Notes from the LHC

The best-selling American author of ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, Bill Bryson, visited CERN on 14 September. When asked whether, after this visit, he would rewrite the chapter about CERN, he replied: "Oh yes, absolutely"!

Bill Bryson visited CERN on 14 September.

When Eureka, the Times’ new monthly science magazine, asked Bill Bryson to contribute an article, he was ‘thrilled’ to visit CERN. "This is a place that I’ve heard about for a long long time," he said. "I’ve had images in my mind and I always wanted to come here and see what it was like. I arrived just at the right time, one of the most exciting times in CERN’s history." One of the first surprises for him was driving through the charming French countryside from the CERN Control Centre and accelerator complex in Prévessin, to the CMS experiment in Cessy, whereas the campus in Meyrin was more in line with what he imagined CERN’s ‘academic-type buildings’ to look like.

Bryson’s book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ explains in simple terms the whys, hows and whens of science. The book won him the Aventis Prize for best general science book in 2004. However, it only mentions CERN very briefly. "Everything I wrote about CERN in my book was based on not having ever been here", he explains. "What CERN is doing is tremendously exciting and interesting and is something that even non-scientists ought to be taking an interest in," he enthused. Indeed, one of the things he will explain to the Eureka readers will be why finding the Higgs boson is more important then just ‘interesting’, as there are so many knock-on effects.

During the morning’s visits he admitted: "It’s so complicated. I usually write books and have time to research the background. Now I’ve just got notes and scraps of thought from a flying visit to convert into an article. But it’s amazing. You usually only read about these things in the newspapers so to come to visit, to have it become a reality, to be able to talk to the physicists and to begin to understand it, is truly amazing." And by the afternoon, when he visited the Computer Centre, the Antiproton Decelerator and the ALPHA antihydrogen experiment, he was beginning to understand how the different parts of CERN fit together – particularly how the computing aspects support the LHC experiments.

"You made me feel terribly welcome here. I could ask any questions I wanted. There isn’t any sort of ‘oh, I don’t want to talk about that.’ It ‘s a very open and honest organization. I think that’s wonderful, really!", he concluded.

Rebecca Leam

Watch the video of the interview:


The second edition of The Times Eureka magazine featuring CERN will be published in the UK on 5 November 2009.