Life at CERN: Are you a physicist or an engineer?


A column by Hwong Yi Ling

CERN is a particle physics laboratory. At CERN, there is a certain formula to introductory conversations in a social setting. The compulsory name-exchanging is often followed by a tell-tale question:

“Are you a physicist or an engineer?”

More than any other question, this one is most likely to set the mood for the rest of the conversation, and by extrapolation, determine the course of the relationship between these two people. So what is so fascinating about this distinction? Cernois1 talk about the great physicist and engineer divide, coffee corner gossips build around the enticing interaction between them, they strut the CERN compound doning vastly distinctive apparels (physicists in sweatpants and t-shirts with nerdy equations printed on them2 ; engineers in carefully ironed shirts tucked in their equally creaseless pants) and indulge in wildly different past-time. So, what is it really about these two species that make them love and hate each other? What underlies this nuanced relationship? And the most important question of all – who really rule CERN?

Physicists and engineers at CERN are in a state of perpetual friendly rivalry. As the biggest physics laboratory in the world, CERN’s mission is to find out the ingredients of the universe and solve the conundrum of its birth. This is the domain of particle physicists (be it theorists or experimentalists). Theories were developed to explain the recipe of the universe, with the Standard Model3 being by far the most elegant and compelling one. However, the bedrock of any scientific endeavour lies in its absolute reliance on empirical evidence. In order for CERN physicists to prove their theory, big and complex detectors and accelerators need to be built. And this is where the engineers come in. The latest in CERN’s repertoire is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Aside from the buzz around its mission to find the Higgs boson4 (conspicuously named ‘The God particle’) and thus complete the Standard Model, the LHC also shone the spotlight on CERN’s magnificent engineering feat. The size and complexity of its detectors are a marvel of engineering virtuosity. What is less known though, is the tug of war between the physicists and engineers in the process of building this giant machine.

resistorAlthough both placing the utmost importance on mathematics and analytical thinking, physicists and engineers have fundamentally different attitude in solving puzzles. An engineer will not start a project unless he knows the answer, while a physicist will not start a project if he knows the answer. Physicists are often driven by imagination, while engineers by well-defined rules and specifications. If it was up to the physicists, the LHC could have been twice its size and with far more frills. But the reality of matter is, in the realm of science, imagination is often limited by technology. When a physicist is free-wheeling in his wonderland, it is often up to the engineer to slow him down and say “No, we can’t do this. At least not yet”. Engineers are like the prosaic twin to the physicist’s unruly one. The physicist thinks that the engineer is a kill-joy to his unorthodoxy ways, while the engineer regards the physicist as unreasonable and other-worldly. Engineers value order, but physicists take pride in creative chaos – they are, afterall, exploring the unknown.

Great discovery can depend on serendipity. For physicists, experiments that don’t work might lead to greater discovery. Indeed, at CERN, there is an unspoken agreement among the physicists that the worst possible outcome of the LHC experiments would be that if only the Higgs boson, and nothing else, is discovered. That would mark the end of the journey, leaving many pressing questions (e.g. What is dark energy made of? Why are we made of matter and not antimatter?) unanswered. On the contrary, in engineering, things that don’t work can spell disaster. Who can forget the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge as a famous example of engineering disasters?

With the demarcation so clear between the two seemingly divorced worlds of engineers and physicists, what makes their relationship work?

The truth is, they both can’t live without each other.

As is true for most relationships, their differences drive them crazy, but also cultivate in them a capacity to learn and compromise. They rub off each other’s mentality and approach, each providing a balancing effect to the other’s temperament. In dispensing outrageous demands, physicists encourage engineers to stretch their imagination, motivating them to push the envelope of technological possibilities. By repeatedly asking “why not?”, they spur the engineers on to develop innovations which turn No’s into Yes’s. On the other side of the coin, engineers provide structure to the at times chaotic scientific process and set the necessary boundaries to the physicists’ otherwise unrestrained explorations. Engineers build the skeleton, upon which imagination is free and safe to roam.

Science in the 21st century is never a one-man show. The collision of character and style, as well as the resulting synergy, is a staple of large collaborative projects such as CERN’s research. For better or for worse, the wacky t-shirts and the neat tucked-in shirts are both here to stay.

1 A term referring to those affiliated with CERN.
2 My favourite one says “RESISTANCE IS FUTILE (if R < 1 ohm)”.
3 A mathematical description of the elementary particles of matter and the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces by which
they interact.
A hypothetical particle that explains the origin of mass.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way the official policy or position of CERN.


Yi Ling Hwong graduated from the University of Applied Sciences Karlsruhe, Germany with a Master in Power Engineering. She worked for 6 months in the Cryogenics group of CERN as a technical student and 3 years as a data acquisition engineer in the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment of the LHC. She is now a web editor for the Doctors without Borders organization. Find out more about Yi Ling by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at: