizenship based on place of birth is actually quite rare; the U.S. is the exception rather than the rule. (Presumably related to the way in which our country was formed.)

Also interesting: apparently the Swiss recognize citizenship not only in the swiss federation, but also by canton and community, i.e. a swiss person would be a citizen of the town where his ancestors came from(?).
Jul. 23rd, 2009 03:45 pm (UTC)
huh. I didn't know that Switzerland had a flat tax and little welfare. Interesting.
Jul. 23rd, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC)
actually, your comment here reminded me that I never verified this by finding official documentation online, I was relying on what my friends who are living and working there told me.

I just looked into it and it looks like it depends on which region of Switzerland you live in whether the income tax is flat or progressive. I am going to add a followup comment to that amending my original statement.

Actually, what it looks like is that their federal tax is indeed flat, although it's only on interest and dividends. Taxes on regular working wages are levied by the individual Cantons (like our state taxes) and most were historically progressive but some have now gone to a flat tax.
Jul. 28th, 2009 10:04 am (UTC)
It varies by canton, but generally in Switzerland there is a pretty powerful welfare system. The unemployment benefit is amazing: I know people getting $70k a year from the system as it's based on what you earned before becoming unemployed. Drunks get extra money to help pay for this habit, to give another example. There is also pretty significant and generous government involvement in funding research compared to most countries. For example, the Swiss paid for my PhD, then for my first post doc, and now for two years studying in London doing another post doc... and I'm not even Swiss! Switzerland has a powerful government that is run in a fairly decentralised and, in my opinion, fairly intelligent way.
Jul. 28th, 2009 05:08 pm (UTC)
Yeah, despite what my friends said once I looked into it I realized it's not so much that these programs aren't there in Switzerland it's just that they are run more by the Cantons than the federal government. Although I still got the impression that there were some cantons more designed for and controlled by wealthy businessmen who end up implementing more libertarian policies.

Thanks for the additional information, it does sound like it's done in a really nice way... so that there can be more simultaneous experiments running at once and you can directly compare the results.
Jul. 23rd, 2009 07:13 pm (UTC)
I got your postcard and loved it. Thank you for thinking of me. **warm smile**
Jul. 23rd, 2009 07:17 pm (UTC)
Oh, cool! Good to know, for some reason I hadn't received any feedback from anyone except one person who said they didn't get it yet a few days ago.
Jul. 24th, 2009 04:10 am (UTC)
For having open borders, it also helps that all of your borders are with the EU, which has pretty strict border control on all of its other sides. (Well, there's also Liechtenstein, but we can basically ignore that.) Just compare the Canadian border of the US with the Mexican border, and imagine if Canada were more densely populated and therefore harder to sneak into.

Also, I don't think Switzerland has really ever been the target of any international threats in a few hundred years (though it probably helped that they didn't obstruct the Nazis too much).
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )


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