My dad found the Higgs boson! Reminiscences of a CERN kid
Hold it buddy - US atom bureau pass, but born in Iran?
When your Dad’s a bus driver or a bank manager life must be simple. Bring-your-kids-to-work day involves things like garages and spreadsheets: when I was little it meant trying not to step in front of a particle beam.
As a child I attended the playgroup at CERN while my older sister was enrolled at their international school while my dad, Robert 'Bob' Orr, was CERN Fellow and Staff Physicist at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (1976-1981).
Living across the border from CERN in the Jura Mountains made for an idyllic childhood but I always sensed my dad was a man with a mission "to understand what lies beyond our present ideas on the most fundamental structure of matter" - to answer the question:
"What is the Universe made of?"
The kitchen table used to be covered in massive detector prints like giant X-rays that he pored over with a magnifying glass, peering at beautifully curved and complex particle collisions. These have now been replaced by computer models which don’t quite give the same feeling that you are staring into the abyss of the universe and back in time to, well ... the beginning of EVERYTHING.
But why does this guy with the atomic security pass and the Scotch accent have "Iran" listed as his birthplace? Huh?
My grandfather had worked as an engineer and ship builder in the oil refineries of Persia, and my father was born there. The family was briskly kicked out when the Shah was deposed and Persia became the Islamic Republic of Iran.
I remember my father’s birthplace always dumfounding passport control when we visited the States. They found it impossible to fathom how my dad could hold an access all areas Atomic Energy Commission keycard while being born in a terrorist hotspot. I think it was my dad's thick Scottish brogue that convinced them he wasn't working on a dirty bomb.
After a spell at Dumbarton, the paternal ancestral home, it wasn’t long until my grandfather decided to relocate to the steel and chemical refineries of Port Talbot. My father's interest in physics was ignited by being surrounded as a child by engineers and the need to know how to take things apart and put them back together again – something he has ultimately applied to the very building blocks of the universe.
Here, the young Robert Orr had a lucky escape from the life of physical drudgery his own father knew, especially considering he is now a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (2009). Sure, he worked in the steelworks during the summer holidays to pay for model planes and his interest in photography, but he was also busy teaching himself physics to A-level standard, because the school didn’t have a physics teacher.
In the years that followed, he obtained a scholarship to Imperial College in London, where he completed his PhD: Observations of New Particle Production by High Energy Neutrinos and Anti-Neutrinos.
I remember long drives down to Port Talbot to visit my gran and asking my dad what he did for a living and him trying to explain to a seven-year-old his life's calling to resolve the problems of the Standard Model by finding the Higgs Boson. Back then, my dad was one of just a few scientists on the hunt but ultimately thousands of boffins and engineers became involved, at CERN and at universities and data centres around the world.
Every Christmas, I was lucky enough to receive the latest computer. My dad consistently encouraged my basic programming skills but the ZX Spectrum and VIC 20 were consigned to the cupboard as puberty hit and any thoughts of following my dad’s passion for bosons was replaced with a passion for boys. You know how it is ...
During the 1980s dad moved to Canada to take up his position at the University of Toronto. As NSERC Principal Investigator for the ATLAS collaboration he was also involved in the construction of an innovative particle detector at the Collider – apparatus which instrumental in the search for Supersymmetry (another great discovery which some physicists expect at the LHC in future) and the origin of electroweak symmetry breaking: the mechanism which generates the masses of particles.
Along with my sister I followed him to Toronto and he continued to allow us small glimpses into his world with access to the University network to play ASCII MultiUser Dungeons with his graduate students. On starting my film degree and watching too much Fellini I remember after a particularly deep LSD trip asking my dad to explain antimatter, at which point he pulled out a pad and started writing equations. I will always regret quickly losing concentration.
After moving back to the UK to complete my MA I would occasionally visit my dad at CERN when he was over for the ATLAS steering committees. I remember once – after an especially scrumptious pizza at the CERN local pizzeria in Ferny Voltaire – my dad driving to a field in the middle of the French countryside, past a small barrier. Walking through the wheat we came to a hatch and climbed down into the LHC tunnel – all Freon and beams. I remember thinking: It doesn’t get much cooler than this.
Intimately involved with the latest developments regarding the Higgs boson particle experiments, my dad once claimed it was “the most elegant way humans can build a theory for describing reality.”
Over the last couple of months I have regularly been hassling my dad regarding a summer holiday, and he has been consistently ignoring me. Now I know why. ®
Lucy Orr is a 3D animation tutor and a regular contributor on all things gaming for Register Hardware.