A comic takes on CERN

24 March 2009 | By

A sample of PhD comic. (Image: Jorge Cham)

If you want insight into the lives of graduate students, look no further than Jorge Cham’s Piled Higher and Deeper comic series, detailing the trials and tribulations of earning a PhD. He brought his well-honed observational humour to CERN, meeting with a few graduate students and post-docs for a slice of life at the world’s largest physics experiment.

Unfortunately, he arrived in May just as the detectors were closing up, so he didn’t get a chance to go underground. Benoit showed him what he could. “I saw several of the displays, walked around some of the older experiments and warehouses and visited the main beam control room,” Jorge recounts.

He had not expected the size and complexity of CERN, comparing it to a small city or theme park as his character notes in the comic. “My favourite place was the cafeteria, and Benoit’s comment that it is where all the important decisions get made,” says Jorge. He also met Diego and Teresa, a graduate student and post doc, respectively, at the train station in Geneva to chat about particle physics. In the comic, the Diego character’s remark of, “We didn’t know what you looked like,” understates the actual scene, in which Teresa shouted, “Jorge?” over the crowd, to find him right next to her.

ATLAS makes a comic appearance... (Image: Jorge Cham)

From there, Teresa led the way to a pub to converse. Both she and Diego were familiar with the comic strip and intrigued at the proposition of discussing their work with the artist behind it. Says Teresa of her initial encounter with PhD comics, as a graduate student: “I liked them because they were an ironic description of reality, and able to make you laugh at the things that usually make you feel miserable.”

Teresa and Diego didn’t realise at the time that they would be drawn in the comic; in fact, Teresa wondered that she never saw Jorge sketch anything. Diego recounts: “Sometimes he picked up his copybook and pen to write some ideas.”

“After seeing the comic, I was also amazed how good his memory was,” says Teresa, “To the detail level, he drew the bag I was carrying that night.”

In addition to the observations on life at CERN, the series gives an introduction to the LHC and its purpose. “I really wanted to understand what was going on, so I think my hosts were surprised at how persistent my technical questions were,” says Jorge. “Keep in mind I am not a physicist! Fortunately, they were all very patient.”

The ATLAS detector makes a guest appearance in the first page of the CERN series, which ran from the 8th through the 12th of September 2008, and in Teresa’s discussion of her work. One day, Jorge hopes to see it in person underground.

When asked which experiment is likely to find the Higgs boson first, Jorge gives a diplomatic answer: “I always put my money on the project with the best acronym.” We may be a bit partial, but named for the myth of the titan who holds up the earth, ATLAS should be a safe bet.