Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Biking across Luxembourg with a mass spectrometer

I'm in Luxembourg this month working on a top secret mass spectrometer.
We are trying to shrink this hot mess of vacuum chambers so it fits in a suitcase that you could take with you on a walk through the woods (or a bike ride across Luxembourg).We want to be able to plop the thing down next to a stream to measure how water isotopes change when it rains or gets dry. Water isotopes are rad because they can tell you where the water comes from and how long it has been in the catchment.

The most adorable mass spec shrinkers ever: Nuria, Veneranda, and Hung

Yesterday was my first day off and I decided to see how many countries I could bike through. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is just under 1,000 square miles (think Rhode Island minus a couple Walmart parking lots) and is conveniently situated at the corner of Germany, France, and Belgium. I left after 11 and headed west towards Belgium.

I wasn't sure if this was a dove of peace or the proverbial "bird" at the Belgian border

The region used to be a major steel producer and the the border cities still bear the scars of strip mines, though they are now mostly replaced by strip malls. 

The Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology as seen from space. It is surrounded by piles of contaminated soil from the mining days (not to mention the abandoned smelters in the middle of the parking lot).

The countryside from Belgium to Luxembourg city was fabulous. Hardly any cars, great roads and lots of pastures, vineyards, and forest.

I didn't spend much time in Luxembourg city but I stopped at the American and German cemeteries just outside of town. Hillsides full of young soldiers.

The bike routing option on Google Maps includes less-traveled paths so I ended up on quite a few dirt roads, one of which took me through the middle of a 30 person hunting party (they didn't look happy and I didn't stop to take pictures).

Most of the time you could see at least two countries and here, coming up on the Moselle River you can make out the windmills on the German side, the nuclear plant on the French side, and Luxembourgish vines in the foreground. They call this area Le Pays des Trois Frontières.

I stopped to take a picture of the Germany sign (which they totally misspelled by the way) and noticed that my GPS was just turning over to 100.0 kilometers. Fun!

A little feast from the German supermarket to celebrate country number 4. I got a second coke for a homeless guy sitting on the bikerack but he took off before I got out of the store so I had to drink them both.

I broke a spoke on my rear wheel just outside of Fixem. Last year I bought a pair of cheap Chinese carbon wheels and they have been great except for funky spoke lacing on the rear wheel (radial lacing on the non-drive side that has resulted in three broken spokes). If only I had brought the mass spec I could have just fabricated a new wheel (or is that what a 3D printer does?), but instead I trued the wheel as well as I could and hobbled home with a wobble.

The unsung hero of this story is my wife Rachel who is keeping our the three small children alive back in France. Caspian finally learned how to walk and Ingrid and Henry are the cutest little siblings you ever did see. Here is a drawing that Ingrid did. I think you can make out the funky lacing on my rear wheel in the upper left drawing of a drawing.


  1. do 3 + 3 equal 6 in france too? globalization at work.
    Ben, this is a great post. Wish I could have ridden with you.

    1. Wish you were here too Dad. Do you road bike? Bisous.