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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

View Blog | Read Bio

The travelling garden gnome, an instrument of science

Some of you might have heard of the Travelling Gnome prank whereby garden gnomes were ‘borrowed’ from private gardens and taken on a trip to be photographed in front of a known landmark. The owner would then receive the photo in the mail.

These actions, undertaken in the 80’s by members of various branches of the Garden Gnome Liberation Front, inspired not only filmmakers to produce “Amélie Poulain“ but also James Nester from the Kern and Sohn company in Germany, a manufacturer of high precision scales. He and co-workers Chuck Jenks and Nick Hearn launched the Gnome Experiment and are now known as the Gnome Team within their company.

This company has its headquarters near to the home of the first garden gnome factory, so they had the idea of sending a garden gnome around the world along with one of the company’s scales to show that the gravitational pull from the Earth varies with location, a fact that precision scale makers must take into account in their calibration given the non-perfect sphericity of our planet.

At first, this was just a way to bring publicity for their company but the project took on a life of its own after a scientist invited the Gnome to come to the South Pole, an event that caught the media’s attention.

“After Kern the Gnome’s visit to the South Pole, we got up to three invitations a minute on our web site for visits from all over the world,” explains Nester.  Given the physics involved in this experiment, it gave the Gnome Team the idea to send their little ambassador on a tour of famous physics landmarks.

First, Kern the Gnome (that’s his name) visited SNOLAB in Sudbury, Canada, a neutrino physics laboratory located 2 km underground, where he weighed less than on the surface because of the 2 km of rocks above him while there was less of the Earth attracting him below. By how much? A mere 0.1 g out of his 307.73 g measured at the surface in Sudbury. Of course, we are talking about kilogram-force here since nobody measures a weight in Newtons, the official weight unit while the kilogram is the unit of mass.

SNOLAB is the successor to the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) where neutrino oscillations were measured for the first time. This refers to the fact that neutrinos can morph into a different type. There are three types of neutrinos: the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino and the tau neutrino. SNO proved that electron neutrinos emitted by the sun were able to change into muon neutrinos on their way to Earth. This brought the resolution of a long-standing problem, explaining why only a third of the neutrinos produced at the surface of the Sun was detected on Earth. This also implies that neutrino have a mass.

And last week, guess where Kern the Gnome was? Indeed, right here at CERN, right after the first stable beams of 2012. A local television crew even came to CERN especially for the occasion.

Mick Storr (on the right), head of CERN Teachers programme, with Kern the Gnome in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) control room.

If you visit the Gnome Experiment website, you will find by how much Kern’s weight varies around the world. And don’t try to blame absorption of air humidity in tropical regions as a contributing factor. The gnome is made of non-porous, anti-chip, high tech resin and comes with gloves and a duster for handling to avoid dirt.

The idea is now evolving into a science education project. Schools can sign up to receive the gnome’s visit and material is being developed for teachers. If you want to invite him for a visit, just drop him an e-mail.

Kern the Gnome is now on his way to the UK where he will visit the famous orchard where Sir Isaac Newton got inspiration for his theory, or so the legend goes. Let’s hope he won’t reveal himself as some rotten apple!

Pauline Gagnon

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