Wednesday, February 1, 2012


I'm sitting, for the first time in my life, in the CERN library.  Why?  Because somewhere in our apartment building, and I think it's from the floor above us, construction is going on, and the earsplitting wheezing, whistling, whining sounds of saws screech and pulsate into every room.  Even the best earplugs I own don't help.  My way of escaping the cacophony was to flee our flat in Ferney-Voltaire, France, the town where we're living for a year, to the library at CERN in Meyrin, Switzerland - an eight-minute drive.  Being the spouse of a CERN physicist does have its benefits.

CERN is the French acronym for “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire” (European Council for Nuclear Research), founded in 1952 to develop a European fundamental physics research institute.  By 1954 the laboratory was created, and the name changed to the “European Organization for Nuclear Research” (l’Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire).  But the acronym, CERN, remained.

A view of some CERN buildings

Cutting-edge science occurs here. In a vast campus of dilapidated barracks, tin sheds, stained concrete structures, and a few well-designed buildings, physicists from 84 countries examine collisions of particles that occur in a 27-kilometer circular tunnel that is buried 100 meters underground.  In teams of hundreds, they are working to find answers to essential questions about matter and the universe.

Barracks that are scientists' offices

The ATLAS building

CERN's main site is in Meyrin, on the outskirts of Geneva, with subsidiary facilities in the nearby French countryside where corn grows in the summer and sunflowers in the fall, and where cows munch on grasses from the spring until frost forms.  In a tunnel 328 feet below these fields and villages surrounding CERN, collisions reach temperatures 100,000 times hotter than the sun.

My husband studies the quark-gluon plasma, which is created during violent collisions of particles in the tunnel’s accelerator.  His interest in such physics comes from a curiosity to understand the big bang.  My interest, on the other hand, is people, and I am curious about similarities and differences in human cultures.  I studied anthropology.  But I’m here, not as an anthropologist, but as a CERN wife.  And it’s in that context that I am writing this blog.  In fact, blogging might not have been possible without CERN, which claims to be the place where the world wide web was invented.

This CERN library is more silent than the anthropology library where I devoted so much time when I was writing my dissertation.  Two young men are sitting three tables away absorbed in their computers.  No noise but the occasional hum of a copy machine.  What a pleasure.

1 comment:

  1. Great description. Are those barracks and CERN buldings really as bleak as they look? I was picturing something . . . I don't know, old and European looking or something. Anyway, glad you found an escape from the noise.