After breakfast, we rode in a fancy coach bus to the top university in Switzerland, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), which is located on the north side of Lake Geneva. Professor Maya Frühauf greeted us and introduced us to EPFL’s curriculum.
The university’s campus is known for its cool architecture and interesting engineering projects. The architects who designed one of the buildings here won the Pritzker Architecture Prize (which is like the Noble Prize for architecture). The campus has a very clean and artistic atmosphere; even the chemistry labs are organized and colorful. The founder of Logitech studied here; so did the builders of the world’s fastest sailboat, which traveled at 51 knots.
A graduate student explained to us the sophisticated audio/visual system he helped construct for a prominent jazz festival in nearby Montreux. He played us a video from the concert with his specially designed surround sound system. It was sensational! Jazz isn’t usually my favorite music genre, but I could’ve listen to this hours; both the musicians and the sound system were amazing.
Dr. Felix Schürmann, an EPFL professor, then gave us a short presentation about the project he’s directing, the Blue Brain project. I found his talk extremely fascinating; it made me want to be a brain/cognitive science major as well as a computer science major at MIT.
The goal of the Blue Brain project is to computer-model the human brain. Of course, this has never been accomplished and is a monumental task. Researchers face many challenges not only because of our limited knowledge of brain chemistry, but also because of inefficient computer systems. For example, 1000 computers may be working together to simulate the brain. Although this is a lot of processing power, it’s very difficult to effectively utilize all of it because sometimes all but one of the computers need to wait a long time for the result obtained by one computer, representing one neuron. I’m completely fascinated with this problem, and have no doubt the new era of parallel, GPU, and/or quantum computing will someday help complete this project.
We ate lunch together in the university cafeteria with two exchange students from the University of Idaho. They’re junior undergraduates who both spoke French before arriving in September. They said it’s difficult to socialize with other students here because the natives go away on the weekends to visit family, and many hang-out in exclusive social groups. Yet, when I asked them if they were glad that they did the exchange program, they nodded enthusiastically.
One of the exchange students told us about an “insightful” metaphor she read in her French culture textbook: “Europeans are like coconuts, and Americans are like peaches.” The idea was that Europeans are hard to crack (in terms of personalities), but they’re diverse and interesting inside. Americans, on the other hand, are easy to open up, but keep secrets in an impenetrable core. I thought this was totally weird. Even Wolfgang raised his eyebrows.
We looked at the Rolex Learning Center (pictured above) before heading back to the bus. It was magnificent! The inside is mostly one level, but the floor is curved so there are hills inside. It seemed like a very calming place to study. From here we said goodbye to our host, Dr. Maya Fruhauf, and drive along a scenic mountain road to Chateau Chillon.
After lunch we visited the enchanting Chateau Chillon, a medieval castle on the water.
After touring the castle, we went shopping for chocolate in Geneva. Our original plan was to walk around the city, but rain thwarted us. Instead, we ate chocolate and dined in a fine restaurant! Since Wolfgang wasn’t with us this afternoon because he had to rehearse his saxophone solo with CERN’s jazz band, another CERN scientist, Kristina Gunne, led us to the best local shops and took us for dinner. We had a delicious meal and a great time!