Mon, Nov 11, 2013 - Page 9 News List

CERN visit reveals a world of physics

By Suzanne Moore  /  The Guardian, GENEVA, Switzerland

Steve McMahon also explains: “Remuneration is not an issue. I may be working alongside eastern Europeans, for instance. We just don’t talk about money.”

The fact that the director is well paid, but not on a mega chief executive/banker-type salary, helps this sense of common purpose. People are valued for their ideas and their ability to work across projects.

“Hans Blix was here last week,” someone will say casually.

“Well, he would be. He is interested in Thorium.”

Or, “No one knew what to wear when the Dalai Lama came, so we wore CERN T-shirts.”

The philosophy of knowledge transfer and access to data adds to the openness of the place. The only real sense I get of hierarchy is when people talk in awe of Nobel prizewinners. If you get one of those, you can do what you like. Smoke cigars in your office.

Jakob Steinberger, who won the Nobel in 1988 for his discovery of the muon neutrino, will be hanging out in the canteen with every one else.

“It’s like a college, but with no undergraduates,” Alex Brown (development office) says.

I soon stop asking people about their qualifications.

“Only an obnoxious so-and-so would announce that they have a doctorate. Best to assume whoever you are talking to does.”

If demarcations between nations and jobs dissolve under the mantra “we are all here for science,” this is still a strange place to be, a transient society.

Alex explains the psychology: “You have to have a new model of friendship. You make friends and in six months you have a whole new group and your best friend has gone.”

Instead this class of international young scientists uses Twitter, Facebook and Skype. Claire, who is wearing a bat on her headband for Halloween, is planning to paint herself blue for the evening’s festivities.

“You know, the Navi out of Avatar,” she says.

If you want to bust the image of the average physicist, look no further. With funding from Taiwan and South Africa, she has a small baby whom her husband, an information technology project manager, looks after.

Still, there is a CERN bubble that is hard to escape. Because Geneva has the UN, there is a large expatriate community.

Hugo Day (Marie Curie fellow) says he meets locals as he speaks the international language of heavy metal and is honest about the limitations.

“It is the place to be for physics. If you want cutting-edge, straight-up computer science, it would be IBM or Google,” he says.

Now an engineer, after some years at CERN he is quite proud he does not ski. Ice climbing is his thing. And zombies.

Everyone I talk to bristles when I ask if, having found the Higgs, research has now stalled. The LHC is on “the long shutdown.”

The Higgs boson has actually thrown up more unknowns, from antimatter and dark matter to supersymmetry and the inability of the standard model to incorporate gravity. All this work and these massive machines are about proving theories that are decades old.

This is a long game. I go underground to see the compact muon solenoid particle detector, a massively complex, but gorgeous piece of mega-engineering. We also see the alpha magnetic spectrometer, and watching people sitting in a control room analyzing data as it comes down from the international space station is fairly mind-blowing.

A young Jordanian shows us round and tells us about Sesame, a major new research facility in the Middle East bringing in scientists from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Iran, among others. Its object is partly to promote peace through scientific cooperation.

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