Space, Time and Dad

Auxerre, France – Every trip has multiple beginnings. It starts with the first step out the door; the first plane or train ride; the first border crossing; or the first moment when you feel far away from home. The “firsts” of my trip included leaving my apartment in Burgundy; a hotel in Montmartre; a night train barreling toward Croatia’s Dalmatian coast; a boat across the Aegean. But before all of that, my trip began with a roadtrip with my dad. And that began like greatest of all beginnings: with the collision of subatomic particles at near-absolute speeds…

It was my last week living in France and dad was coming to visit. We had decided to help me kick off my travels with a two-week road trip through France.

When he was twenty, dad joined the merchant marines. He was a small-town kid who wanted to get out of West Virginia, so he signed up for a year at sea. The work was mundane—cleaning smokestacks, swabbing decks, polishing wrenches—but it catapulted him from rural Appalachia to parts of the world he’d never imagined. Dad visited Europe’s great ports in Rotterdam and Antwerp, rounded Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, crossed the Pacific Ocean, and dropped anchor beside Caribbean islands. He traveled more broadly than most people dream of.

But a year later he returned to the United States where he finished school, got married, and started a family. That was forty-five years ago. Since then he hadn’t once stepped foot outside the U.S. Absorbed with life—raising kids who themselves wanted to travel—he stayed home. Now, at age 65, he wanted to travel again for the first time.

I was excited. I met him at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris and took him to my apartment in Burgundy for a couple nights before hitting the road. Along the way I quizzed him about what he wanted to see.  The Cote d’Azure? Wine country? Notre Dame Cathedral? The Eiffel Tower? I’d seen them all, and I gloated (obnoxiously) that I knew them all well.

But after each suggestion dad answered my excitement with an equal measure of simple, agreeable, compliance. “Sure,” and “if you want,” and “I guess so.” Or what was the worst: “Why not.”

I was disappointed.

“Is there one damn thing you’re excited to see?”

Dad straightened up like a cadet and delivered three carefully articulated words: “Large. Hadron. Collider.”

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Photo: The 800-year-old Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, as seen from my balcony in Auxerre, France.

It’s not even in France. Actually, it’s half in France. And that annoyed me even more.

Our car rumbled through Burgundy’s vineyards, pointed toward the Swiss border. Dad drove, and I hung my chin out the window watching rows of tiny red grapes speed past. He explained.

The Large Hadron Collider is essentially a big donut buried beneath the Swiss-French border near Geneva, Switzerland. More accurately, the thing is a 27-kilometer tunnel, curled up in a hoop-shape. Scientists built it for physics experiments. In fact, it took 30 years, $8 billion dollars, and a coalition of 100 nations to construct this mightiest of donuts. Then they slung it over the Swiss-French border as a symbol of international esprit de corps.

The big donut is what physicists call a particle accelerator. Scientists take turns firing tiny particles through its chambers, making them go faster and faster until they smash into each other. The particles shatter into a thousand tiny bits and the scientists sift through the mess looking for new tiny particles. When dad and I visited, these scientists were preoccupied with finding one tiny particle in particular, which they called the Higgs Boson.

Dad looked at me very seriously and repeated the sound of the word: “BO-zon.”

I scribbled in my journal: “Giant donut. Underground. BO-zon.” And I sketched a stick man with a donut. The edible kind.

“Can we go inside?”

“No. You could die from radiation.”

“That’s not true.”

“It’s true. Radiation.”

* * * *

We arrived at the welcome center at 2pm. It was an otherwise unspectacular building with a sign that read, “CERN: European Organization for Nuclear Research.” We’d signed up for a tour of the facility, which began with a science lecture in small classroom. Dad and I sat in the back, behind two-dozen fidgety university students—aspiring physicists on a field trip. A middle-aged Australian man took the podium and began a lecture on basic physics.

I had zoned out, contemplating a brightly colored Milky Way poster on the wall, when dad raised his hand. The Australian had asked the class a question, and in typical fashion the students chose not to participate.

“Relativity,” dad volunteered, and put his hand down. That’s exactly right, replied the Australian, and resumed his lecture.

A few minutes later the Australian asked another question and a few hands went up. “The Higgs Boson,” dad declared, out of order. It was correct. One or two students turned around and looked at us.

“BO-zon,” I clucked, winking at a cute physics student on my left.

It wasn’t long before the students were participating, and dad was lost in the back with his arm high. The girl to my left was contemplating the Milky Way poster, and I returned to drawing donuts.

We poured out into the parking lot and set course for the control center, a kilometer away. The students drove over on a crowded charter bus while dad and I folded ourselves into the back of the Australian’s tiny maroon Subaru.

Inside the control center, glass panes overlooked a dozen flashing computer panels with diagrams in red, green and blue. After dad had left cheek-smudges on all the windows, we filed outside to view the back of the building. It displayed a bright four-story mural depicting a bisection of the great donut.

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Photo: Dad. At CERN. Extremely happy.

“This is great,” dad sighed.

I asked if we could go inside.

“You’d be radiated,” said the Aussie.

“Like the Hulk,” I offered. They didn’t laugh. “Gamma rays,” I explained.

“Exactly.”

The rest of the tour was a lot of scientific banter between dad and the Aussie. At one point dad mentioned that there were actually several donuts buried in the area, and that one of them is named “Alice.” The students grew bored, I daydreamed, and dad asked questions. How fast? How far? How many particles? How much money?

“How much longer?” I asked.

“Years. Maybe months,” dad fired back. “They could find the boson any day.”

I was talking about the tour.

While wrapping up the Australian physicist invited us to join him for lunch. I think dad almost fainted, but he declined in deference to me. We wanted to get a good start on the road so I could visit a vineyard.

* * * *

The rest of dad’s visit lasted two weeks. It included some traditional stops like Burgundian vineyards, Paris, and the villages of Brittany. His second choice destination took us to Normandy so he could pose for a photo with a rusty canon pulled from the wreckage of the CSS Alabama—a relic of the only American Civil War battle to occur outside the United States.

“This is great,” he said in typical expressive form.

Two weeks later dad and I hugged it out back at Charles de Gaulle airport. He was going home, and I was headed east to the Balkans.

I road the train back into Paris thinking about dad’s visit. Whether it was the beginning or just one more beginning to my trip, the giant donut seemed like an appropriate starting point. Like the collisions inside the giant donut, everything that followed was like a thousand tiny particles firing off in a million different directions. I was setting off on my travels—at what felt like the speed of light—in search of my Higgs Boson.

“BO-zon,” I said, as I stepped off the train.

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Photo: Dad with physicist and Subaru.

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