Monday, April 21, 2014

Sheep watching in Switzerland

We had a fascinating lesson in sheep psychology this weekend while walking along the pristine countryside around Aubonne. (see Autumn walk in Aubonne for more on Aubonne's beauty).

Walking along an unfrequented wooded path we chanced upon a flock of sheep grazing. A sight so common that we didn't even give it a second glance.

However, the sheep had other ideas. We, or perhaps our dog caught the eye of one sheep.

Of course, what one does the rest must do as well. One after another each of them turned their gaze towards us.

Soon all of them had their eyes fixed on us in concentrated unison.

They stood frozen in that position for several minutes and then the same sheep who first began to look at us, decided he wanted a closer look. Sure enough, every one of the others followed.

They stood a few feet in front of us just staring with almost identically quizzical expressions on their faces. I stared back.  We did this for all of three minutes.
Sheep watching us. 
Then startled probably by a bark from the dog, one turned around, and of course so did the others. They scampered off.

But no sooner did they retreat a safe distance, once again one sheep (the same one, I am quite convinced!) stopped. Turned to look back at us. As if on cue, each one of the others became motionless, turned their heads and trained their gaze towards us in perfect unison.

And there they remained, motionless and focused as they watched us walking off into the distance.

Now I know what sheep mentality means.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Protons, Bosons and other exotic particles ............a visit to the ATLAS Experiment at CERN

Some 100 meters deep in the bowels of the earth below where I stand, millions and millions of protons go around and round in a large 27 km circle that stretches from the Jura in France to Lake Geneva in Switzerland. 

They move faster and faster till they are almost at the speed of light in a tube that is colder than outer space (with temperatures that are close to absolute zero). At four points along the circle, superconducting magnets (like the one in the picture) make the protons deviate ever so slightly from their course so that they are likely to have a head on collision with protons that are are going around in a circle from the opposite direction. The smash or 'event' results in a burst of energy and millions and millions of other particles being formed rather like a glass going up in smithereens after a high speed car crash. 
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The data produced is massive having 500 billion phone calls in a second. Hundreds of computers and high speed cameras (that click 4 million frames a minute) capture the data, filtering out all but the most relevant bits. And even then the data generated is massive: as much as 27 CDs every minute. Computers on site share the data with other offsite computers via the web ..........CERN is also the place where 25 years ago this month, the world wide web was invented for just this reason ..more efficient sharing of information.  

Mural on the external wall at depecits the ATLAS detector and the real thing up close (its twice the size of the building)
Not sci fi but absolute reality and just another day at the ATLAS detector at CERN when its functioning. It is on a well-earned break at the moment after the mind baffling co discovery of the Higgs Bosson particle. That and the kindness of a physicist friend who works there is what afforded the opportunity to go underground for a peep at this man (and women ..there are plenty of women physicists behind this experiment, so forget any stereotypes) made wonder

The detector surrounding the blue collider tube.

As we go to the first underground level feeling very important to have donned red hard hats and walk through narrow cable filled corridors we come to a viewing platform where we come head on with the detector straddling the blue Hadron Collider tube. 

An occasional scientist is doing some maintenance work on the magnets and those human figures are completely dwarfed by this machinery which is 5 stories high and weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower. And yet as our physicst guide assures us, they know the insides of the cables and magnets of this gigantic contraption to the precision of a human hair ! 

By now my mind is spinning as fast as the protons in the Hadron Collider at witnessing the vastness of the forces of the universe re created under the city of Geneva ......

The CERN dome
Maybe as an outside voyeur peeping momentarily into this world, I could be guilty of romanticizing but to me this seems to be one place where collaboration takes precedence over collision (of the human variety) and where petty politics is trumped by particle physics. Over 3000 scientists, 138 institutes and 38 countries collaborate on this experiment, CERN sits across and under two countries belonging to both and neither ……… where countries, people , theoretical and experimental physicists, the geeks and the layman come together and where cosmic mysteries makes all else seem petty and irrelevant. What the human brain can create under these circumstances is as miraculous and as elusive at the Higgs Boson. Seems both have been found at CERN.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Fireworks on Lake Geneva ........The traditional close to the Fetes de Genève

Geneva has a population of less than half million (472,530 to be precise); all of those people and more seem to have gathered around Lake Geneva, Saturday night to watch the grand feu d'artifice that marks the end of the summer Fete. Traditional since 1947 and arguably the largest display in Europe.
The grand finale with the fountain in the centre

You can buy a 70 franc ticket to be seated on wooden benches that supposedly guarantee a view, spend 200 francs for dinner at an upmarket lakefront hotel, find yourself a friend who owns a boat on the lake or do what most of the plebeian half a million do : try to capture a vantage point for free. Last year, we were naive enough to think we could go there by car, reach there with Swiss precision 4 mins before the display starts and see the show. We were reduced to watching it from the eighth floor of my workplace some 2 km away with the local FM station playing the soundtrack. (And we were by no means the only ones there).

This year, we were wiser. We took the train, along with crowds that makes the Monday morning rush hour pale. Even two hours before the display was due to begin the lakeside was teeming with people, many of whom had camped there for hours along with food, music, wine and books to help pass the time as they stayed glued to the vantage points they had been lucky enough to capture.

With an immense dose of good luck and some creative wriggling into small spaces we found ourselves close to the waterfront and with an unobstructed front view of the barges that spew the fireworks. At 10 p.m. to the nanosecond, preceded by a welcome message in nine different languages (including Hindi) and all the streetlights around the lake area went off.

In that enchanted darkness, began a spellbinding 55 minutes of pyrotechnics dancing in harmony to Portuguese melodies (Portugal was the theme of this years' show) ..sometimes slow and languorous and sometimes heating up into a impassioned frenzy that converted the water and the sky into a raging riot of color.

the barge the caught fire mid performance
Almost as remarkable as the music was the efficient organization: the special extra trains to bring people back and forth, the arrangements made for lost children and sick people, the safety precautions ............a barge that caught fire halfway through the show was dealt with in minutes and with a minimum of fuss or disruption ..............and the orderliness of the mass of humanity.

Undoubtedly expensive (the cost born by the Tourism department and local business); but in a country known for its understated way of life; where extravagance lies in its natural beauty, this once a year burst of artificial extravaganza is a pleasant anomaly.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Fleeting beauty ........the Tulip festival at Morges

The Istanbul tulips by the lake
Spring is finally blooming on the shores of Lake Geneva in the town of Morges where tulip mania is at its peak in the form of the most well-known tulip festival in Switzerland.

Growing up in India, I never saw a tulip but every year at school assembly we duly performed a song and dance routine called ‘Holland is the land of tulips’. Exotic, romantically red and very Dutch. My fascination for the tulip grew after reading The Black Tulip by Dumas though I didn't believe for a moment that such a black flower could exist outside of the fictional gardens of Harrlem. 

Now eons later, the clichés unravel. Here by the lakeside in Morges, I see the ‘Cafe Noir’ though it’s more a deep inky purple than black. I see white, brown, 50 shades of pink, lilac and yellow. 300 different varieties to be precise. Serrated, bulbous, lily shaped, tall ones and short ones. With names as exotic as the flowers. From ABBA to Prince; from African Queen to Arabian Mystery; from Lucky Strike to Sensual Touch and from Black Coffee to Brown Sugar with Ice Cream thrown in for good measure ..............

Not quite in carpets and carpets of colorful riot as they would be in Amsterdam. After all, this is Switzerland! The flowers (all 150,000 of them) are planted in neat and aesthetically manicured and patterned beds, all carefully mapped and labeled, everything growing in typical Swiss picture postcard perfection.

Iconic of Holland, the flowers are not really Dutch. They are native to Central Asia and were imported to the Netherlands and the rest of Europe from Turkey (the world tulip is derived from the Turkish word for turban) in the 17th century. It appears that they became so popular that there was even a tulip bubble with people willing to exchange acres of land, pay more than a year’s wages or barter thousands of pounds of cheese to get hold of one bulb ..

And as for my India connection …………aha, seems like the tulip did grow wild in Kashmir too, long before the Dutch knew of it. And of recent years it is now being cultivated there commercially. Srinagar now boasts the largest tulip garden in Asia with over a million tulips sprawling besides the Dal lake. 

The beauty is so ephemeral. Within a space of a few weeks we were able to witness tulips transition from being in their bulbs, to full bloom to a withered not so pretty sight.

 Fleeting beauty, the desire that tantalizes and disappears before you can quite capture and possess it ……..maybe that's what their mystical magic is all about.  

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Remembering Chaplin

Walking by the shores of Lac Léman at Vevey, I can’t help but notice a diminutive bronze statue that stands on its banks ………..of a tramp like figure in too small a bowler hat, baggy pants, bow legs, ill-fitting boots, a crooked cane in one hand and clutching a rose in the other; an endearingly quizzical look on his mustached face …………yes its Charlie Chaplin born this month (April 16th) 124 years ago.

Vevey or rather Corsier-sur-Vevey (this 3,000 people hamlet is technically a municipality in its own right) is where Charlie Chaplin spent the last 25 years of his life in exile from America where he was denied a re-entry permit following the negative reactions to his movie Limelight. He died and is buried in this town least I think he is. His tombstone is here in the local cemetery but there is a story that his body was stolen soon after it was buried there and his widowed wife was hounded for a hefty ransom. Apparently the thieves were caught and the body reburied. Sounds like Chaplin was directing events from the other world as well ……….

While the Swiss Riviera is no stranger to celebrity residents (think Audrey Hepburn, Freddy Mercury), Vevey does take its love for the Little Tramp seriously. The statue on the promenade, entire buildings that have Charlie Chaplin frescoes on their walls and a local artisan chocolatier who handcrafts chocolates made in the likeness of Charlie Chaplin’s shoes.  The Manoir de Ban where he lived is being transformed into ‘The Modern Times’ museum dedicated to his life and works, it will open in 2015.  

Nothing that Vevey does though can quite match the reverence paid to Chaplin in the far away little town of Adipur in Gujarat, India. This little town close to the border with Pakistan, probably unheard of Chaplin in his lifetime, is home to a Chaplin fan club called Charlie’s Circle with over 300 members. Every year for the last 40 years without fail, on April 16th dozens of boys and men dress up like the little Tramp, bowler hat and all and parade through the town accompanied by camel carts and Indian folk dancers and musicians. The parade is followed by cutting a cake …shaped like Charlie’s shoes of course and a screening of his films. 

My thoughts wander back to the bronze statue by the lake and to the Chaplinesque juxtaposition. Just some 100 meters away in the shallow waters of the lake is a large stainless steel fork all of 8 meters tall. How this piece of modern art came to be in the lake is another story and unrelated to Chaplin but I can just imagine the hint of a smile forming on the Tramps face at this incongruity and I can just picture him taking up this giant fork and turning it into a dance à la the unforgettable fork legs and bread shoes dance in ‘The Gold Rush’

As perhaps he himself would say ‘ Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot’.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Waste not, if you are Swiss

To paraphrase the old Police song:
Every bottle you throw,
Every bag you trash,
I’ll be watching you …………

And yes indeed they are watching, and when you least expect it, nemesis will catch up with you. Nemesis being the trash collectors who also serve as trash police (I have no idea what their official title is).   

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Chocolate heaven

It's only a 30 minute walk to heaven. 

Well a steep, uphill 30 minutes but who said the road to heaven is easy?

The heaven in question is the village next door. Bougy Villars has a population of 450, a narrow little center street not quite the 'Grand Rue' it is called. It is a hamlet that is barely on the map. It does  however have a stunning view of Lake Geneva. And it has this ...........

The shop at Christmas time
Depending on who you ask or what you read, the Tristan chocolate shop has been variously dubbed the best artisan chocolate in the region, in all of Switzerland and even in the whole world. Whatever superlative you want to use, there is no question that the Truffles, Plaques and endless other variations (chocolate with pepper for e.g. or green tea chocolate), all home made by Tristan and his family, often with help from other villagers are completely exquisite and exotic. And expensive. Though that hardly stops the locals or the expats from driving long distances to wait patiently in queue outside his tiny shop.

chocolates in Tristan's shop
Whether its special chocolate like Tristan or the store brought mass produced varieties, the Swiss do eat a lot of chocolate. As in a kilo a month or 11.9 kilos per person per year. That's a 120 bars of chocolate each year. That makes them the world's largest chocolate consumers (Yes, someone collects such statistics).

Well all the chocolate does not seem to make the Swiss fat but apparently it makes them a lot smarter. In a recent rather unusual article in the New England Journal of Medicine, the author, Franz Messerli, saw a close correlation between a country's per capita chocolate consumption and the number of Nobel prizes per 10 million people. (I cant link to the article as its not open access but if you are interested you can find it in NEJM 367; 16; Oct 18 2012 issue).

The Swiss have the most Nobel prizes relative to population size and also eat the most chocolate. Simple as that. There is even a biochemical explanation it would seem to explain the possible link: the flavinoids in chocolate (in dark chocolate in particular) improve the mental faculties. The author goes on to estimate that for every 400 gram increase in the per capita chocolate consumption in a country, there will likely be one more Nobel laureate in that country!

Hmm, that's something I can resolve to do for my country this new up its chocolate eating statistics (though I wonder ........would my chocolate eating boost India's Nobel Prize chances or Switzerland's?) . I do hope the Nobel committee is keeping its eye on this blog site ........

Tristan, here I come. Can heaven get better than this?