To CERN with love

I went to Switzerland yesterday. More specifically, Geneva. More specifically, CERN. More specifically, ATLAS. Tireless Communications Officer Claudia Marcelloni went out of her way to make sure that I had a truly grand tour of life at CERN.

Claudia at the Globe Control room

CERN is the ultimate area of overlap in the Venn diagram of geek interests: the place where the World Wide Web was invented while people were working on cracking the secrets of the universe.

I saw the world’s first web server—Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT machine. I saw the original proposal for the World Wide Web, complete with the note scribbled across the top “vague but exciting.”

The first web server Information Management: A Proposal

But I understand what James meant when he described the whole web thing as a sideshow to the main event:

Because, you know the web is cool and all, but when you’re trying to understand the fundamental building blocks of the universe and constructing the single greatest scientific instrument of ours and perhaps any civilisation, the whole modern internet is a happy side effect, it is a nice to have.

The highlight of my day was listening to Christoph Rembser geek out about his work: hunting for signs of elusive dark matter by measuring missing momentum when smashing particles together near the speed of light in a 27 kilometre wide massive structure 100 metres underneath France and Switzerland, resulting in incredible amounts of data being captured and stored within an unimaginably short timescale. Awesome. Literally, awesome.

Christoph geeking out Dr. Christoph Rembser

But what really surprised me at CERN wasn’t learning about the creation of the web or learning about the incredible scientific work being done there. As a true-blooded web/science nerd, I had already read plenty about both. No, what really took me by surprise was the social structure at CERN.

According to most established social and economic theory, nothing should ever get done at CERN. It’s a collection of thousands of physics nerds—a mixture of theorists (the ones with blackboards) and experimentalists (the ones with computers). When someone wants to get something done, they present their ideas and ask for help from anyone with specific fields of expertise. Those people, if they like the sound of the idea, say “Okay” and a new collaboration is born.

That’s it. That’s how stuff gets done. It’s like a massive multiplayer hackday. It’s like the ultimate open source project (and yes, everything, absolutely everything, done at CERN is realised publicly). It is the cathedral and it is the bazaar. It is also the tower of Babel: people from everywhere in the world come to this place and collaborate, communicating any way they can. In the canteen, where Nobel prize winners sit with students, you can hear a multitude of accents and languages.

CERN is an amazing place. These thousands of people might be working on completely different projects, but there’s a shared understanding and a shared ethos amongst every one of them. That might sound like a flimsy basis for any undertaking, but it works. It works really, really well. And this isn’t just any old undertaking—they’re not making apps or shipping consumer products—they’re working on the most important questions that humans have ever attempted to answer. And they’re doing it all within a framework that, according to conventional wisdom, just shouldn’t work. But it does work. And that, in its own way, is also literally awesome.

Christoph described what it was like for him to come to CERN from Bonn, the then-capital of West Germany. It was 1989, a momentous year (and not just because Tim Berners-Lee wrote Information Management: A Proposal). Students were demonstrating and dying in Tiananmen Square. The Berlin wall was coming down (only later did I realise that my visit to CERN took place on October 3rd, Tag der Deutschen Einheit). At CERN, Christoph met Chinese students, Russian scientists, people from all over the world transcending their political differences to collaborate on truly fundamental questions. And he said that when people returned to their own countries, they surely carried with them some of that spirit that they had experienced together at CERN.

Compared to the actual work going on at CERN, that idea is a small one. It may not be literally awesome …but it really resonated with me.

I think I understand a little better now where the web comes from.

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