Making a song and dance about physics

3 November 1998

Who needs the Spice Girls? What physicists want (what they really, really want) is science entertainment from Les Horribles Cernettes and the physics chanteuse Lynda Williams.

The Cernettes have been pulling in the crowds at CERN since 1990 with their unique blend of ’60s pop and physics lyrics from the pen of computer scientist Silvano de Gennaro. Singer­songwriter Lynda Williams is a relative newcomer, but ever since she hit the road in 1996 at the 44th Midwest Solid State Conference her feet have hardly touched the ground.


Les Horribles Cernettes are the original physics entertainers. Their name is a play on the title of CERN’s next major particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, and the song Collider was their first hit. It was an anthem to unrequited love in the time of coloured quarks, and it was also a plea from the heart.

Back in 1990 a CERN employee was dating a particle physicist but she hardly ever saw her Romeo because he was always too preoccupied with his experiment. In desperation she asked CERN’s de-facto songwriter in residence, Silvano de Gennaro, to put her tragic tale to music.

Soon after, the Cernettes came together. Michelle Muller, the only original Cernette still in the band, teamed up with Catherine Decosse, Caroline Good and Ruth Rubio Marin. That summer they were on stage for the first time at the CERN Music Club’s annual “Hardronic Festival”. (Mix “hadron” with “hard rock” and that’s what you get.) As they belted out for the first time Collider’s unforgettable refrain, “You don’t go out with other girls either, You only love your collider”, there was more than one amorous physicist blushing with shame. Particle-physics partners the world over must have heaved a collective sigh of recognition at that sad story.

Since their first gig in 1990 the band has never looked back. Over the years Michelle has been joined by Angela Byrne, Angela Higney, Anne MacNabb, Patty McBride, Colette Reilly, Sue Swannel, Linda Timms, and Lynn Veronneau. The Cernettes played to thousands at the World Expo in Seville in 1992. They thrilled them to bits at the Computing in High Energy Physics conference, CHEP’92. They’ve recorded a CD, starred on the Franco German TV channel ARTE, and they still top the bill at the CERN Hardronic Festival. But the final seal of their success came this year with a copy-cat band. All the top groups have them. The Beatles had the Monkeys, Oasis have No-Way-Sis, and at the latest Hardronic festival, the Cernettes had the Canettes (“large beers” in the Geneva dialect). Show me a CERN physicist, male or female, who hasn’t felt their attraction (it’s a strong interaction) and I’ll show you a pig that can fly.

There are many bands out there claiming to be first on the Web, but that honour belongs to the Cernettes whose site includes pictures, sound clips, and even a fan club set up by some ardent admirers in Norway. True, the Cernettes had a head start, being based at the lab where the Web was invented, but they haven’t rested on their cyber-laurels. With their latest number, Surfing on the Web, they’ve made another breakthrough with the world’s first interactive pop video. You’ll need to be equipped with a VRML (Virtual Reality Mark-up Language) browser to get the full benefit, but once you’ve got it you can sail off into cyberspace with your favourite Cernette (but only for as long as the song lasts).

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