Mon, Nov 11, 2013 - Page 9 News List

CERN visit reveals a world of physics

By Suzanne Moore  /  The Guardian, GENEVA, Switzerland

“As long as you drink coffee, you are in.”

Most people here — apart from the British — have four or five languages. CERN employs 2,000 people, but another 10,000 pass through, working on the four main experiments (AMS, CMS, Atlas and LHC).

This is a large and shifting community. People may arrive on student placements and then get work here. In summer, the place is full of students drinking beer outside.

To live here requires commitment — the surrounding villages either in France or Switzerland are expensive. However, it soon becomes clear that people are here for the work, and the line between work and leisure is permeable. They often work 16 hours a day, because they want to. Even in the canteen.

“There is an etiquette. If they have their laptops open, it could be an ideas meeting,” Claire Lee (physicist and doctorate student) tells me.

“Oh, they keep all hours,” says Rachel Bray (product lifecycle management and document management specialist). “My office is next door to some theoretical physicists. I often see them rock up at 5:30am. Or having a kip. There are no rigid hours.”

Rachel tells me about all the clubs that CERN employees can go to. Many are keen to shake off the image of physicists as wild-haired, eccentric old men, and that image is easily disrupted when I see a hip young woman and a guy lining up for his dinner in the bottom half of a gorilla suit.

“Physicists don’t have the best dress sense,” Rachel laughs.

It is all pretty casual. There are lots of clubs for those inclined and lots of winter sports, although some prefer to spend their spare time coding or doing robotics. Rachel asks me if I fancy some Pilates at lunchtime, but I want to go and see the little office where Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web.

CERN has also given us cloud computing. It proves to be a hassle, however, to actually get online, and I have to get approval.

“CERN is under constant attack from hackers.”

When I ask most people what they miss, or what they have given up to be at CERN, they look bewildered. It seems a love of physics goes hand in hand with a love of skiing and snowboarding. They love the fact their children are in local schools and are bilingual.

Lucy Lockwood (HR systems analyst) has two small children, who her husband looks after, and says she does not have a social life, but she loves being “in this temple of physics.”

The problem I hear of over and over is that when a couple are both physicists or engineers, it can mean only one person gets the job they both want.

Right across CERN there is movement between different roles: physicists become engineers. Everyone on an experiment will do overnight shifts in the control room. All this produces a less hierarchical way of working.

It is this flattening out of traditional structures that makes this place special, as well as the daily and huge international cooperation. Scientists whose countries are in conflict work together, Israelis beside Palestinians.

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