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To Live and Work at CERN

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Glenn Starkman has traded his comfortable life in unexpectedly wonderful Cleveland (Heights), Ohio for the excitement and alpine scenery of global diplomatic and particle physics capital Geneva, Switzerland.  While every scientist he meets tells him this will be “an exciting time to be at CERN” he will set aside a few moments each month or so to share his observations of
life in the fast lane with his fellow Scientific American readers.

Nestled among the vineyards outside Geneva, surrounded by the lush slopes of the Jura mountains on one side and the rugged snow-capped Alps on the other sits CERN, the premiere laboratory for particle physics in the world. Here is the home of the Higgs, or at least of the Large Hadron Collider and the ATLAS and CMS detectors that appear to have finally discovered this important piece of the Standard Model.

More than that, with the US having abruptly cancelled the post-war pre-eminence in accelerator physics that brought it discovery after discovery, and their attendant technological spinoffs, CERN is not just the Rome to which all European (and many non-European) roads in particle physics lead, but the gathering place of the exiles awaiting the return to Zion (or Batavia, IL or Menlo Park, CA), if only the U.S. Congress would foot the bill.

Straddling as it does the Swiss and French borders, you would imagine this contemporary Tower of Babel to be a place where fine Gallic taste and precision Helvetic expertise combine to create a cosmopolitan scientific paradise – a workplace that is both beautiful and functional. Nahh. If only the fictional accounts of luxury and high design held the least grain of truth. Dan Brown: dream on.

To say that CERN’s buildings are brutalist would be to mistakenly ascribe intentionality to this motley assortment of nakedly utilitarian lumps of concrete scattered helter skelter without obvious plan or purpose. Over here is a reception, museum and gift shop connected to the main service hub and conference center by a maze of administrative and scientific offices with corridors leading off at irregular angles to more corridors, offices and experimental halls. There in the middle is a central auditorium (and governing Council meeting chamber) thrusting boldly over a circular driveway but reached by threading past the backsides of industrial buildings and their asphalt parking lots.

The street names, honoring illustrious physicists of the past, attempt to provide a touch of character, but they connect buildings labeled only by number. 33-5-4-58-3-50-500. A secret code? A mathematical sequence describing the properties of a new family of fundamental particles? No. The building-by-building route from reception, past my office, to the enticingly named Restaurant 1.

And who knew that sheets of corrugated aluminum tacked on the exterior of an otherwise unadorned office complex could constitute a design element?

As I walk the halls that lead to my office, grey steel filing cabinets, empty or filled with the detritus of decades, line the corridor. Dimly lit, off-beige walls last painted before I first visited over two decades ago, I’m sure, get their only color from posters announcing the latest conference of yesteryear. Discarded electronics, long the ubiquitous decoration for every spare public surface, are now relegated to special bins, so nothing obscures the spare grey metal desks banished to the hallway from this office or that.

The last few steps to my own office pass through a short corridor, recently painted in various shades of green; but open the door and the only color visible is across the paint-chip littered windowsill, through the dirt-coated window, into the car-bestrewn grassy courtyard. Grey steel bookshelves, and grey steel desks, as if freshly imported from a Kafkaesque nightmare of East European Communist bureaucracy, fail to hide walls desperate for a lick of paint. A poster, taped squarely in the middle of one wall by a long-departed occupant, appropriately features Picasso’s sketch of Don Quixote, that patron saint of windmill tilting. As tattered as its subject, it too has seen better days.

And yet … this is a place where particle accelerators get turned on thanks to multinational funding commitments and years of concerted effort. A place where great discoveries are repeatedly made and where the web was invented. A place where scientists from around the world gather to speak to one another, and to work to a common purpose. Maybe that (and decent coffee) matter more than anything else.

Glenn Starkman About the Author: Glenn Starkman grew up and got his Bachelor's degree in Toronto, where he returned after a PhD at Stanford and a postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He lives with his wife and two children in Cleveland, where he is Professor of Physics and Director of the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University. He has written several of Scientific American's most popular articles ever: on whether the universe is finite in size, on anomalies in the cosmic microwave background radiation, on whether cosmology is ultimately doomed as a science, and on the far future of life in the universe.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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