Monday, July 28, 2008

I'm from India and I expect a clean desk!

I'm in Geneva for a month, at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) where the world's most gigantic particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, is approaching its final stages. It seems likely it will be turned on while I'm here, quite a thrill from a historic point of view ("I was there when they turned it on"). In practical terms though, there's little difference between the ongoing tests and those that will take place after it's functional. Data collection will start much later, and interpretation even later than that.

During this month I'll try to keep up a thread on LHC on this blog - the gossip one hears as well as a bit of the physics involved. But today I'd like instead to comment on Switzerland, or rather Geneva which is not exactly the same thing (as the Zurichers would surely point out).

I've been here many times before (even lived here for a year in 1990). But when I arrived day before yesterday, my first striking impression of Geneva airport was this. I'm in a lift waiting to go up when an Englishman wheels his trolley in. We go up in silence. He wrinkles up his nose, glares at the floor of the lift and says "dirty". He's quite right, it smells of urine. As he wheels his trolley out, his wife smiles and says "thank you" to me (I have no idea why - perhaps for not peeing in the lift?).

This is Switzerland??

Though the Theory Department of CERN is in Switzerland, I'm staying in the town of Gex, in France. For those who don't know, the border in these parts is mostly a formality. You drive down a road and presently see a booth labelled "Douane" and/or "Zoll" ("Customs") for the country you're leaving, and another similar booth for the country you're entering, but no human being is visible in either booth. You just keep driving (slowly, otherwise someone comes out of the booth and yells at you) and you've changed countries.

Actually I came out of Geneva airport on the French side. That was fun. First I exited to the Swiss side, then got my baggage, then went up a floor, then entered a door labelled "France" where - again - no human being was to be seen at the desk, and 10 feet later, I was in France.

Now it used to be that Switzerland was expensive and France was cheap. Also Switzerland was clean and France was dirty. But neither stereotype can be relied on any more, it seems. France is horrendously expensive (and the Euro is 67 rupees or 1.6 dollars!!). And, from what I've seen so far, spotlessly clean. I spent all weekend wondering, without reaching a conclusion, what it is about us Indians. We admire spotless cleanliness of public places when we see it. Kiti chhaan aahe! Therefore we do understand what it is. But as for doing anything to have it in our own land ... no no no! Spit! Thook!!

And then this morning I came to work at CERN and, much as I appreciate their kind hospitality and excellent academic atmosphere, Switzerland shocked me again. The toilets stank (I mean it). My office desk hadn't been dusted, apparently, in the 18 years since I was here on sabbatical. The window blinds are covered with grime. The floor tiles ditto. I actually went to the loo, got a bunch of paper towels and washed my own desk, peeling off layers of dirt. I imagined going to a secretary and saying "Excuse me, I'm from India and I'm used to having a clean desk to work on!".

But that would be too much. Maybe the cleaning budget at CERN went to help out the LHC which has had severe cost overruns. And maybe some drunk "used" the airport lift. But in general, everything's beautifully clean here on both sides of the border, there are flowers everywhere, the sun is shining and the hills are alive with the sound of music - rather than the sound of mucous!


Ramanan said...

What's the best thing that you expect and your worst fears ?

Steven Weinberg has commented that his worst fear is that only the Higgs will be found and nothing else.

This is the new article :

But, Weinberg adds, “the greatest fear, I think, that the particle physics community has is that the LHC will find the Higgs boson and not find anything else. Because if that happens, we will simply have verified what is now the popular version of the standard model, and we won’t have any experimental clues as to how to go beyond the model.”

Rahul Basu said...

It would perhaps be more appropriate if the LHC link pointed to the CERN LHC link than to Wikipedia, which after all, is the 'second hand' link. The parent link connects to virtually everything you wanted to know about the LHC including the detectors. The links at Wikipedia connect to more Wikipedia links in the main article - a bit pointless when you can have the real thing, n'est-ce pas?

Ramanan said...

Rahul, the wikipedia link is crispier ... in fact it gives a better overview ! There was a paper recently on the anthropic principle, landscapes etc and it quoted Wikipedia for shortcomings of the Standard Model! Think of movies - its better to see the Wiki entry than to go to the movie's official site.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Ramanan: I do agree with Weinberg (I would be foolish not to, on general grounds... he is among the living physicists I respect most, not just for his actual research but also for his opinions on science).

Higgs and nothing else would be a deadly blow to the enterprise of finding a unified theory. In which case, I imagine most string theorists would migrate to the study of quantum gravity (and its relation to condensed matter physics and quark gluon plasma that I briefly mentioned in a previous blog) if they are not doing those things already. These areas pose important physics questions completely unrelated to the unification of fundamental forces.

For particle physicists working on "beyond Standard Model physics" the future is perhaps less clear. But let's wait for LHC to produce the doomsday result before we start worrying...

As for the debate about whether the Wiki or CERN link is more appropriate when talking of LHC - surely it depends on what you want out of the link! I assume any reader with even a passing interest can generate both links on their own. It's an interesting fact though, that Wikipedia is slowly but surely being treated as a solid source of scientific information. Its creators could scarcely hope for a better compliment.

Raju Bathija said...

Your post reminded me of an interview, which the Director General of CERN, on his visit to India gave to a Mumbai Newspaper. On asked by the reporter if Higgs is really discovered, what will happen, he had replied that well, your toothpaste will taste the same next morning.

Wish you good and clean time at CERN.

Ramanan said...

Bathija.. WiiFM is the reporter's attitude! (Whats in it for me)..

Sunil isnt there any betting happening out there on LHC discoveries ?