Colliding the familiar and the anti-familiar at CERN


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The most ingenious invention to surprise me at CERN was a box of chocolates. CERN is a multinational particle-physics collaboration. Based in Geneva, CERN is famous for having “the world’s largest and most powerful accelerator,” according to its website. So a physicist will take for granted its colossal magnets, subatomic finesse, and petabytes of experimental data.&

But I wasn’t expecting the chocolates.

In the main cafeteria, beside the cash registers, stood stacks of Toblerone. Sweet-tooth owners worldwide recognize the yellow triangular prisms stamped with Toblerone’s red logo. But I’d never seen such a prism emblazoned with CERN’s name. Scientists visit CERN from across the globe, and probably many return with Swiss-chocolate souvenirs. What better way to promulgate CERN’s influence than by coupling Switzerland’s scientific might with its culinary?1

I visited CERN last November for Sparks!, an annual public-outreach event. The evening’s speakers and performers offer perspectives on a scientific topic relevant to CERN. This year’s event highlighted quantum technologies. Physicist Sofia Vallecorsa described CERN’s Quantum Technology Initiative, and IBM philosopher Mira Wolf-Bauwens discussed ethical implications of quantum technologies. (Yes, you read that correctly: “IBM philosopher.”) Dancers Wenchi Su and I-Fang Lin presented an audiovisual performance, Rachel Maze elucidated government policies, and I spoke about quantum steampunk

Around Sparks!, I played the physicist tourist: presented an academic talk, descended to an underground detector site, and shot the scientific breeze with members of the Quantum Technology Initiative. (What, don’t you present academic talks while touristing?) I’d never visited CERN before, but much of it felt eerily familiar.&

A theoretical-physics student studies particle physics and quantum field theory (the mathematical framework behind particle physics) en route to a PhD. CERN scientists accelerate particles to high speeds, smash them together, and analyze the resulting debris. The higher the particles’ initial energies, the smaller the debris’s components, and the more elementary the physics we can infer. CERN made international headlines in 2012 for observing evidence of the Higgs boson, the particle that endows other particles with masses. As a scientist noted during my visit, one can infer CERN’s impact from how even Auto World (if I recall correctly) covered the Higgs discovery. Friends of mine process data generated by CERN, and faculty I met at Caltech helped design CERN experiments. When I mentioned to a colleague that I’d be flying to Geneva, they responded, “Oh, are you visiting CERN?” All told, a physicist can avoid CERN as easily as one can avoid the Panama Canal en route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific through South America. So, although I’d never visited, CERN felt almost like a former stomping ground. It was the details that surprised me.

Familiar book, new (CERN) bookstore.

Take the underground caverns. CERN experiments take place deep underground, where too few cosmic rays reach to muck with observations much. I visited the LHCb experiment, which spotlights a particle called the “beauty quark” in Europe and the less complimentary “bottom quark” in the US. LHCb is the first experiment that I learned has its own X/Twitter account. Colloquia (weekly departmental talks at my universities) had prepared me for the 100-meter descent underground, for the hard hats we’d have to wear, and for the detector many times larger than I.

A photo of the type bandied about in particle-physics classes
A less famous hard-hat photo, showing a retired detector’s size.

But I hadn’t anticipated the bright, single-tone colors. Between the hard hats and experimental components, I felt as though I were inside the Google logo.

Or take CERN’s campus. I wandered around it for a while before a feeling of nostalgia brought me up short: I was feeling lost in precisely the same way in which I’d felt lost countless times at MIT. Numbers, rather than names, label both MIT’s and CERN’s buildings. Somebody must have chosen which number goes where by throwing darts at a map while blindfolded. Part of CERN’s hostel, building 39, neighbors buildings 222 and 577. I shouldn’t wonder to discover, someday, that the CERN building I’m searching for has wandered off to MIT.

Part of the CERN map. Can you explain it?

Between the buildings wend streets named after famous particle physicists. I nodded greetings to Einstein, Maxwell, Democritus (or Démocrite, as the French Swiss write), and Coulomb. But I hadn’t anticipated how much civil engineers venerate particle physicists. So many physicists did CERN’s designers stuff into walkways that the campus ran out of streets and had to recycle them. Route W. F. Weisskopf turns into Route R. P. Feynman at a…well, at nothing notable—not a fork or even a spoon. I applaud the enthusiasm for history; CERN just achieves feats in navigability that even MIT hasn’t.

The familiar mingled with the unfamiliar even in the crowd on campus. I was expecting to recognize only the personnel I’d coordinated with electronically. But three faces surprised me at my academic talk. I’d met those three physicists through different channels—a summer school in Malta, Harvard collaborators, and the University of Maryland—at different times over the years. But they happened to be visiting CERN at the same time as I, despite their not participating in Sparks! I’m half-reminded of the book Roughing It, which describes how Mark Twain traveled the American West via stagecoach during the 1860s. He ran into a long-lost friend “on top of the Rocky Mountains thousands of miles from home.” Exchange “on top of the Rockies” for “near the Alps” and “thousands of miles” for “even more thousands of miles.”

CERN unites physicists. We learn about its discoveries in classes, we collaborate on its research or have friends who do, we see pictures of its detectors in colloquia, and we link to its science-communication pages in blog posts. We respect CERN, and I hope we can be forgiven for fondly poking a little fun at it. So successfully has CERN spread its influence, I felt a sense of recognition upon arriving.&

I didn’t buy any CERN Toblerones. But I arrived home with 4.5 pounds of other chocolates, which I distributed to family and friends, the thermodynamics lunch group I run at the University of Maryland, and—perhaps most importantly—my research group. I’ll take a leaf out of CERN’s book: to hook students on fundamental physics, start early, and don’t stint on the sweets.

With thanks to Claudia Marcelloni, Alberto Di Meglio, Michael Doser, Antonella Del Rosso, Anastasiia Lazuka, Salome Rohr, Lydia Piper, and Paulina Birtwistle for inviting me to, and hosting me at, CERN.

1After returning home, I learned that an external company runs CERN’s cafeterias and that the company orders and sells the Toblerones. Still, the idea is brilliant.