Light my Fire

Two figures in official-looking uniforms appear on the platform across from the control room, were I’m sitting. As soon as I realize they are coming in my direction, breathe deeply and look down at my hands. You see, I’m mentally preparing myself for a barrage of bureaucratic interrogation in French. What with me being alone in the control room on a Sunday (I’d rather sit here than in the hostel, truth be told), surely there is no Francophone colleague nearby to save me this time. Why, on earth, would they come on a Sunday?

As the two men enter, I see that “CERN Fire Brigade” is stamped across their shirts and I can’t help but notice that, weeeell, they are not unattractive. I brace myself for the French, and am shocked when the younger one says to me, in remarkably flawless English: “Hello, do you mind if we ask you a few questions?” Uh, sure?

He starts talking and it turns out his questions are not about fire escape routes, flammable chemicals, or even the pile of cardboard boxes that’s partially blocking the doorway. No, soon enough it becomes clear: it turns out he came here today to ask me about physics. I’m at a complete loss for what’s going on, but I’m still doing my best to explain the experiment.

His friend, apparently emboldened by my willingness to talk, speaks up at last: “So, wait, can you explain antimatter in simple terms?” I do my best to accommodate:

“At the Big Bang,” I start off, in the classic, grandiose way of explaining baryon asymmetry, “there were equal parts matter and antimatter…” I continue, but fear I may be loosing them when I start talking about spectroscopy. It seems, however, that they get the basics: We’re comparing one thing we know a lot about to another, anti-thing which we can barely hold on to. Pretty much. After we’re all satisfied with the physics discussion, I have some questions of my own. For example: what is going on here, anyway? Why am I sitting here, explaining hyperfine transitions to of all people, two smiling Swiss firemen?

“Well, we don’t have much to do around here on a Sunday,” the younger one says. “So we just wander around, find people, and question them.”

Good God! Why, it’s Learning For Its Own Sake. It’s taking advantage of the unique position of being a fireman at CERN with free time by chasing after wherever your curiosity beckons you to follow, and not being afraid to ask questions. It’s approaching possibly cranky physicists and wanting to listen to what they have to say. It’s evidence of active public interest in Science! It’s evidence of the inherent curiosity of the spirit! Of course I don’t let on too much, but these firemen may have just given me new hope in the human race.

“I think that’s wonderful,” I say. He, the younger one, goes on:

“We try to get people to explain in simple terms, in terms we can understand,”

“You’re doing great at that” the friend says. He adds with grin: “You pass the test.”

“Well, thank you.” In the interest of full disclosure: Here I blush. “But that’s probably mostly because I don’t understand all of it myself.” We all chuckle, they thank me again, I recommend they take a look at the semi-dismantled cryostat, and they walk out the door. With that, we all return to our own, specialized worlds.

Did that really just happen? I want to ask someone to pinch me, but of course, there’s no one here. I think I just may wander into the fire station one of these days, you know, with a couple of questions.


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