Column: Not the end of the world as we know it

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Sept. 10, 2008

When I heard about Fermilab’s 2 a.m. pajama party to welcome the start of the new Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, I knew I had to attend.

From rumors about the world possibly ending because of little black holes to pink elephants flying out of the machine, I wanted to see what it was all about. And while it turned out there wasn’t much to see, I certainly had an interesting time at the event.

12:15 a.m. – Wake up after about three hours of sleep. First instinct is to go back to bed. Realize that the world might be ending in a few hours. Instinct still to go back to bed. Force myself to get up, get out the door and into my car.

12:50 – I can see the main Fermilab building off in the distance as I pull up to the guard near the front entrance to the grounds. Having never seen it before, I must admit it looks somewhat imposing – like a secret lair for a James Bond villain. The guard, who has a Boston accent, lets me through. I’ve never known a Bond villain henchman to have a Boston accent, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything.

12:55 – I reach the building but have no idea where I’m supposed to be. As usual in these situations, I follow the closest person around. I follow him through all sorts of weird machinery and see nothing that looks like a reception area. I’m pretty sure I’m in the wrong place, and I’m hoping I don’t get arrested. But at least if the world ends tonight, it can’t go on my permanent record.

12:58 – A nice man with a German accent points me in the right direction. Danke.

1:01 – Upon entering, I run into Brock Cooper, who I worked with at the La Salle NewsTribune a few years ago. He works for Argonne now. Great, my past is flashing before my eyes. We all know what that means.

1:03 – I sign in and get a badge with my name on it. It does not have “Viewer of the World’s End” as my title. I take this as a good sign and a counter-balance from running into Brock.

1:05 – Fermilab Today editor and my good friend Rhianna Wisniewski finds me and directs me to the press room as well as to copious amounts of paperwork explaining what exactly is going to happen tonight. Apparently, you need to study for the end of the world.

1:06 – I look briefly at the papers, get lost after reading the words calorimeters, muon, and spectrometers in the same sentence, and decide to go check out what’s going on in the control room.

1:09 – The control room is pretty fascinating, even though I’m not sure what’s going on or if this place actually even is a control room. But it sure looks like a stereotypical Hollywood control room. There’s a lot of very smart-looking people working on clusters of computers. One of the screens has green code on it and I’m pretty sure the guy working at that computer is running The Matrix. I’ll have to ask him about it later. On the wall is a giant screen of the north Atlantic area of the world with little round beams traveling from Switzerland to Batavia. It looks like the Swiss are sending us over little wheels of cheese at a rapid pace. Unfortunately, I’m reassured that this is not what’s happening. It merely represents data. That’s too bad. Cheese tastes way better than data.

1:12 – I could really go for some cheese now.

1:15 – I’ve just been informed that Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke and Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns will be here in their pajamas. I opted to go with regular clothes to the pajama party myself, but now I’m regretting the decision. I have some awesome Scooby-Doo jammies that would have played well here.

1:25 – After wandering around looking for the mayors, I make a discovery that certainly will rival anything the Large Hadron Collider scientists hope to find: free cans of Mountain Dew. Jackpot.

1:33 – Word of the minute: elucidate. As in “We hope to elucidate the mystery of dark matter” or “I hope to elucidate the mystery of chocolate chip cookies.” Coming in a close second was gluons. Sounds like an item my mother would need for her scrapbooking hobby.

1:37 – Find Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns, who is sporting classy blue-and-white stripe pajamas. He seems quite awake despite it being 1:37 a.m. Personally, I’m hoping they have cots somewhere. He’s excited to be here, representing Geneva at this event.

“I wanted to witness history first-hand,” he said.

1:41 – Talk to Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke, who, despite earlier reports, is not wearing pajamas.

“I’ll let Mayor Burns have the pajama honors,” he said with a laugh.

Schielke is wearing a very nice tan jacket, though. Like Burns, he is excited to be here.

“This is history,” he said. “What we’re witnessing here may still be being talked bout 100 years from now.”

1:48 – Twelve minutes to go. I talk to someone who says she is a dilettante and has the business card to back it up. I’m not sure what this has to with the Large Hadron Collider, but it certainly is ranking up there with my favorite words of the night.

1:53 – I’m standing around awkwardly in a crowded room, much like how I spent most of my time at college parties back at my time at Indiana University. Once again, my past is flashing before my eyes. Seven minutes to go.

1:56 – A man standing in front of the reception area is explaining what’s about to happen to the 300 or so people at the event. Having read a few articles, I still don’t entirely get it. A friend of mine claimed it’s basically grown-up little boys smashing little trucks into each other at high speeds. Nothing wrong with that, I say.

1:57 – Three minutes to go. I wish I were having grand thoughts right now, with this possibly being my last three minutes, but instead I find myself wishing I had grabbed one of those chocolate chip cookies off a table a while back.

1:58 – I go back for a chocolate chip cookie. If the world is going to end, I want to have a chocolate chip cookie in tow.

1:59 – A large timer starts using milliseconds, which means this thing is about ready to start. At 10 seconds, everybody starts counting down as if it were New Year’s Eve. But instead of a glass ball dropping, they’ll be sending one small particle to go crash into another small particle. Works for me.

2:00 – The clock is at zero. I’m still alive. The world has not ended. (Of course, this was just a test run. They’re going to really rev up the power on this thing in a few months.)

2:01 – One of the unfortunate side effects of the world not ending is that techno music stills exists and that it is blaring on the speakers.

2:10 – I catch up with Geneva Township Highway Commissioner John Carlson. Like Burns, he got decked out for the pajama party, wearing his father’s smoking jacket. His father went to Fermilab 31 years ago for neutron therapy.

“I thought he’d like to be out here, too,” Carlson said.

Carlson said that he is astounded with the project.

“It’s so huge,” he said. “We’re just getting used to giga and now they’re talking about peta.”

Unlike me, he had no worries about the world ending tonight.

“I’m figuring that the people involved with this project have a very good handle on the laws of physics,” he said. “If they’re not running for the doors, then I’m not running for the doors.”

And as for those little black holes that might destroy the Earth.

“I stand a better chance of developing cold fusion,” he said with a laugh.

2:16 – While Carlson might not be running for the doors, I certainly am. I got to be there for the start of the Collider and I need to head back and have this typed up before the morning. If you wish to learn more about the Large Hadron Collider, please visit http://lhc.web.cern.ch/lhc/

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