First impressions from the Moriond conference

24 March 2016 | By

Taking a ski break between sessions. (Image: Mario Campanelli / ATLAS Collaboration)

Hi, and welcome to the Moriond Blog!

My name is Mario Campanelli, and I am a physicist who has been working for about 9 years on the ATLAS experiment, as part of the academic staff of University College London. This is the first time I write a blog, but I do have quite an experience in communicating science to the public, having guided visitors around CERN since I started working there as a PhD student 20 years ago, and also having written two books for the general public. Since Saturday I have been in La Thuile, a mountain resort in the Italian Alps, for the Rencontres de Moriond - arguably the most important winter conference in particle physics.

Wait a moment, you may ask, are you at a conference or going to the mountains? Well, both, and it is actually quite a long story. This edition marks the 50th anniversary of this conference series. It all started with a young Vietnamese theoretical physicist, Jean Trân Thanh Vân, working in a French laboratory, who wanted to have some time off in the mountains. He discussed the idea with some colleagues, and they decided to all go and spend time in the village of Moriond. They invited along colleagues from other laboratories, to discuss science in an informal setting, separated from the rest of the world. This first edition is now almost legendary; apparently they did not have hot water and had to do all the cooking and cleaning. But they really enjoyed the experience, and the story spread.

The following year many more people wanted to participate, and they had to look for a different place. For the same cost as any other conference, the organisers searched out a mountain-top location that could host more than hundred participants for a week, and was attractive and remote (but not too remote). Over 10 years ago this conference, still organised by Jean and his wife with the support of the French laboratory of LAL-Orsay, moved from France to Italy (albeit in a partially French-speaking area), and has remained here happily ever since.

Some more things are different from other conferences: all the talks are plenary (given to the whole audience - there are no parallel sessions), they all last exactly the same time (15 minutes, plus questions), and the internet connection is almost non-existent… on purpose! Now, when you take a hundred physicists, used to answering work emails or connecting to videoconferences under any condition (I myself have done so from beaches, scuba diving resorts, bars, buses, museums, rehearsing with my village's woodwind band etc.) and deprive them of the internet for a week, things can get… interesting.

The schedule is also non-standard: we have talks from early morning to lunchtime, then the early afternoon is free, and we continue from mid-afternoon to dinner time, and some time after dinner. Yes, those into skiing can profit from the break and hit the slope with colleagues, to create a bonding atmosphere. I guess the tourists in the cable car were quite amused today to listen to me discussing about Higgs doublets and Technicolor with some colleagues while going up. In a bar at the arrival of that cable-car they even have prepared a "physicists' menu" (basically, a sandwich): they know we can't wait for our lunch for too long, since we need to run back down for the restart of the conference.