Bosons, bicycles and big data: 7 things we learned from TEDxCERN

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There’s a place in Switzerland where scientists travel on bicycles through tunnels filled with atom-smashing tubes, where the first webpage was born, and where a giant wooden globe watches over researchers replicating the very beginnings of our universe. That place is CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and last Friday, it held its first TEDx event: TEDxCERN.

At the event, 23 speakers and performers — including a Nobel laureate, an Ig Nobel Prize founder, a Google Science Fair winner, and an opera singer — gathered together in CERN’s Globe of Science and Innovation to talk about the Higgs boson, science education, classifying galaxies, and — naturally — an analysis of the forces required to drag sheep.

So what did we at TED HQ learn at TEDxCERN? A lot. But to make things easy, here are seven takeaways from TEDxCERN:

1. In 2010, when prompted to draw a “scientist,” only 33% of schoolchildren asked drew a woman.
In 1980, the figure was 8%. At TEDxCERN, Londa Schiebinger, head of the Gendered Innovations project at Stanford University, talked about some of the issues women in the sciences face today, and the importance of recognizing gender bias in science and technology.

2. Animated elephants and double scoops of ice cream make pondering particle physics a lot more palatable.
Thanks to a collaboration between the whip-smart scientists at CERN and the talented animators at TED-Ed, four new TED-Ed lessons premiered at TEDxCERN — bringing mind-boggling concepts like antimatter, big data, the Higgs boson, and the origins of the universe to life in a way that even the most science-averse student could appreciate: with chocolate-almond ice cream, a lemon, and a giant pile of leaves.

3. Brian May from the band Queen is an astrophysicist.
Yeah, we didn’t know that either. But thanks to a talk from Zooniverse head Chris Lintott, we learned that not only is May a card-carrying astrophysicist (he earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Imperial College in 2007), he is a fan of Lintott’s Galaxy Zoo project — a herculean effort to gamify and crowdsource galaxy classification.

4. Science goes beyond geography.
People called SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) “an impossible project.” But this lab in Jordan, built around a giant synchrotron particle accelerator, has brought together Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian, Turkish, Pakistani and Iranian scientists to study a universe bigger than us all. At TEDxCERN, SESAME scientists Eliezer Rabinovici and Zehra Sayers talked about the project’s groundbreaking work.

5. Cool teachers bring their students on field trips via Google Glass.
Physics class can be boring. But not so much if your teacher is Andrew Vanden Heuvel, the TEDxCERN presenter and online physics teacher who traveled to Switzerland to give his students a live tour of the world’s largest particle collider live through his eyes, using Google Glass. At TEDxCERN, we got to see a video diary of his trip, and it is mesmerizing:


6. Herrings communicate by farting. Really.
When you’re a scientist, what you think you’re looking for isn’t always what you find, and Marc Abrahams — organizer of the Ig Nobel Prize, the annual celebration of “improbable” science — thinks this is awesome. At TEDxCERN, he spoke on improbable findings, and shared some surprising discoveries by past Ig Noble winners, including one Robert Batty, who — with his team at the Scottish Association for Marine Science — discovered that strategically released gas allows herrings to communicate at night.

7. The Higgs field is a big deal. In fact, if its value changed too much, it’s quite possible “all atomic matter would collapse.”
Theoretical physicist Gian Giudice knows a lot about the Higgs boson, the Higgs field, and researchers’ attempts to understand it better. At TEDxCERN, he pondered the question, “What might the Higgs mean for the fate of the universe?” and got us all flustered when he said that new discoveries about the famed boson might mean that someday the value of the Higgs field could change and all would be doomed. But not to worry — whatever happens, we’ve got a lot of time before it does.

For more dispatches from TEDxCERN, including some killer photos, visit their website or check out their Facebook or Instagram.

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