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Life, the Universe, and Everything

When Jay asked David Barney at Cern what he hoped to learn from his current experiment, he replied "Life, the universe, and everything."

He said it with a wonderful smile, but it's not really a joke. David spent two hours with us at Cern explaining how this true cross-border endeavor works. CERN stands for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and its 27km-circumference particle accelerator runs under both Swiss and French territory just to the northwest of Geneva. But the collaboration is far larger than these two countries alone: some 20 European nations are partners, along with many others worldwide.

That's because this "Large Hadron Collider" is the biggest in the world, and its mission is nothing less than to discover why matter has substance, what the missing 96 per cent of the known universe might be, and how it all began, among other things.

I must apologize to readers and to David alike for any facts I might butcher, but I hope no one is coming here to learn the full depth of what's happening 100 meters below the surface of our bicycles as we entered the old city-state of Geneva.

Learning something of the complexity of this town's turbulent history before and after it joined the Swiss Confederation seemed complex enough, but that's merely a sequence of events easy to follow one historical step at a time. But David's "CMS" for "Compact Muon Solenoid Experiment" is looking for things well beyond the current limit of human knowledge - and possibly even the ability of humans to know. David didn't say the latter, but as a lay person with a passion for physics, I'll say it for myself. Not that I don't hope our species figures it all out, that we someday - ideally in my lifetime - learn why things are the way they are. But who knows how close we'll ever come to that dream? We only have human-sized brains as tools. And, of course, 2,000-ton particle detectors lowered deep under Swiss and French soil.

Out of the tens of thousands of scientists around the world who work on results from the Cern accelerator, David Barney is among only 100 scientists actually employed here full time, and he's been here since 1993 - a dream job for a nuclear physicist. We were extremely fortunate that he was willing to devote a couple of hours to describing the facility and his work to us. We'd hoped to also bicycle around the grounds together - he'd brought his special Cern bike to accompany us on--but we arrived a bit late because we were confused by how many different Cern sites there are, and we first went to the wrong one.

But in a bigger picture our timing was good as this is the final week of the year for active collisions before they shut down the accelerator for the winter. It seems the giant machine consumes so much electricity from the French grid that during winter they need the electricity for heating homes instead.
2010 is also a good year to be here, as last March was the first time collisions were made at current energy levels, following a setback last year due to a massive helium leak. One of the biggest short-term goals at Cern is to find the elusive Higgs boson particle, which might be the explanation for why matter has substance and isn't simply some ethereal non-touchable entity. What fun would the world be if matter never distilled into a Rhine or a Jura, let alone someone capable of paddling and biking them?

It's not my job to explain the nature of the known and unknown universe (it would take too long...), so I'll leave our visit to Cern in this non-substantive state.

But I do need to mention what we personally experienced in our local universe, both yesterday afternoon and today. Yesterday early afternoon Jay and I lost Lee somewhere around the town of La Coeur, so he found his way over to Divonne les Bains by another route. But Jay and I followed the border over a pass that left our jaws on the floor in awe. It was truly the scenic highlight of my northern border journey. Before reaching the pass we peddled up a paved path through frost-tinged green fields and stone walls that made me think I was in Ireland. Then we pulled over the top and there was no mistaking where we really were: the alpine panorama before us stretched from Mont Blanc to the Dents du Midi, with a few peaks to each side. So many of those summits I knew, whether by standing on their summits or hiking around them. My starting point last June above St. Gingolph was also clear as could be.

The descent to Lake Geneva from our pass on the shoulder of Mont Dole was surely the finest cruising downhill ride I've ever done, with roughly 1,000 meters of car-free narrow pavement winding down, down, and down some more. Golden foliage added highlights to the distant views and never-ending gliding as we fairly flew down the mountain.

This morning was a study in contrasts, with a long stretch of single-track riding alongside a woodsy stream followed by two- and then four-lane paved roads with ever-denser traffic as we pushed our way into downtown Geneva, where we're sleeping in a youth hostel (we may all be in our 50s, but this trip has put a youthful spring in our legs). Tonight is our last night with Lee (yes, we found him again thanks to text messaging) before he flies to Portugal for a vacation with his wife, Feliza. Meanwhile Jay and I will continue our Swiss tour for a few more days, first around Geneva then paddling on the lake.