When I was beginning to show my genuine interest and passion in science, I was very fortunate to be attending a school where I was surrounded by teachers equally passionate about their subjects. Chemistry teachers with doctorates in toxic heavy metals, biology teachers who had undertaken neurology Masters, and a physics teacher with a PhD in cosmology. It was a series of opportunities, among others, that set me on a path of adoring science.
At the time I was completing my schooling, CERN was about to turn on the Large Hadron Collider. It was the first time I had been aware of physics being national news. Not some small byline alongside other events, but a moment when everyone stopped to pay attention to physics. And not some important discovery that will change our lives, or some upheaval of the accepted wisdom, just the hope and excitation surrounding possibly uncovering a deeper understanding of reality. At that point the Higgs boson was still hypothetical.
While at University, studying Physics at Swansea, I was able to watch the announcements of the discovery of a new particle, in 2012, that was later confirmed to be the Higgs boson, in 2014. At the time of the first discovery I had only completed the second year of University. CERN was still an almost mythical place. A mecca for physicists, where the most advanced work in that field was being undertaken. By the time the second announcement came, the image I had of CERN had changed, but remained no less positive in my mind. While the teams reconstructing the data from the LHC were busy trying to find the elusive signal for the HIggs boson, the ALPHA group at CERN were capturing antimatter atoms for the first time.
But this time around, the scientists in every news article were not strangers. They were people I had seen wondering around the physics department at Swansea, that I had seen having coffee in the common area, and had briefly taught me during lab sessions. The students who had worked on the project had been in promotional material for Swansea, and had been the people we bothered when our experiments broke. And they always broke.
The distance of this previous exceptional place to me, had rapidly shrunk. At that point it was still far out of my reach, and my path was not taking me that way at the time (I was dealing with illusions of grandeur and pursuing string theory placements, not one of my smartest decisions). But once my Masters was complete, and the time to make my first steps after University, I was offered a position working with those who had captured that first antimatter atom. My doctorate would take me to Paris, to work with antimatter, and with the hope to eventually move to CERN to complete the project.
During preparation for the move to France, I was given a book from a Positron conference in 1990. Two whole years before my birth, and filled with papers and writings on how one would undertake the project we were about to begin. Some of the speculation had to come pass from relevance, and technical abilities had improved, but the majority was fascinating. Names filled the book, men and women who were the best in their field.
A few weeks later I moved to France and began working with a great number of them. Very quickly, the allure and prestige is buried by the mundanity of work. Experiments break, deadlines drift, budgets are revised, bureaucracy exhausts you. It drags on you, and what was once an idealised pursuit is slapped by the reality of work always being work.
After two and a half years at CEA, and a small crisis of funding, I then moved to CERN. If I had told my 16 year-old self that I would work at CERN they would have been ecstatic, over-the-moon, and a little confused how a medical doctor ended up at CERN1. I was there to work at the Antimatter Factory, to perform measurements in anticipation for antiprotons being delivered to GBAR. And while there that was what I did. Myself, along with others, produced a proton beam that produced a signal that could replicate what would be seen with antiprotons in 2020, once the accelerators begin winding up.
Alongside this work though, was a period of incredibly instability. Extended periods of very short-term housing (moving between hotels every few days does a number on you), with any more ‘permanent’ address being either a hostel, with limited kitchens, or pokey little apartments an hour from work. And everything was horrifically overpriced because Geneva is capitalist nightmare. When you spend weeks in a place with only one pan to cook with, the very existence of an oven feels like a bloody miracle, and eating cheese sandwiches in hotels rooms is a pretty lowly image.
But you persevere, you find a way to plod along. You can try to create a routine to pierce the chaos and uncertainty (I personally listened to an episode of The Adventure Zone every morning on the way to work to create a sense of continuity), and find delight in the smallest of details (rotating through the various flavours of Pringles was a pathetic joy). All while one of the greatest feats on human engineering whirs on below your feet. The immensity and importance of the work being undertaken is completely obscured by the relentless housing insecurity and scale of the work that has to be done. You struggle onwards everyday, to get your tasks achieved, and work submitted.
While I was doing this I also had the looming deadline of a thesis hanging over. Once I finally left CERN, which was not intended to be the final time but that is how the circumstances rolled out, and enjoyed a small respite over Christmas, the writing continued. This was a crunch period of writing, and in a month the scale of the thesis balloon and its size doubled. But after far too many late nights the light on the other side was seen. Then came the dutiful revisions and corrections, which themselves ran right up to the wire.
Several trips back and forth to Swansea to discuss the corrections, and to finally submit the thesis left with a feeling of nothing but relief. It was done. I had completed it. Four and a half years of work was culminated in a single document, that would never be able to fully express the toll it had taken on me. But it was finished. I was free. Unburdened from the weight of incompletion.
The life of a Ph.D. means that a large amount of your time is spent around other students and academics. Students who are going through the same thing, or academics who have been there and done that. The significance or ‘coolness’ of what you are doing is diminished because everyone around you is doing the same thing. Getting an outside perspective of what you did is the only real way to break out of this insular view, and to actually appreciate what it is that was undertaken.
Whether it is someone commenting that the thesis you have written is way longer than anything they could imagine producing. To make you realise that you did actually do something. Someone telling you that the work you did actually has a major impact on the capability of the experiment to produce a world first measurement. To make you appreciate that all the time was not in vain, but served a purpose. And sometimes it is just talking to people who are not in physics, asking questions and being excited to hear about what is going on. Hearing the simple ‘that’s really cool’ from someone when you describe your work can do a huge amount.
Just hearing someone tell you their thoughts on CERN, from a non-scientist background, can do a large amount to bring back the memories of what it was like at 15/16, looking at these places as almost mythical. Something that can get lost in the day to day of living the métro, boulot, dodo life.
But hey, it’s finished, and very soon these memories will foolish gain a rose-tint, and will seem so less bothersome than they really were.
1 I once expressed the ill-fated idea to study Medicine.