I’ve just spent the weekend at @CERN – home, among other things, to the biggest physics experiment on earth, the Large Hadron Collider (above).
It’s quite a place. Much like a campus university; a jumble of blocks and walkways, carparks, corridors and doors of many ages, styles and states of repair. But the scale and precision of what is done underground is uniformly cutting edge.
Take the equivalent in matter of one hair from your head, accelerate it to the speed of light through four vast machines built over five decades. Then inject it one hundred metres underground into the coldest most magnetic 27km circuit in the known universe.
Then do the same again. Inject it in the opposite direction. Smash the two hairs’ worth together in a beam no wider than those hairs. Catch the debris in two enormous detectors. And there you have the LHC. Simple.
CERN also produces antimatter. But at a rate which would take a billion years or so to produce one gram. And ‘paff’ each batch, painstaking produced, vaporises in an invisible ‘ping’ of energy in less than ten minutes. So no risk of annihilating the planet just yet.
But what was even more impressive than the huge tunnels, control rooms, detecters and machines, is the the people.
They visibly share a common purpose to go beyond what is known. They have nurtured a spirit of endeavour which has constantly to push technology and techniques way what’s currently thought possible. And they manifest an ethos of genuine teamwork and collaboration, uniting staff and researchers from over 100 countries.
All that underpinned by a shared respect for science and the scientific method – and it must be said some very very large public funding.
If you wanted to imagine an idealist’s world where people of all nations come together to advance the sum of human knowledge and achievement; stop imagining and go visit. It exists, on an ‘international’ patch of land between the French Jura and the Swiss Alps.
But what’s also nice is not everyone is a particle physicist – most are engineers. I met a young Danish marine engineer in the control room who explained you have to be able to fix anything on a boat – which is the ideal training for looking after a particle accelerator!
So you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to have a thrilling career in physics. And here’s a nice story I read in the New Scientist on the flight home, from the physicist Leonard Susskind, on his tussle with his father over practicality versus physics:
I did not come from an academic background. My father was a smart man, but he had a 5th-grade education. He and all his friends were plumbers. They were all born around 1905, in great poverty in New York City, and had to go to work when they were 12 or 13 years old. But sitting around the kitchen in our house, they had all sorts of interesting conversations. There was a funny intellectuality to them.
I went to college because my father thought that I should learn engineering, because he wanted to go into the heating business with me. There I realised I wanted to be a physicist. I had to tell him, which was a somewhat traumatic experience.
For months I had been trying to figure out how to tell him. One day I drove over to his house. This is emblazoned in my memory: it was a terrible, terrible feeling.
He had a plumbing shop in the basement, and was there cutting pipe for the next day’s job. I went down and said, “I’m not going to be an engineer.” He got upset. Though he almost never used bad language, he said, “What the fuck are you going to be? A ballet dancer?”
I said, “No, I want to be a physicist.” He said, “No, you ain’t gonna work in no drugstore.” I said, “No, no, a physicist, not a pharmacist.” And then I can’t remember the exact conversation, but I do remember the magic word was “Einstein”. I said I wanted to do what Einstein did. That just shocked him.
Something snapped, and he decided right then and there that that is what I had to do. That was the end of it. From then on, my father tried very hard to learn a little about physics.
Dads and their lads eh. But what a great story of a father’s love for his son conquering all. Physics, it’s a beautiful thing.