Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN), explains why the slow work of science is fundamental to our fast-moving world.
Ever since Tim Berners-Lee programmed the world’s first web page at http://info.cern.ch/ in 1989, we have lived in a world of CERN’s creation.
“That changed the way we worked and, of course, the way the whole world communicates,” says Professor Rolf-Dieter Heuer from his office at the institute’s sprawling headquarters in Geneva. As CERN’s Director General, Professor Heuer is responsible for running an organisation that has transformed the fabric of our society, adding rocket fuel to the pace at which we do business, make connections and manage our lives.
The world wide web may be CERN’s most famous legacy but its influence goes even further. From new types of medical treatment to advances in solar energy and the advent of cloud computing (an offshoot of CERN’s grid system, which allows scientists to collaborate on experiments from anywhere in the world), the fundamental science conducted by CERN’s brilliant physicists is reshaping, well, just about everything we do – and everything we know.
But what is this factory of imagination that houses mysterious laboratories and accelerators beneath mountains?
CERN was founded in 1954 as a multinational effort to advance our understanding of the universe through experimentation in high-energy physics. The work is financed by 20 member states, whose largesse most recently birthed the Large Hadron Collider – CERN’s superstar accelerator, where opposing particle beams of protons are thrown around a 27km circuit before smashing into each other at something close to the speed of light.
“Everything depends on science – this is what we need to communicate to people.”
The purpose of CERN, says Professor Heuer, “is to gain more knowledge, because science is the centre of everything.” But this knowledge comes at a price. In 2011, the institution’s total budget amounted to almost £700 million, all of it from countries whose citizens are feeling the pinch of a major economic downturn (the UK contributed 15 percent, or £105 million). How does Professor Heuer make the case for CERN when there are so many more immediate issues to resolve? While it would be cool to know more about the origins of the universe, don’t the member states have a responsibility to solve their own problems first?
“People are asking, ‘Why do we need science? We should take care of the business of daily life first’,” the professor concedes. “But if people in past decades had thought that way, we wouldn’t have the society we have today. Everything depends on science – this is what we need to communicate to people. I think it’s working because the general public is realising not just how fascinating science can be, but what can come out of science in terms of knowledge and, at some stage, the betterment of society.”
The role of the Director General is to be the face of this message and to act within the organisation as everything from “chancellor, to foreign minister, interior minister and prime minister”. By his own admission, Professor Heuer is part scientist (he is currently on sabbatical from the University of Hamburg), part businessman and part politician – although he prefers the word ‘diplomat’. “Despite its global nature and its international standing, we are able to keep politics out of CERN to a large extent, and this is why we are successful,” he says.
Then there are the operational challenges of running CERN itself, where 10,000 visiting researchers outnumber full-time staff three-to-one. It is Professor Heuer’s job to integrate this collection of brilliant individuals and instil in them a sense of shared purpose.
“You can only run an excellent infrastructure if you challenge the people that run it intellectually,” he says. But it’s also about striking a balance between personalities – between “the future Nobel prize winners” (aka ‘the thinkers’), and “the guys who are able to bring ideas to fruition” (aka ‘the doers’). And it’s not just the scientists – you also need “those on the engineering side who can turn the successful ideas into instruments”.
The practical value of CERN’s research has seen it forge close links with the private sector, but perhaps not close enough. “Quite a few people who have visited CERN have said, ‘Look, your management has a different angle to the management in private enterprises, why don’t you learn from one another?’” Professor Heuer reveals. “It’s a good idea in principle, but the truth is we didn’t find the time yet.”
“We never actually said we broke Einstein’s relativity theory. We made a measurement which released a very interesting, nearly unbelievable result.”
‘Time’. That’s the word on a lot of lips at CERN, ever since the results of a remarkable experiment were published in September 2011. OPERA, in which a neutrino beam of subatomic particles was fired from Geneva to a laboratory in Italy, 730km away – apparently travelling faster than the speed of light – left the science community scratching its head, and the rest of the world wondering how soon it could purchase time-travelling Deloreans (“Maybe a few decades,” is Professor Heuer’s conservative prediction).
The result was eye-catching because it ought to be impossible: according to Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. “We never actually said we broke Einstein’s relativity theory,” cautions Professor Heuer, choosing his words with the precision of a true scientist. “We made a measurement which released a very interesting, nearly unbelievable result.” That measurement is now being sceptically cross-checked by a number of CERN’s sister laboratories in the US and Japan. ‘Wait and see’ is the message.
That’s not to say Heuer isn’t an optimist. “In 2012 I can promise a discovery,” he announces boldly, shortly after explaining why scientists should never promise that they’ll make discoveries. “You know the Higgs Boson [the so-called ‘God particle’ whose existence is required to solve inconsistencies in our understanding of the universe]? We know all its properties except that it exists, but by the end of 2012 either we will find it – and that will be a discovery – or if we do not find it then we will exclude it from our theory. That would also be a discovery because for the first time our ‘Standard Model’ of the theory of the cosmos would have a big hole in it. It would lose one of its four legs.”
These are heady days for CERN – and also for the rest of us. Faster than light travel, God particles, hadron therapy, radioisotopes, vacuum-efficient solar cells… Both CERN and the public are being repaid for their patience – indeed, one of the ironies of research conducted by smashing particles into each other at unimaginable speeds is that the results take years to filter through.
“The world is moving so quickly that people are asking for answers when we don’t have the question yet,” Professor Heuer admits. “For that reason we now have the neutrino – so that we can give the answers faster… [This, it transpires after a brief silence, is a physicist’s idea of a joke.] We would like to get the results faster but it takes time, and I think people understand that.”
Public education is the final, and perhaps the most important, aspect of the Director General’s role. For Professor Heuer, it’s about lowering the threshold of the conversation so that more people can take part. But he also wants to use other means to engage the public – “Like the interest of artists in our work. After all, at the very beginning, art and science started as the same thing. Bring them back together and the public might say, ‘Oh, this is how you can see science.’ Once people start talking about it, you have progress in understanding and accepting it.”
That is how Professor Heuer and the maverick minds at CERN will give science back its soul – and propel the world one step closer to warp speed.