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04 August 2017

5 Destinations for Scientific Tourists

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Holidays are a good time to discover places where first class science is done. You can enter into the Large Hadron Collider with which the existence of the Higgs boson was demonstrated or, for the more adventurous, you can scrutinize the cosmos from the Atacama Desert.

If you would rather follow in the footsteps of legendary Nobel Prize winners, do not miss The Eagle pub, where Watson and Crick announced the discovery of the DNA structure, or marvel at Marie Curie’s Parisian laboratory. For nature lovers, the Snæfellsjökull volcano (which Jules Verne described in one of his novels) is a good starting point.

The cathedral of science

On July 4, 2012, at a massive press conference at CERN (Switzerland), what was an open secret was confirmed: the new particle found in the Large Hadron Collider corresponded with the Higgs boson. The centre—which employs about 10,000 people of 100 nationalities—is open to the public and is visited by some 90,000 visitors every year.

Peter Higgs, in front of the CMS detector of the Large Hadron Collider. Credit: Maximilien Brice / CERN.

Free tours can be given for students, organized groups or individual requests. Due to the high demand, tours have to be booked weeks or months in advance. Members of CERN guide the visits, which last about three hours. Underground testing is not available at these times and in order not to interfere with the work of scientists, the centre recommends following a strict code of conduct.

Tracking the universe

Located 5,000 metres above sea level, in the heart of the Atacama Desert (Chile), the Chajnantor Plain is a dry and inhospitable place, ideal for observing the cosmos. In 2013, the European Southern Observatory unveiled ALMA, a telescope with 66 high-precision antennas with unprecedented sensitivity and resolution.

Although for security reasons you cannot visit the antennas, astronomy lovers can go to the ALMA Operations Support Site where the staff works. In a free visit and with prior booking, interested visitors will be able to see the control room, the laboratories, and the antennas under maintenance and how they are transported. The centre will arrange transport from San Pedro de Atacama. Including the transport time, the visit lasts about four hours.

Aerial view of the Chajnantor Plateau, with ALMA antennas deployed. Credit: Clem & Adri Bacri-Normier (

The secret of life

In a relaxed atmosphere, The Eagle pub, at the heart of Cambridge, UK, was the favourite watering hole for scientists at the nearby Cavendish Laboratory (Cambridge University Physics Department) to talk about their progress. On February 28, 1953, Francis Crick entered the bar and interrupted lunch with the announcement that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life”, a sentence that would change the course of science.

Plate at The Eagle pub for commemorating the historic announcement made there. Credit: Benjah-bmm27.

The British biophysicist and the American biologist had found the molecular structure of DNA, which would earn them the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962, along with Maurice Wilkins. The Eagle pub, which opened in 1667, marks the discovery with a plaque next to the entrance and another two at the table where Watson and Crick sat. As a tribute they serve an ale called “Eagle’s DNA”.

Discover how Marie Cure worked

In order for Marie Sklodowska Curie, who had already been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, to advance her research on radioactivity, the University of Paris and the Pasteur Institute decided to build the Institute of Radium in 1909 in the French capital, today called the Curie Institute. Two years later, the researcher received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, becoming the only woman, so far, who has won two awards.

The Curie Museum is located on the ground floor of the Curie Pavilion, in one of the Institute’s oldest buildings. The laboratory, which communicates with the famous scientist’s office, was decontaminated in 1981 and retains the early-century chemical instruments used by Curie in her experiments and even one of her lab coats, which was black due to her mourning the death of her husband. Admission to the museum is free.

Marie Curie’s laboratory preserves instruments used by the scientist. Credit: Museo Curie.

Searching for the centre of the Earth

In Chapter III of A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), Jules Verne wrote: “Descend into the crater of Yocul of Sneffels, which the shade of Scartaris caresses, before the kalends of July, audacious traveller, and you will reach the centre of the Earth.” That mountain is real, it is called Snæfellsjökull (which means “Snæfells glacier”) and is one of the jewels of Iceland.

The Snæfellsjökull volcano, 1500 meters high, is crowned by a glacier. Credit: Axel Kristinsson.

A glacier covers the top of the volcano, about 1,500 metres high and active today. Snæfellsjökull is within one of the country’s national parks, on the Snæfellsness peninsula and, as with all parks in Iceland, admission is free. Visitors can travel freely but without leaving the marked trails.


Laura Chaparro

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