As the tram trundles through the suburbs of Geneva, a huge lit-up globe by the side of the road lets me know I have arrived at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). This is the Mecca of particle physics. Most of it looks like a fairly undistinguished campus.
“The money has not been spent on the buildings,” I am repeatedly told. “The money is all underground.”
Underground, of course, are the tunnels where beams of light are smashed into each other. Under my feet are the colliders and detectors that are helping us understand what the universe is actually made of.
Above ground it is all fairly utilitarian. After dumping my bag in the spartan hotel, I head over to the big canteen. The streets are named things like Route Heisenberg or Route Democrite (Democritus postulated the first atom). CERN has four restaurants, but the big canteen is the center of the place.
CERN, indeed physics itself, has entered the popular consciousness in recent years. Geeks are pretty cool, and theoretical physics has replaced philosophy as a signifier of intellectual prowess.
My 12-year-old had heard of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC): “That’s where Sheldon wants to go.”
Indeed, a whole episode of The Big Bang Theory was about Howard wanting to take his girlfriend to Switzerland to see the LHC, which resulted in Sheldon’s paroxysms of jealousy.
“But Penny has no interest in subatomic particle research! I’ve been dreaming of seeing the Large Hadron Collider since I was nine,” Sheldon says.
I am no Sheldon, but I have been wondering about CERN since seeing hordes of people cheering when the announcements about the Higgs boson were made and a recalcitrant Peter Higgs getting the Nobel prize.
“Oh yeah, sleeping bags everywhere, queues to get in,” a young Canadian tells me.
What do all these people do all day, I wondered, these people preoccupied by that which we cannot see?
As I sit down in the canteen — every expense spared, except for an Antony Gormley sculptural scribble hanging outside — it is obvious these people have their minds on something higher than decor.
“Will I see anyone doing any physics?” I muse to myself without having any real idea what that might look like.
Next to me two guys are talking Japanese, but I can hear the words “configurations,” “servers,” “axes” and “rubrics.”
Just opposite, some young guys and an older man are actually working stuff out on the back of a napkin. This, I will soon realize, is how it is.
One of them tells me: “One of the top guys here works everything out on the back of an envelope. So he keeps a special supply of envelopes.”
These people live and breathe physics. A young woman shows me the iPad she has just been “doodling” on. It is all numbers and equations.
Carl Sagan may have said that “we are all made of stars,” but here this translates as “we are all made of numbers,” and if you are not a numbers person, CERN is another planet. Often when I am talking to people, they will jump up and draw a quick graph to make their point, which only further confuses me.
It takes a while to get used to the international babble all around — “Cernish” is the common language — and the way people will introduce themselves: “I’m accelerators.”
CERN, founded in 1954, has 20 member states, with many other countries cooperating. The atmosphere is collegiate, but blokey. The ratio of men to women is about 80:20, but the women I meet are well supported. There is a creche and a kindergarten, and I see toddlers running round. The problem seems to be getting women into apprenticeships, and the UK as a whole suffers from a shortage of engineers. Once in, though, there appears to be less of an old boys’ network than in many professions.