Midnights at CERN's LHC control room were take-out General Tso's Chicken, sprudl, and fortune cookies if we were lucky. Melanie was with me that night. Melanie's a babe, a total finger biting babe.
I had to drive about 14 kilometres into town to get dinner from a family of Koreans who were watching some French news channel. I hadn't gotten all my bearings yet. I'd just come over with a post-doc fellowship. The goal was to collaborate on B-factory experiments with about a hundred other postdocs and a few ambitious name professors, write a paper, get it published in Phys. Rev. D and watch my legend grow. Then, go back stateside, land a tenure track gig with a physics department in a small midwestern town, marry, have 2.3 kids, get tenure, serve on the faculty senate, become a dean or provost and then hang on until I died. I didn't have high expectations. I just wanted to have a little bit of fun along the way.
I was a spindly lad of 23 who enjoyed rock climbing, Cool-Ranch Doritos, biking, anime, and really bad movies. I'd had a few disastrous encounters with physics chics. They reminded me of the intersection of low luminosity proton-antiproton beams: a lot of space between you and them, and very few collisions. This trip to Europe was a godsend. French women was all I could think about for months. Names like Jeanette, Chloe, Jasmine, and Yvette. If I could meet a Yvette, I'd probably marry her just for the name alone. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you Mr and Mrs. Matthew and Yvette Hanson. Hell yeah, that would do.
The mesons had other ideas. The problem with mesons, you see, is that they're unstable. A quark of one color is matched with an antiquark of its anticolor and they form a brief resonance for a few femtoseconds. It lasts ever so briefly, like a couple do-si-doing at a square dance, and then the weak force changes the color of one of the particles, the gluons react, and the two formerly mated particles explode and transmute into more stable and long-lived particles. I'm not making this shit up. This is Today's Physics, boys and girls.
We were settling in for an evening of beam calibration. This was the excruciatingly boring but necessary part of any Big Physics collider experiment. This was why professors needed post-docs: to calibrate the beams. We were checking synchrotron frequencies and settings for each of the van der Meer beam focussers and watching the beam luminosity dials going up, up, up, DOWN, FUCK WE LOST VACUUM and scrammed the operation and started over again. Jacques and his team of Japanese/German/French graduate interns would scramble around the big round tunnel on their bicycles looking for the leak after the magnets were degaussed, and they'd wax the seals and do whatever the hell it was they did down there in mole-land, and then get the hell out while we charged up the capacitor banks to get the whole show going again.
I know what you're thinking: the hours are getting late, there's very little action happening at Collision Central, and it's me and Melanie, alone in the control room, analog dials twitching and trembling manically while we were boinking on the bare concrete floor. Nothing could be further from the truth. There was this policy that there had to be at least two guys around every woman, the theory being that the guys would form a sort of détente if either one of them or both were attracted to the woman, so that there wouldn't be any sexual harassment on the job. Truth was, I didn't much like Saddik, this Moroccan fellow who was entirely too good looking for my tastes. He was a well built mid-twenties fellow with bronzed features, a short haircut, and disarmingly innocent manners. The chicks all loved him, what few there were in Grenoble. Oh Saddik this and Oh Saddik that. Barf.
So there's absolutely zero probability that I have any chance with Melanie. Zero. This is a given. I have resigned myself to my fate. Now, I am thinking of climbing some of the Alps close by, the next time I rotate off duty. I am thinking of asking an Aussie to go with me. Harold is as dumb as they come around here - which really isn't that dumb, but still he's boring as shit. His saving grace is he climbs like a god, and right now I'd like to knock off a peak next Wednesday; he would be good insurance to have along. Plus, he's got some extra nine millimeter ropes and an extra set of crampons, and I brought absolutely zero ice climbing equipment with me.
So I'm daydreaming all these Touching the Void scenarios, and I'm broken out of my climbing reverie by the very light smell of perfume. I do the diffusion equation in my head, the one that relates the spatial gradients with the temporal (listen to me, what a boring pedant I am. Fuck me, I'm such a loser, just like that tall blonde once told me) and the time varying gradient of perfume concentration is increasing, which means she's getting closer. What the hell's going on?
"A penny for your thoughts."
"A penny for your thoughts." Melanie went to fricking MIT. MIT girls don't talk like that. Hell, MIT girls don't look like that either.
"I heard you the first time. I'm thinking of climbing Mont Blanc's east face on Wednesday. Me and Harold." I took my climbing boots off the control panel console and straightened up and looked at her. "Why?"
"Why why? Can't I just ask a question?"
"As long as I've known you, which admittedly is only two weeks and four days, you've never Just asked a question."
Her face darkened. "Nice to know you too, Matt. Holy cow, bite my head off for trying to be nice."
"I'm sorry. Really, I am. Really.
I laughed. "She said fuck."
"And the horse you rode in on."
I crossed my arms and had to smile. "I'm impressed. MIT teach you that? Saddik, she said fuck." Saddik was in the back getting a Euro version of Coke out of a Euro version of a vending machine. He couldn't hear us. So much for safety in numbers.
She put her hands up. "Forget it. Sorry I even tried. You're as much a loser as… I mean…" She closed her mouth and looked a bit guilty.
"As what? Who spilled the beans? You've been getting intel from Stanford, haven't you? Meh. That SPR newsboard says too much, dammit. Ah well, it's true. You might as well know. Social skills were never on the SATs, so I never took the charm classes in high school. I can't believe the lamers at Stanford would tell you this."
Impasse. Détente. It always came down to this. Matt, meet pretty girl. Matt, say the dumbest thing you can think of. Matt, say goodbye to pretty girl.
"Let's start over, shall we? HEY! I'm thinking of climbing a really difficult face, reaching a peak that's about 4.8 kilometers high, and then throwing myself off once I get to the top, seeing as I've just managed to piss off the only nice lady I know in this godforsaken lab. And thanks for the penny. What were YOU thinking about?" I did my best fake-sincere look.
"That's much better, Mr. Sensitivity. There's hope for you yet." She was still peeved. It got quiet for a few seconds, and then she decided to go on. "I wasn't thinking anything. I've been here for 6 months. I've been wondering what to do on my few days off, but Paris and Munich are too far away for a day trip. I was writing post cards the other day and almost cried at how pitiful my social life had gotten."
"Pitiful social life? Honey, you has come to the right place. I know from pitiful."
"Can I go along?"
"You want to go ice climbing with me and Harold?"
This was an unexpected turn of events. I didn't know quite how to proceed. The Loser's Manual doesn't cover such contingencies. "Have you ever done this before? Have you got gear?"
"No and no." She sighed. "I guess it's another fun filled day writing post cards."
I looked at her. "Geez, Melanie, I almost feel sorry for you. I mean, like you're only beautiful and all. Why would you want to go slumming with me and Harold?"
"Listen, squirrel-for-brains: I am bored. Bored. Can your quark-gluon plasma focussed brain comprehend that? I want to go outside and I want to have fun."
"Okay, ten-four, I've got that part. Fine. You can come, but you probably won't make the climb completely. Would you mind if you only made it half way and waited for us to do the peak ourselves? The view from half way up is still pretty gorgeous, I hear. You'd have to borrow some gear. I think one of the French Ecole Superior women has some."
She swiveled around and was madly typing into the computer.
"Hello? Is this conversation finished? Have I been dismissed?"
She swiveled around again, looked at me with a bright smile. "Finished. You are so through, Mr. Man. I'm googling ice climbing and Mont Blanc. By the time we start, I'll be ready. I won't hold you back."
The beam tube boys were on the radio. "Start it up again. I think we got all of the leaks this time. Is the rest of the team out? Okay. Ja, we are ready down here now. Jacques out."
Wednesday seems so far away.
(To be continued)
A CERN Shift Leader's Experience