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.
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.