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Travel June 2014

Ship of Wonks

Looking for love on a cruise for science nerds
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.”

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