Travel June 2014

Ship of Wonks

Looking for love on a cruise for science nerds
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Patrick Leger

The laundromat is a great place to meet men, dating experts say. Also, sports bars. But what do you do when you have your own washer and dryer? When you quit drinking six years ago? What do you do when you want to meet someone who, like you, is not at that Super Bowl party, but home alone watching the Science Channel, contemplating the certain collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda and the romantic ramifications of quantum entanglement, what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”?

As I sat in my parents’ kitchen last fall, thumbing through my dad’s back issues of Scientific American, my mother warned me again about my hurtling headlong into a lonely void. “You don’t have forever,” she said. I was reading about the possibility that time doesn’t exist but is simply “emergent.” Still, I didn’t argue. I nodded and opened another issue, to an ad for Insight Cruises featuring a trip with a strong physics theme.

“You’re too picky,” my mother went on, noting my age—“nearly 40!” “Thirty-five,” I corrected her as I perused the cruise itinerary. Following a tour of CERN, on the Franco-Swiss border, home of the Large Hadron Collider, participants board the AmaDagio for a trip down the Rhône River, enjoying 23 onboard lectures about the latest developments in physics and cosmology punctuated by tours of five French port cities en route to Arles. What kind of people take these trips?, I wondered. Could this be my laundromat?

The day before my flight, I was still packing. Casual attire was advised, but I wasn’t about to meet my soul mate in a T-shirt. And visiting the largest particle accelerator in the world, where the elusive Higgs boson (the “God particle”) was finally discovered, surely warrants a little dressing up. I settled on practical Hepburn-esque menswear for daytime and gowns for the evening—perfect for a transatlantic steamer setting sail in 1925.

The laundromat is a great place to meet men, dating experts say. Could an Insight Cruise with a physics theme be my laundromat?

An overnight flight later, I was standing amid a crowd of T-shirted septuagenarian couples, waiting to board a bus that would take us to CERN. I was about to give up all romantic hope when a fantastically young man in his late 50s, an English astrophysicist, asked whether he could sit next me. “Of course!,” I said. And then I noticed his wedding ring, fat and gold, shaped like the Large Hadron Collider we were about to see.

Three hundred thirty feet underground, a 17-mile ring straddles the Franco-Swiss border. Whizzing through the accelerator at speeds approaching that of light, particles smash into each other, reproducing collisions that occurred in our newborn universe nearly 14 billion years ago. I was still thinking about this the next day as I stared out from the deck of the AmaDagio. Swathed in secondhand mink, I watched the French countryside drift by, the trees an autumn medley of orange and red, and then bare.

Belowdecks, I lunched with an American couple who reminded me of my parents. “The boeuf bourguignon is delicious,” I said, smiling. “The meat is tender, but none of that matters if you don’t have a person to share it with,” the wife replied, after learning that I was traveling alone. I was grateful when her husband, a gynecologic pathologist, changed the subject. He asked whether I’d gotten the HPV vaccine. “My doctor says I’m too old.” He nodded gingerly before estimating my age, probable number of sexual partners, and the statistical likelihood that I already had the cancer-causing virus. His wife took his hand and beamed. “My husband’s work has been honored all over the world.”

For dinner I selected a dramatic houndstooth gown paired with my favorite polar-bear earrings. The only one in formal attire, I blushed and quickly took a seat beside a roguishly handsome retired art-history professor from Bath. An Insight Cruise veteran (this was his fifth), he had spiky white hair, dark eyebrows, and a back problem that made him look sulky and rebellious.

We bonded right away—I have a similar pain in my hip from too many hours at my desk—and I began fantasizing about becoming the wife of Bath and accompanying him on his sixth cruise. Over dessert, he took out his iPhone to show me photos of his collection of clocks and barometers. He was going on about time and pressure when it hit me: I was not being courted but visited by the Ghost of Science Cruise Future. With a start, I realized that all of his clocks were grandfathers.

Like sand through one of the professor’s hourglasses, the days of our cruise slipped by. Some mornings brought lectures on the subatomic world—“Electrons come in pairs.” Several afternoons, talks on space—“We live in a time of cosmic collision, but eventually the galaxies will settle down.” We toured the Roman ruins of Vienne—“The Temple of Augustus and Livia. What a pair!” And on one of our last evenings, we walked through the medieval ghost town of Viviers. Two by two we disembarked, like Noah’s animals, onto dry land. The professor gallantly offered his arm.

That night I stayed up late with the captain, the married astrophysicist, the gynecologic pathologist and his wife, and a couple from China. Together in the ship’s lounge, we talked excitedly about ideas the way we had when we were in college, when we were young, when we had forever. We talked about the Big Bang, about what came before the beginning, about what came before that, and before that … “You don’t want to end up alone,” I remembered my mother saying. But there, alone among the over-70 set, it dawned on me: I’ve seen the end, and it’s not so bad. I adjusted my vintage turban and leaned into the conversation. So what if electrons come in pairs? The Higgs boson, that special thing that took almost 40 years to find, goes it alone.

Iris Smyles is the author of Iris Has Free Time, a novel.
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