When you bring many intelligent and curious people together to unravel the mysteries of the universe, if they find a technological hurdle in their way, the word 'impossible' no longer exists.CERN's James Gillies tells Katy Edgington about the organisation's influence in shaping the face of modern particle physics
Physics research has stepped into the limelight in recent months. Fascinated speculation has surrounded the announcement that researchers are moving rapidly towards a definitive answer on the existence, or otherwise, of the Higgs boson, and surprising experimental results have seemed to record neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has been conducting groundbreaking research in particle physics for almost 60 years, and continues to push the envelope of human curiosity. Here, CERN's James Gillies discusses with Public Service Review's Katy Edgington how international scientific collaboration is weathering the economic storm and why courting media attention is important.How important is extensive collaboration within Europe, and what has it achieved at CERN?
CERN was created in the 1950s with two main purposes: one was basic research, the other was to provide a place where European countries could work together peacefully. Thus, collaboration is part of the DNA of the organisation. Over the years, CERN evolved to become the world's leading laboratory in its field, which shows very clearly what Europe can achieve when countries work together. It is also worth noting that CERN was the first European intergovernmental research organisation. Those that have followed are based very much on this model, most notably the European Southern Observatory, which was hosted by CERN before finding its own home in Munich. Thus, collaboration is extremely important to us – not just in Europe but globally as well – and we are actively striving to involve scientists from all over the world in our programmes.Can this cooperation survive the ongoing economic crisis, the repercussions of which we are yet to see?
It does seem to be thriving at the moment, with a waiting list of countries queuing up for CERN membership. Our research cycles are extremely long because projects take a lot of planning and development, as is the case with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The idea was first mentioned back in the 1970s, and prototyping for the kind of technology required happened through the 1980s. Building commenced in the mid-1990s, and the LHC was started up in 2008. The exploitation phase for all that investment is only just beginning.
One should also bear in mind that CERN's annual budget is comparable to that of a single large university. There is no denying that this is a lot of money, but in context it is not an enormous amount, especially as it is shared between 20 countries at the moment.What can Europe gain from increased collaboration with the global science community?
No-one can tell where the best talent will come from – no country or region has a monopoly on brilliance, but collaboration ensures that we have access to it no matter where it comes from. Also, scientists from different regions tend to work well together. Science can be a vehicle for peace, and this was one of the reasons behind CERN's creation.
At the moment, a laboratory is being created in Amman, Jordan, called Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, which is based almost exactly on the CERN model. Israel and the Palestinian Authority are among the founding members of this venture – demonstrating that on a scientific level, surprising groups of people can actually work very well together.What are the effects of continued media attention around, for example, the neutrino experiments?
It is amazing that people are so interested in science, and one great aspect of the neutrino story is that people are talking not just about results, but about methods and theories as well. There is a general perception that science is about facts, but really it is about research and probability. That press teams are taking an interest in this and talking about the way that science works is brilliant.
It is important that the science community tries to communicate the methods employed by scientists. We all rely on science in our everyday lives, and we are dependent on quite complex scientific issues that need to be solved for the future of our planet. The LHC can be used as a vehicle for getting science onto the popular agenda, which is where it ought to be.Can progress at the LHC happen as fast as people seem to expect it to?
People at the LHC are very level-headed despite all of the media attention, and they will make progress at the pace dictated by the need to conduct a thorough analysis. That said, however, by the end of this year, if everything runs as we expect, we will have enough data to make definitive statements about the existence of the Higgs particle, which although it is only one of the things that the LHC is looking for, is a very important part of the research programme. So, I think that it is possible that progress can occur as fast as people seem to think it can. The LHC ran so well in 2010 and 2011, and the team that runs it has been gaining experience all that time, so we should have the data to make serious advances this year.How do you answer accusations that more useful science is neglected for what are sometimes seen as 'glamorous' particle physics projects?
Humans are intrinsically curious about the universe and their environment. When people are asked whether we should be exploring the inside of atoms, they respond emphatically that of course we should be. The kind of research we do gets young people excited about science. We keep being told the world needs more scientists, but you must attract them with 'glamorous' science. Who knows what will become of the knowledge that we bring in the future; all we can say is that in the past, human beings have achieved beneficial results with basic science. We are continuing a tradition that goes back a very long way.
When you bring many intelligent and curious people together to unravel the mysteries of the universe, if they find a technological hurdle in their way, the word 'impossible' no longer exists. A lot of technology resulting from our developments at CERN has immediate practical benefits. Tim Berners-Lee was working here when he invented the worldwide web. It was not an accident that it was developed here at CERN, and it is just the tip of the iceberg. The fact that you can now have a combined PET and MRI scan in the same device is a direct consequence of developments that were made for an experiment at the LHC. There is a company which is a spin-off from CERN that is now making incredibly efficient thermal solar energy collectors. The benefits of our research come in the form of new applied technologies, not just from knowledge gained about the universe.This article first appeared on publicservice.co.uk: Part and particle.