What particle physics can teach us about hope
After the war, some physicists chose to work in fundamental physics, collaborating in large laboratories to deepen our knowledge of the universe. Others have developed medical technologies: cancer therapies, including radiation therapy, and advanced imaging techniques like MRIs and PET scans. In a Europe decimated by war, scientific and political leaders realized the potential of bringing like-minded scientists together and they formed CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, whose maxim is “Science for Peace “. Rutherford’s low-cost mode was abandoned and a new team-based international collaborative approach emerged.
Today, we collectively tackle science problems that are too big to tackle with a small team using a “Big Science” model. NASA and ESA, the Human Genome Project and CERN, home to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), are good examples. CERN’s flagship project involved collaboration between 110 countries and thousands of scientists. The result was the 27 kilometer Circular Proton Collider, which was used to discover the Higgs boson particle in 2012 after 45 years. The complexity and ingenuity of this experiment is astounding. But it’s above all the collaboration and cooperation that amazes me at what humans can accomplish.
So now, when we seem to be living in unprecedented times, what can we learn from these stories? Science is certainly relevant to today’s challenges: climate change, pandemics and now an uncertain political era ushered in by Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. We know that in the 21st century, science can no longer pretend to be apolitical, and scientific organizations must scrupulously respect their fundamental values: for the first time in its history, CERN has suspended an “observing nation”, thus removing the status of Russia within the organization.
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Yet within these stories lies a message of hope. It was picked up by my colleagues whom I interviewed for my book. I asked them all – whether they were from the UK, Germany, Italy, the US, Australia, Turkey, Russia, Japan or China – the same thing: “ What can people learn from the history of Big Science, especially from our exploration of particle physics? ?” To my amazement, they all said the same thing: “How to collaborate”.
Perhaps we must now attempt the impossible in the only way we know how: by working across borders towards a common goal. Perhaps what the world needs is to create CERN-like entities for climate change, for pandemics, even for peace. It may seem impossible, but so does the LHC. As Nelson Mandela said, “Everything seems impossible until it’s done.”
Dr. Suzie Sheehy is a physicist who develops new particle accelerators for medicine. His bookThe Matter of Everything: Twelve Experiments That Changed Our World, is out now (Bloomsbury, £20) and can also be found at Twitter.