How Can A Croissant Sustain A Hadron Collider?

A coffee-shop conversation on local issues can take us on a ride through space and time, enriching our lives.

January 10, 2024 02:14 EDT
Dear FO° Reader,

As I do every other day, I went to the bakery to get bread for my family. In Geneva, like most of Europe, a bakery is more than just a place to buy pastries. It is also a meeting place, a spot where you can stop, have breakfast and chat with neighbors. That day, I sat down next to two interesting local characters who were enjoying their coffee at parallel tables.

One, Armand, had been a teacher of mathematics and geography, now retired. He was scribbling notes on scrap paper. The other, Bernard, had been a mathematician, then an anesthesiologist. He sat scrutinizing the incoming and outgoing crowd.

Armand tells me how he likes to make his writing witty and amusing. The world is already full of suffering, he says. As I gleefully dipped my croissant, bite by bite, into my macchiato, he noticed. I tell him that this is indeed my madeleine. The gesture of dipping a sweet treat into a warm beverage, as Marcel Proust wrote in his magnum opus, A la recherche du temps perdu, brings back memories of childhood.

Dall-e and me, Memoire du croissant

In my case, it reminds me of dark and cold mornings with my affectionate builder of a father. He was a big bear of a man with a heart of gold. In the mornings, he would make warm milk, adding a cloud of coffee and some sugar, and serve it with stale bread. Those were our silent breakfasts. He would eat the same thing in gigantic quantities, in the eyes of the child I was. He definitely needed way more energy than I did. After all, he spent long days, in the summer on construction sites and in the winter shoveling snow off the train tracks. Thus was life at the south entrance of the Gotthard rail tunnel. 

Armand recalled his father dipping a banana in wine. He felt the need to add that the banana was, of course, adequately peeled. How odd, he sighed, but you should try it!

Dall-e and me, You should try it!

After a moment of shared laughter, I asked Armand and Bernard whether, by chance, they knew anyone who could help Fair Observer understand the implications of Tuvalu’s impending election. You never know. Many Swiss have contacts in unlikely places. Remember, 2024 is an exceptional year with 76 national elections around the world. Both men giggled, but Armand had to leave. 

The question of the cost of science

Bernard took over the conversation and said that he’d like to write for us — not on politics, though, but rather on physics, mathematics and maybe even the arcane world of anesthesiology. Since he is more at home with French than English, I suggested he might like to write for francoFOnie, the upcoming French version of Fair Observer.

I took another chance and asked him what he thought of the new project by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN. CERN plans to build a particle collider even larger than its famous Large Hadron Collider. The current one has a circuit of 17 miles, the longest in the world. The new one will stretch 62 miles. Local detractors in the region around Geneva complain of the potential technical problems and the enormous cost. After all, this is not cheap real estate.

Bernard responded that there are three major components to this issue. The first is the technical feasibility and the cost. But this needs to be weighed against the necessity for pure science to keep searching to understand the universe we live in. A third consideration is the huge energy such a structure would need to function.

As a well-trained mathematician with the focus and awareness of an anesthesiologist, Bernard went on to expand these three points one after the other. I will probably fail in recalling all his insights, but I will try.

Digging a 62-mile-long circular tunnel 325 feet underground would be a technical feat. How do you take a tunnel drilling machine that deep straight down? How long will it take to dig? How will it impact the local water table? Engineers would certainly love the challenge; maybe the miners who would spend months or years down there would love it a little less.

Still, one cannot always count the cost when dealing with pure science. We have no idea what economic impact this research may have in fifty or a hundred year’s time. One should trust science and think long-term, says Bernard. What are 23 billion Swiss francs, or even double that much, compared to what we might gain from new discoveries? When Albert Einstein was working on his theories of relativity, no one dreamed that the GPS system would one day guide and enhance transportation across the world. Or think of Marie Curie discovering X-rays. Now, radiologists are richer than most other doctors! More importantly, we all benefit when broken bones and other diseases can be diagnosed with much greater accuracy.

Yet the concerns are more than just money. Building and running such a huge machine would take enormous amounts of energy. We would need ways to produce and transport that energy without harming the local ecosystems and human population. The tempting answer would be to reactivate outdated nuclear plants to power the collider. Bernard and I agreed that that would be short-sighted. In five or ten years we may very well have the technology to use hydrogen, or build thorium-based nuclear reactors. 

The debate over whether such a colossal investment is justified in the pursuit of knowledge or if resources could be better allocated elsewhere remains open. The important thing is to keep talking. Even a bakery, a seemingly ordinary place, can become a hub of intellectual exchange, where tales of childhood memories and career transitions weave into discussions on the forefront of scientific exploration.

So, to those who may question the value of a moment spent at the bakery, or a work-from-home mom enjoying her coffee — let’s raise our metaphorical croissants in a toast to unexpected connections. In the end, it’s these small moments that contribute to the collective story of humanity, making each day a unique and enriching chapter. 

That is what all of us at Fair Observer treasure and our daily goal to make your life just a little bit richer.

À vos croissants!

Roberta Campani
Communication and Outreach

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