Greek students to carry out experiment at CERN after sharing first place in international competition

By Ioanna Fotiadi

Odysseus' Comrades, a team of students from Varvakios Pilot School in Athens, have been invited to travel to CERN in Switzerland to carry out their own experiments after winning first place in the Swiss-based research organization's “beam line for schools competition,” together with a rival team from Dominicus College in the Dutch city of Nijmegen.

“We weren't stressed because we didn't think we stood a chance of beating students from countries with a strong tradition in the field, such as the United States, China or Germany,” 17-year-old Nikolas Plaskovitis told Kathimerini in reference to the competition organized on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of CERN, as the European Organization for Nuclear Research is commonly known.

As many as 292 proposals were submitted, of which 10 came from Greek schools, thus placing Greece among the top 10 contenders among countries with far bigger populations, such as Germany and India.

“Greek schools are particularly keen. There is a record number of online connections between [Greek] schools and CERN scientists, [Greek] student visits rose by 60 percent between 2012 and 2014, while some 100 Greek teachers take part in training seminars every year,” said Dr Angelos Alexopoulos, a member of the center's Education and Public Outreach Group.

Students Christos Koutsoulas, Christos Liapis, Giorgos Bandis, Constantinos Xypolia, Constantinos Papathanassiou, Nikolas Plaskovitis, Artemi Potamianou, Athanassia Syrrakou, Savina Tsichli, Antonia Sotiropoulou and Elli Chroni, together with their physics teacher, Dr Andreas Valadakis, are getting ready for the big moment when the team will have the opportunity to run their experiment at the CERN facilities between September 10 and 17. The proposal of Odysseus' Comrades is to look at the decay of charged pions (particles containing a quark and an antiquark) to investigate the weak force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature.

“It was a huge challenge because we were looking for an original experiment with some chance of success that could be carried out by senior high school students,” said Dr Konstantinos Theofilatos, postdoctoral research associate in CMS, ETH Zurich, who helped the Greek students along the way.

Success for the Greek team did not come by chance. It took a lot of hard work and close collaboration. In the summer of 2012, Dr Valadakis visited CERN to take part in a training seminar. “The following year, I began a physics group at Varvakios,” he said. To his surprise, the project not only attracted excellent students; “the members of the group are kids with an innate sense of curiosity who were attracted to physics-related subjects, but not necessarily stuff included in the curriculum.”

The team met twice a week. “Students tend to get excited about the interpretation of everyday phenomena such as thunderbolts and other cosmological issues which answer man's age-old questions like the creation of the cosmos.”

It appears the teenage students, who took part in the project last year, will never forget their first visit to CERN. “The moment we entered the accelerator complex was like being in a movie,” Papathanassiou said. Along with Plaskovitis, Papathanassiou attended the physics group sessions for a second year despite their growing workload ahead of the national university entrance examination, after which both hope to be admitted to the National Technical University of Athens.

The victory of the Athens-based team conveys a message of hope. “The students learned first-hand that there is no such thing as maximum effort,” said Dr Theofilatos, adding that Greek students can do just as well as their foreign counterparts.