Particles Of Peace

CERN PhD student, David, discusses the importance of diversity in scientific collaboration.

4 min read

A few kilometres from Geneva, Switzerland, at the very heart of the European continent, lies a very peculiar place. You might have heard of it through its scientific achievements, such as the Higgs boson discovery, or its contributions to revolutionary technologies, including the invention of the World Wide Web. Or perhaps, you have never read its name anywhere and you are wondering what on earth I am talking about. This place I am referring to, the main campus is crossed by the border between France and Switzerland, is called the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN (the acronym of its french name). Despite its name, CERN is not much concerned with nuclear physics anymore. Nowadays, it deals with the smallest objects we know, much smaller than atoms: fundamental particles.

At CERN runs the largest and most powerful particle accelerator ever built: the Large Hadron Collider (his friends just call him the LHC). Buried a hundred meters under the ground, it consists of a twenty-seven-kilometers ring, accelerating particles up to the speed of light. Ok, almost the speed of light; it is impossible to reach it, I got too enthusiastic. But still: modern, front-line, high energy physics is taking place there. To give you a better feeling of what we are talking about here, let’s get epic: CERN is like Rome in the middle of the second century PCN, but for particle physicists: it is the centre of the high energy world. With a budget of more than a billion Swiss francs a year (basically a coffee a year, for every European citizen - not bad for having the Internet and modern physics, right?), it holds more than twenty different experiments. CERN is an international research centre. It tries to answer the fundamental questions mankind has always asked: What is the universe made of? How did we get here from the Big-Bang? What is a black hole (really, what is this thing, it scares me a little bit)? What is dark matter?

 

The important part is that, given the scientific goals that have brought us together, nationalities are not relevant anymore.

 

People working at CERN are driven by curiosity. This is why they desperately look for things that may not exist. I mean, you must have some kind of strong motivation to devote years of your life studying objects you don’t even see. Curiosity, as it seems to me, is a very basic human feeling, found everywhere on the planet. So, if one day you have the opportunity to walk around the main CERN cafeteria, this is what you will see: curious Americans talking to curious French, a curious Indian laughing at a joke his curious Greek colleague just told him, a group of curious Russians staring at a screen where a curious Italian is giving a talk on the work he has been carrying on with his curious Swedish fellow. These people are here to participate in a technical, rigorous, scientific project. And they are very curious about its possible outcomes. But do you know what they are much less curious about? The nationality written in their colleague’s passport, how many times a day he prays, or where she was born. I have been working here for two years now and I have been in contact with people from all around the globe. But that is not the important part. The important part is that, given the scientific goals that have brought us together, nationalities are not relevant anymore. In other words: when two people talk together in the context of fundamental research, they are blind to the differences that distinguish them. The only thing that interests them is the scientific content of the conversation: “Have you seen the new results?”, “What is your opinion on this article?”, “Can you send me your new data?”, “I fully disagree with everything you just said”, “Let me cross-check this information with my group”. The very nature of the international scientific collaboration makes political, religious, skin colour, language and nationality differences irrelevant. Not that they do not exist anymore, and cultural exchanges are very rich in this professional area, but they are private characteristics that will never enter the game of the researcher-researcher interaction. The technical nature of the interactions between scientists has another consequence: gender is not important either. Women and men are, again, just curious people looking together for weird particles with exotic names (quarks, bosons, jets, I swear I am not making them up). There is only twenty percent of women involved in CERN activities, I guess this is the consequence of asymmetric education that, still today, discourages girls from pursuing a scientific career. This will be fixed eventually.

 

By bringing together people from all origins, working together no matter the diplomatic relations between their countries, I am convinced CERN helps peace and tolerance to be settled durably at a worldwide level.

 

Sure, things cannot perfect; there must be some discriminations and political games - Even particle physicists are not robots. But I keep thinking there is something very unique about this particle world. CERN was founded in 1954, under the initiative of leading European scientists (e.g. Bohr, de Broglie). Alongside the European Economic Community, it is one of those post-war institutions that have made Europe more stable. By bringing together people from all origins, working together no matter the diplomatic relations between their countries, I am convinced CERN helps peace and tolerance to be settled durably at a worldwide level. I talked a lot about CERN, but other initiatives exist. Le met just cite the SESAME project that makes scientists from the Middle East work together. Not an easy task.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but… You know how it goes.

 

 


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David Vannerom studied engineering at the Université libre de Bruxelles where he got his master in applied physics. Armed with this technical background, he went to Paris for a year to face theoretical physics at the Ecole Normale Supérieure where he got the taste for research. Back to Brussels, he is now a PhD candidate for a CERN experiment, looking for evidence of Dark Matter. Those very science-oriented activities might distract you from the fact that reading and writing are actually where his heart is leaning to.