Science and building bridges
(appeared in June 2014)

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A mega, biennual, week-long forum for science communication opened in Copenhagen on Saturday, the 20th June, reports S.Ananthanarayanan.

ESOF2014, EuroScience Open Forum, is a conference of scientists, educators, science administrators, journalists, communicators, which takes place every two years under the agies of the European Union. ESOF2010 was in Turin, ESOF2012 was in Dublin and in 2014 it is in Copenhagen, Denmark. And the key word for the event of 2014 is ‘building bridges’.

The forum is a place for the science community in Europe to express and address concerns in key scientific areas as also those of policy and funding. Over a thousand persons have congregated in Copenhagen and during seven days, are taking part in varied events, talks, seminars, presentations, by persons working in different fields and attended by groups of persons who have special interests. And in keeping with the theme of building bridges, the emphasis is on communication and the need for different players and stake holders to connect.

After the formal opening of the forum, which was by her Majesty the Queen Margret the 2nd, in the afternoon on Sunday, there were addresses by Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, Sophie Carsten Nielsen, the minister for higher education and science of Denmark, the host country, and Prof Lauritz Holm-Nielsen, president of Euroscience. All three emphasized the pivotal role of science and the need for communication of science and scientific developments with the general public and the importance of public support for the measures that states took for the promotion of scientific research. Mr. Barroso stated that the EU provision for science and technology had been increased by 30% despite a reduction of the overall budget. As for building bridges, he said there was need for five of them, between: (1 )different areas of science, (2) researchers and the public, (3) laboratories and the market place (4) for members states of the European Union to share infrastructure and (5) for cooperation worldwide.

The highlight of the opening ceremony was an interview of Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN, Geneva and Fabiola Gianotti, particle physicist associated with the discovery of the Higg’s particle in 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider, at CERN. The interview, which was about the value of the Higgs particle discovery, was conducted by Dominique Leglu, Editor in chief of the magazine, Science et Envenir. The interview brought out dramatically the importance of communication of and within science and that science must needs be an international effort.

Dominique: Fabiola, the Large Hadron Collider has now created the Higgs particle, which was there before that only in the early universe. Can we say that the LHC has brought about a kind of time travel?

Fabiola: The Higgs is a very special particle which explains how other particles that make up the world have mass. All material things, including each one of us, are finally made up of the electron and the quark, which are the fundamental particles. But if these particles did not have mass, like the photon does not have mass, then they could not stick together and no matter would have been possible. The discovery of the Higgs is thus of fundamental importance. The high energies created in the LHC correspond to conditions of just a hundred billionth of a second after the Big Bang, and a temperature ten million billion degrees.

Dominique: Rolf, the discovery of the Higgs has cost some 9-10 billion Euros. How could you explain to a common person how all this expense was justified?

Rolf: It is not correct to say the money was spent only to discover the Higgs. Yes, the Higgs particle was just the star which got all the attention, but there have been many more valuable results of the research. And then, Fabiola just told us that the discovery of the Higgs was no ordinary thing either. But what is important is to communicate with the public what science research is about, and bridge the gap that divides science from society. At CERN, there is every effort to integrate our work with society and we associate people from different streams, even artists.

Fabiola: The work at CERN is an object lesson in group research. Over 3,000 scientists from all over the world carried out the work that led to the Higgs particle. The scientists were from all countries, even some not well aligned, politically. The work exemplified the great unifying force of science. Over 30% of the scientists were PhD students and half of them were less than 35 years old. The Higgs was not just a technological endeavour, it was also a human adventure.

Rolf: Yes, the diversity in the teams that worked to find the Higgs was an opportunity, with minds from different cultures working together. Along with the five bridges that were mentioned earlier, I would add a sixth – to bridge the cultural diversity of scientists from different countries. And coming back to the benefits that have come from basic research, let me say the apart from the LHC, there over 30,000 particle accelerators in the world -15,000are in industry and 15,000 are in hospitals – only a few left over are in physics labs. And then the instrumentation that gets developed in the course of research finds ready application in different fields – like treating cancer or detecting tumours. Let me also mention that the first webserver of all was also in CERN (what we have as the Internet today is also an offshoot of basic research)

Fabiola: Freedom and creativity are the watchwords in CERN. We have 3,000 scientists, but there is no hierarchy. We are open, no bureaucracy, people are free and creative. Yes, about 20% are women and even more than 25% among the younger ones. But the diversity extends beyond gender to culture and nationality. In the CERN canteen, we often find Nobel laureates and young initiates sharing a table.

Dominique: Rolf, which of the many questions that are there to answer would you like to see as the next big discovery in science?

Fabiola: All that physics has worked on so far is only 5% of the universe, which we can see. The rest, the 95%, is dark matter, we say, ’dark’ both because we are ignorant of what it is like and also that this matter does not interact with ordinary matter, we have only deduced that it is there.

Rolf: The discovery of the Higgs was the easy part. The real work starts now. What we have found is a particle that has mass in the range to be the Higgs particle. Is this the same particle that is predicted by theory? It may take a long time to know more! We have planned to work the LHC till the year 2035.

The future lies in ensuring public support for our work, involving young scientists and international collaborations. The ‘E’ in CERN stands for European, but we now read it as ‘everywhere’ and are admitting other countries into the collaboration. Israel is already a member and Pakistan may be another. We need to integrate the work in Asia, Europe and the Americas – a global vision.


How does Higgs do it?

[from handout created by IOP -Institute of Physics]

Imagine a room completely full of delegates, with a door at either end of the room. When Albert Einstein enters the room, the delegates cluster around him, feverishly trying to get near enough to speak with him. The crush of people give inertia (mass) to the motion of Einstein across the room, making it very difficult for him to start moving and also very difficult for him to stop, once going! In contrast, less famous scientists can move across the room without such a large crowd forming around them. These less famous scientists have much less inertia (mass) than Einstein. In this analogy, the delegates are the Higgs field. The other fundamental particles are the various scientists entering the room. The analogy describes how the Higgs field gives things their mass.

What is the Higgs?

What the Higgs?

In a more technical event on the next day, Prof Johathan Bagger of John Hopkins University explained that the discovery of a particle that had a mass nearly that of the particle predicted by theory rounded off the success of the so called Standard Model of elementary particles. But for all its success, which was incredible accuracy in explaining the dynamics of small particles, the Standard Model does not deal with some other disturbing phenomena. These include the nature of neutrinos, which theory says should be massless, but actually have mass, which property also permits them to morph into alternate forms, which explains the discrepancies in the arithmetic of numbers of neutrinos produced and detected. Another phenomenon is Dark Matter, which we need to consider as existing, to explain the extent of gravitation effects in the universe, which visible objects could not have generated. And then there is the acceleration of the expansion of the universe! Prof Jonathan said there was hence a huge lot of work that scientists had still to do, and there was no way to go about it than with formal global cooperation. Timothy Meyer, the new Chief Operating Officer of Fermilab then spelt out the new particle physics research policy of the US government, which not only emphasized working with global partners, but had international experts, including Fabiola Gianotti, on its guiding panel. Prof N Nahade, of the European Union explained the priorities and the European strategy, which recognized that elementary particle research called for large scale facilities and long term support, for which it was imperative that all groups in the world worked in concert.

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