The Physics Chanteuse

Oct 27, 2022

The year is 2000 and the month is November.  Almost a year into my new position as the Institute of Physics Representative in Ireland, I find myself travelling to Switzerland with an Irish delegation of physics educators to attend a pan-European conference* being held in CERN – the home of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators sitting astride the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva.  Our team is staying in a hotel on the cheaper French side of the border with easy access to CERN headquarters in Switzerland.  On arrival we are told by our treasurer that under no circumstances are we to use Swiss taxis– they would be ridiculously expensive and might break our already stretched budget. But more of this anon.

A physics teacher on our team had brought along two of her students who would showcase, at our Irish stand, their home-grown demonstrations that had won them a local physics competition in Ireland. As they are both sixteen, the teacher and myself –  the only women on the team – predictably take it upon ourselves to be in loco-parentis.

One of the evenings the boys ask for permission to go out. We let them go with a couple of ‘no-drink’ and ‘don’t-get-into-trouble’ platitudes. That night neither of us can sleep, listening constantly for their return.  Entertainment is going on in a room somewhere up the corridor: laughing, glasses clinking, music. French? Hungarians? Italians?

Midnight approaches. Very worried.  On high alert.  A door slams. I leap up to peep out into to the corridor to see if it is the boys. Dozens of closed doors stretching down each side of the corridor. Which one is their room? Can’t remember the number, but pretty sure it is on the right hand side. Knock on a few doors.  No response. Try opening a door when I hear voices inside. And I’ve walked in on a party. Ill prepared (if you need an image here think old t-shirt & underwear.).
“Sorry. Sorry. Je m’excuse. Je cherche deux garçons…?”

Skulk back to bed. We will be held responsible for losing two Irish school students somewhere near the Swiss-French border.  International incident. Four inch headlines. Sleep now impossible.

Loud voices and another door bangs.  Out into the corridor again. Which door is theirs? Knock on one of the doors. “Entrée!”  Oh God. It’s the same room. The party.  The man sitting nearest the door laughs when he sees me. A snigger ripples through the room.  “Entrée!  Entrée Madame! Join us. Please. ‘ave a drink!”   I can confirm that French laughter is far more humiliating than English; but on the bonus side I am no longer remotely concerned about the boys (who naturally turn up in the morning with a cock-eyed story about getting lost in the hills.)

Towards the end of a very busy week I decide to take a walk down the road outside of the research grounds.  Half an hour later, coming back into CERN a man approaches me speaking French and gesticulating. Definitely a Swiss taxi man I think. “Non. Non merci. Je ne veux pas un taxi,” and carry on walking.  He follows me, speaking rapidly. He is really determined. I study the card he is shaking at me. Looks like taxi ID to me. “NON MONSIEUR.  JE. NE. VEUX. PAS. UN. TAXI.”

He starts off again, pointing at the card hanging around his own neck and steps in front of me to block my way. Now I’m nervous. Is he dangerous? A sort of taxi predator? I glance around noting I have just walked past a road security barrier.   It is never a good moment when paranoia flips to cool-headed logic: he is the security detail at the entrance to CERN. He wants to see my CERN pass and passport. I am casually trying to stroll out of the Schengen area, and cross the border from France into Switzerland. Merde.

A cabaret musical act called The Physics Chanteuse was programmed for the last evening of the conference. I’m thinking dark hair, smoky room and a sultry voice whispering about physicists doing it with electrons. But no. We’re in the same harshly lit lecture theatre we’d been in all week. Big hair and clad in a silver lurex one-piece this American rock chic belts out her lines: ‘and take the curl of Faraday’s Law/The trick is to use the vector ID for the curl of a curl/ and then you’ll see that everything simplifies/ cuz Gauss’s Law tells us del dot E is zero.’  Like the particles that will later decay in the Large Hadron Collider being constructed deep beneath us, the observing physicists slowly melt away.

© Alison Hackett first posted online 11 August 2016

*Physics on Stage The first of its kind, the aim of the conference was to re-inspire physics teachers and educationalists from across Europe and to share best practice.  Wandering around this treasure trove of learning resources in the exhibition space, I came across a striking collage-style poster depicting a physics timeline made by school children stretching to about four metres along the wall.  The extraordinary thing was that the poster did not include just physics theories and famous physicists, but, in addition, inserted above and below the physics timeline, were hundreds of other facts drawn from general history.  This poster was the seed idea for the IOP Physics in Time poster and later The Visual Time Traveller.

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