The show goes on

11 September 2008 · 0 comments

in General Commentary

My son MJ was considerably hacked off yesterday. He felt cheated that on the last day of the world’s existence children were expected to attend school.

As with the excitement of the Millennium dawning and the possibility of our society crumbling as the computer registered zero, the reality seemed … well … normal. Just another day.

Now the environmental hardcore have been muttering about the waste of money being poured into subatomic particle research when there are more urgent and pressing concerns such as global warming and climate change. They have a fair point, I do concede. I am naturally suspicious of any nuclear research owing to my pacifist Quaker upbringing and oodles of books I read about risks of low and high level radiation as a teenager.

As part of my Churchill Fellowship, I visited Fermilab, which undertakes a lot of shared projects with Cerne, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. I was interested in visiting the Lederman Science Education Centre, which is part of Fermilab. Their teacher training programmes are great and as the theme of my Fellowship is Outdoor Technologies the place appeared a natural fit. 15,000 students from local schools visit to learn about science and nature. 900 teachers participate in training provided by Fermilab staff. Most of the school visits focus on environmental programmes.

The Fermilab site is quite remarkable in terms of its prairie restoration work. There are more than 6000 acres of wetlands, woodlands, grasslands and tall-grass prairie as well as a herd of American bison. Being a science facility, the environmental changes have been closely monitored over many years and provide data on the growing diversity of flora and fauna becoming established. Science researchers mingle with environmental educators and grounds staff over lunch. The shared facilities and ethos of support and sharing enable all staff to learn and work together. Strangely the only organisation I’ve come across in the UK with a similar approach is the Wetlands Trust headquarters at Slimbridge. The common factor appears to be far-sighted founders who valued the natural environment and understood aesthetics and creativity in all its forms.

Arguably particle physics is a financial black hole…but Cerne brought us the technology that created the World Wide Web. Fermilab pioneered MRI machines through the Tetravon particle accelerator research. There are real-life applications to the disappearing-white-dot-on-the-screen visions which make the physicists “ooh and ah” whilst the rest of us blink and wonder.

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