Memories · The Last Half Century

When Words Collide

Years ago, a friend of mine moved to Geneva Switzerland. After he had been there for a couple years, I had the opportunity to visit him for a week. I had never been to that part of the world and I soon learned that CERN was located a few miles from my friend’s house.

If you’re not familiar with CERN, it’s an acronym for the French pronunciation of the European Council for Nuclear Research. The main focus of CERN is particle physics which is why the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Hadron Collider, is located there. If none of this makes sense to you, don’t feel bad. I am clueless when it comes to particle physics. After all, in high school my geometry teacher told me after the first semester, “You might want to consider taking something else second semester — I would hate to have to fail you.” (True story.) I took a shop class the next semester and passed.

I’m telling you all of this about CERN to make the point that the research facility attracted a lot of very smart people. Scientist from all over the world go to CERN to conduct particle research. As a result, my friend had several scientists in his social circle, people he wanted me to meet. So, one night before I flew back to the States, he had them over for dinner.

Did I tell you these are very smart people? To be fair, they were very down to earth and we had good conversation around the dinner table. But it was still hard to escape the fact that they were scientist. It was easy for them to understand when I told them I worked in public relations, but much more difficult for me to grasp exactly what they did at CERN. They would start to explain the science and pick up on my blank stare. “All you need to know is that I do research at CERN,” they would politely tell me. By the time we finished dinner, I didn’t feel intimidated at all being surrounded by these brilliant people. That is until my friend suggested we play Scrabble.

As we set up the board, I suddenly felt like a Kindergartner in a spelling bee against college students. I instinctively knew their vocabulary included words I never knew existed – words they helped invent through scientific discovery. I would have better odds of winning the lottery than outscoring this group of geniuses. I politely tried to bow out when they were trying to choose four players for the first round, but they insisted I should play because with my public relations background they thought I must be good with words. I reluctantly agreed and the game played out pretty much as I expected.

To give you an idea, I will take you through a simulation of the game with four players (pictured below):

  • They let me start the game and I lay down the word “BARNS”.
  • Player 1 follows with the word: “FEMTOBARNS”. Player 2 and 3 comment, “Oh, good one.” (I stare at the word, nod and smile, not daring to challenge the word.)
  • Player 2 lays down “NIOBIUM”. Player 1 and 3 remark, “nice!” and I nod and smile.
  • Player 3 lays down “DIPOLE” and Player 1 says, “Oh, I was going to use that!” I nod and add, “Me too?!” They chuckle with me.
  • It’s now my turn again and I stare at the board and the letters on my tray, feeling pressure to also lay an impressive word. I lay down “ORANGE” and hear the other players say, “nice!” I smile and nod, telling myself, “I’m still in this game.
  • Player 1 lays down “QUARKS” for a million points. “I’m doomed,” I think.

As you’ve likely already surmised, by the end of the game I was outscored something like 8 million to 87 points. I may be exaggerating a bit, but that’s how I felt. Yet my opponents were gracious, admitting that perhaps they exploited their scientific vocabulary to their advantage. I smiled, pointed to the board and remarked, “You think?” We had a good laugh, then retreated to the living room to enjoy some dessert and conversation about the challenges of being away from home in a foreign culture. It reminded me that while they held prestigious positions and degrees in the scientific community, inside they were still people dealing with life.

© 2021 CGThelen

A simulation of the Scrabble game I played with some scientists. See if you can pick out the words the physicists laid down versus the ones I placed on the board.

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