My first visit to CERN was in 1997, when I was wrapping up my thesis work. I had applied for, and then was offered, a CERN fellowship, and I was weighing whether to accept it. So I took a trip to Geneva to get a look at the place and make a decision. I stayed on the outskirts of Sergy with my friend David Saltzberg (yes, that David Saltzberg) who was himself a CERN fellow, and he and other colleagues helped set up appointments for me with various CERN physicists.
Several times each day, I would use my map to find the building with the right number on it, and arrive for my next appointment. Invariably, I would show up and be greeted with, “Oh good, you’re here. Let’s go get a coffee!”
I don’t drink coffee. At this point, I can’t remember why I never got started; I guess I just wasn’t so interested, and may also have had concerns about addictive stimulants. So I spent that week watching other people drink coffee. I learned that CERN depends on large volumes of coffee for its operation. It plays the same role as liquid helium does for the LHC, allowing the physicists to operate at high energies and accelerate the science. (I don’t drink liquid helium either, but that’s a story for another time.)
Coffee is everywhere. In Restaurant 1, there are three fancy coffee machines that can make a variety of brews. (Which ones? You’re asking the wrong person.) At breakfast time, the line for the machines stretches across the width of the cafeteria, blocking the cooler that has the orange juice, much to my consternation. Outside the serving area, there are three more machines where one can buy a coffee with a jeton (token) that can be purchased at a small vending machine. (I don’t know how much they cost.) After lunch, the lines for these machines clogs the walkway to the place where you deposit your used trays.
Coffee goes beyond the restuarants. Many buildings (including out-of-the-way Building 8, where my office is) have small coffee areas that are staffed by baristas (I suppose) at peak times when people who aren’t me want coffee. Building 40, the large headquarters for the CMS and ATLAS experiments, has a big coffee kiosk, where one can also get sandwiches and small pizzas, good when you want to avoid crazy Restaurant 1 lunchtimes and coffee runs. People line up for coffee here during meeting breaks, which usually puts us even further behind schedule.
Being a non-drinker of coffee can lead to some social discomfort. When two CERN people want to discuss something, they often do it over coffee. When someone invites me for a chat over coffee, I gamely say yes. But when we meet up I have to explain that I don’t actually drink coffee, and then sit patiently while they go to get a cup. I do worry that the other person feels uncomfortable about me watching them drink coffee. I could get a bottle of water for myself — even carbonated water, when I feel like living on the edge — but I rarely do. My wife (who does drink coffee, but tolerates me) gave me a few jetons to carry around with me, so I can at least make the friendly gesture of buying the other person’s coffee, but usually my offer is declined, perhaps because the person knows that he or she can’t really repay the favor.
So, if you see a person in conversation in the Restaurant 1 coffee area, not drinking anything but nervously twiddling his thumbs instead, come over and say hello. I can give you a jeton if you need one.