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15 Minutes of Fame: Searching for the Higgs boson and a Swift White Hawkstrider


From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

We interrupt our two-part interview with actor Kristian Nairn (Hodor in HBO's blockbuster new series, Game of Thrones) for a quick chat with ... a particle physicist at CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. Writes in-game buddy Fra (and thanks, Fra -- much love for all the EU players who brave the whole second language thing to send in tips!), "I have a friend which might be material for one of your interviews (which are great!). He is both good as a healer as he is a physicist. He also does some guides and public talks about his studies, and he is comprehensible even for a dumbass as me. :) I'm pretty sure you've a lot of nerds on your interview list, but a physicist working in one of the most famous labs is something ... new? He also does a lot of jokes about the not-so-good physics in game, or when people care of maximizing numbers that do not really change your game performance if you do all the math."

A particle physicist who isn't into theorycrafting? We simply had to know more. Follow us past the break to learn how searching for the Higgs boson is like farming for a Swift White Hawkstrider (and come back next week for more with Game of Thrones' Kristian Nairn).

Main character Pjem, holy paladin
Guild Ready Check
Realm Crushridge EU

15 Minutes of Fame: The friend who nominated you was right -- we don't usually interview folks in your line of work! Tell us a little about how you play. What kind of playstyle do you most enjoy?

Pjem: I almost exclusively play healers. Healing in my view has the right mix of fun and strategy. The best healer is not the one that heals the most (within reason) but the one that manages to keep people alive the longest. If at the end of the fight the tank has 20k or 200k health left, it doesn't matter.

I like palas because our healing is somewhat more deterministic: you don't have to wait for HoTs to tick or mechanics to proc in order to do your job, you know a priori how much you're going to heal when you push a button (crits excluded of course).

How long have you played WoW?

I started playing WoW while I was writing my Ph.D. thesis. I needed something to distract myself during the long days at home working. After a while, you need to pause and relax, otherwise you stop being productive. A friend suggested WoW to me.

Before that, I never played any MMOs.

Most people don't imagine that physicists would have the time or inclination to play a game like World of Warcraft! Do any of your colleagues also play?

I know a couple of people that did play in the past, but stopped because they couldn't keep up with both work and game. But this was mainly due to the fact that they couldn't control their /played (so to speak). I would never sacrifice work for raiding commitments.

Physicists do enjoy themselves though! A colleague of mine is a tango teacher in her spare time, another sings in a chorus. None of them has "brainy" hobbies like chess, though. I guess that after work, you need to refresh the little grey cells.

Tell us a little about what you do at CERN. What does your job entail?

Among other things, I work on an analysis that searches for the Higgs boson. The Higgs particle is one of the most important missing pieces in the current model that describes the laws of nature: we need it in order to explain how fundamental particles gain their masses. Without it, a big part of our theoretical comprehension of reality is shaken. Up to now, no clear evidence of this particle has been brought up by other experiments. But we do know that if we don't see it at the LHC (which is the main accelerator of the lab) in one of our experiments in the next couple of years, it either doesn't exist or has a probability to be created too small to be explained by theoretical calculations.

To draw a similarity to WoW, searching for these new particles is like a Magister's Terrace farming for the very rare mount. :)

We are looking for particles that, if they exist, have a certain probability of manifesting themselves in the collisions of protons inside our accelerator. So you collect as many events as you can and hunt for new phenomena.

Of course, the main difference is that you do know that the Hawkstrider mount exists, and eventually you're going to get it. We may not see any new particle at the LHC for the simple reason that they do not exist at the energy scale this accelerator can probe. This possibility is even more exciting, because it means that the model we created to describe the universe is either wrong or needs to be tuned. In the Higgs case, it would need a different mechanism to give mass to particles. I can't wait; it would be better than a new WoW expansion!

What do you do in the course of a typical work day?

The main activity? Talk to people. We need to discuss all the time, either to better coordinate our work (it's a 2,000-people experiment, after all) or simply to understand what we need to do. For example, sometimes you get a result which you perceive to be important, but you need to discuss in order to understand what you are measuring or what is the meaning of your findings.

The rest of the time, I am in front of my desktop (or in the cafeteria with my laptop, when my office feels too tiny) either writing code to monitor and analyze our data or trying to debug what I previously wrote ...

We hear you're somewhat known for making jokes about WoW's in-game physics. What in particular catches your attention?

I don't think they qualify as jokes. :D

Sometimes the laws of physics are a bit stretched in game, though I can understand how difficult it must be to code them without loosing in performance. One of the funniest things is the absence of (classical) relativity. For example, if you simply take off a flying vessel like the Skybreaker, you should retain, for a while, the speed of the ship, until the attrition of air stops you. Last time I checked (before Cataclysm, but I doubt they changed this), you immediately loose the velocity with respect to the ground and stop. You never notice this because you normally move when you take off. But it feels a bit unnatural to me!

Also, an overweighted paladin with his shiny armor should really not be able to float in water like a wooden stick. At least a bit of gravitation should be applied, while it is completely suppressed right now. I know, I know, I can see my character moving his arms so that he can actually float, but I don't have to put any action in this so it doesn't feel like the real thing. But I guess he shouldn't be able to resurrect people or heal from distance, so I'm ok with all this.

You're also known for poking fun at people who split the hair maybe a little too closely on theorycrafting. Are you not much of a min-maxer?

I try to optimize my healing strategies, not numbers. People are obsessed with numbers that do not matter. I think because it's easier to say "+1k mana is better" than to actually think about your use of the healing arsenal you have at your disposal and try to imagine what to do in each situation. A 1% difference in intellect will not make any difference in a fight. A smart macro or a good timing for my Divine Plea may.

What have you enjoyed most so far in Cataclysm?

The fact that I don't have to spam a single big button with Holy Light written on it. They made my job less obvious. I have to learn from others and teach to others how to improve. It's a social game, after all.

I'm also eagerly awaiting for patch 4.1 and the possibility to do all my random heroics of the week in one day. I normally work up until 7-8 p.m., and in the evenings I play WoW I start raiding at 9 p.m. So I never do heroics.

We can only imagine! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. We'll be keeping our eye on news out of Geneva to stay up the latest research!

Curious about Pjem's work? Read more about CERN and the Large Hadron Collider.

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Aron "Nog" Eisenberg to an Olympic medalist and a quadriplegic raider. Know someone else we should feature? Email

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