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Living in the Web's cradle

There's a thrill to logging onto the Internet from Europe's CERN nuclear research center for the first time, just as there's a thrill to your first sip of a latte at the original Starbucks coffee shop in Seattle's Pike Place Market. That's because the World Wide Web got its start right here, on a woodsy campus near the French-Swiss border.

But that's not the place's only claim to fame: It was here that physicists found the particles behind the weak nuclear force and figured out how neutrinos fit into the subatomic family tree. And the future is looking even brighter: In the leapfrog race to build ever-bigger particle colliders, the Large Hadron Collider - due to be turned on at CERN next year - is the biggest of them all, with no competitor currently in sight.

We'll be delving more deeply (literally!) into the Large Hadron Collider later in the week. But for now, let's talk about a more pragmatic concern: the housing crunch resulting from the hubbub here.

All the activity surrounding the new collider has turned CERN (which is the French acronym for the European Nuclear Research Center) into an international mecca for physicists. Already, about 8,000 researchers from 50 countries work on experiments at CERN, and some of those visiting scientists say they're feeling the crunch as the new collider ramps up. It can take weeks or months to find a suitable place.

The building where we're staying is designed to relieve some of that pressure: Building 41, which opened just last month, adds another 100 rooms to the 400 or so that are available on or right next to the campus. The quarters are much like monastic cells: Don't expect to see cable TV or game rooms here. I've put together a little home movie as an illustration.

[YouTube:2DiuB9FvW90]

Clearly, the setting isn't designed for luxury living - and that's not what it's about here. In fact, after I finished up my cafeteria dinner (penne with meat sauce, salad with a raspberry vinaigrette, and a Cardinal beer that tasted great on a muggy evening), I sidled up to a table full of twentysomething researchers. They were somewhat at a loss when I asked what they did during their time off.

"What time off?" one said.

We'll learn more about what all these physicists do with all their time when we take our first tours on Wednesday.