CERN’s (European Organization for Nuclear Research’s) temporary citizens migrate here from any of over a hundred nations of the world to run the largest experimental facility on Earth. Their passionate quest to understand the mysteries of the universe underlies everything that is CERN.
Current theories about the Big Bang and evolution of the physical world of elements only account for 4% of what’s in the Universe. What else is there? What really makes the Universe tick?
Nestled between the Swiss Alps and the Jura, CERN’s workspace is like a small village, filled with industrial–scaled buildings and a fluctuating workforce on the order of 10,000 people. The workers are particle physicists searching for the fundamental truths of matter and energy.
Their primary food source is a large cafeteria, which also serves as the hub of social life at CERN.
It was in the cafeteria where I met with ConCERNed for Humanity Club, a small group of CERN scientists and staff, who are inspired by this 1950 statement from Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), noted philosopher, anti–war and anti–nuclear weapons protestor:
All who are not lunatics are agreed about certain things. That it is better to be alive than dead, better to be adequately fed than starved, better to be free than a slave. Many people desire those things only for themselves and their friends; they are quite content that their enemies should suffer. These people can only be refuted by science: Humankind has become so much one family that we cannot ensure our own prosperity except by ensuring that of everyone else. If you wish to be happy yourself, you must resign yourself to seeing others also happy. [emphasis added by ConCERNed]
“The Science to Save Us from Science,” The New York Times Magazine (March 19, 1950).
I don’t suppose Bertrand Russell was of aware of this connection, but to me his sentiments resonate with Buddhist doctrine. In similar fashion, Buddhist science of mind proves the rationality and, therefore, imperative for us to cultivate the quality of compassionate wisdom toward each other — friends and enemies alike.
Russell and many scientists, including Rothblat, Einstein and Pauli felt a moral duty to educate the public about implications of scientific breakthroughs in the aftermath of the development of atomic weapons.
It is in this spirit of ethical responsibility that physicists Dr’s. Michael Ditmars and Francesco Spano call on their CERN colleagues to study and discuss the impact of science on critical issues such as climate change and environmental degradation.
Our Monday evening meeting outside on the cafeteria patio was a fitting prelude to Tuesday’s whirlwind tour of CERN’s labs and experimental stations. We spoke behavioral science (my language) instead of hard science. Spano and Ditmars wondered why so few people showed up to ConCERNed gatherings.
I listened intently as the two described CERN’s competitive environment and the de facto late–night hours of dedicated lab work. Enticing participation was sounding like an intractable problem, yet a potential solution emerged. After learning the most popular event of CERN’s year includes beer and games, I suggested adding this to ConCERNed’s format. They said, “Yes!,” they would give it a try — I have yet to hear the results.
Speaking of fun, I was lucky to have my good friend Diane Park accompanying me on this Neutron Trail Europe Tour. She likes to drive (I don’t). Di put me in charge of navigating with the appallingly meager Google maps she’d printed before we left Vancouver and my equally appalling sense of direction.
When we encountered the French roundabouts, I thought they were really cool, but I think Diane’s reaction, from behind the wheel was more like that of Lesley Stern, a traveller, who writes, “the most mortifying thing about driving in Europe,” is the roundabouts. “Not only do you have to downshift and yield, you have to read the signs in order to get on the right road, because once you’re on the wrong road, god knows when you’ll be able to get off …”
“Go around as many times as you need to even if it takes all day,” is her advice but of course, we didn’t have all day, we were going to CERN for our tour and we were on a schedule.
Diane got us there on time, we received our security clearance and made our own way to the press office, following a line on the floor down an extremely long hallway fitted with office–doors on either side. Here we met Dr. Christine Sutton, particle physicist and science educator, who served as our lively tour guide and interpreter.
While I talked with Sutton and the physicists, asked questions and did my best to grok the physics and its implications, Diane filmed. As a send–off gift, her partner, the Canadian composer and double bass player, wrote a piece for our CERN adventure, which Diane used as the score for the CERN Accelerated video (see article top).
Mark told me, “Numbers are at the centre of all the music I write. Mathematics is the language of the universe, and music is math in its purest form, produced through the filter of humanity. The music for CERN Accelerated has the numbers 314 (first 3 digits of pi) as a rhythmic and harmonic foundation, and the entire piece is meant to describe a spiral of digits.”
Immediately before visiting CERN, I went to a Neutron Trailhead — Enrico Fermi’s famous lab at Via Panisperna in Rome, Italy, where he did his Nobel–prizewinning work, methodically bombarding slow neutrons at the elements of the periodic table. (Neutron Trail Via Panisperna video here.)
It was a nice surprise for me to meet Dr. Ludovico Pontecorvo, nephew of Bruno Pontecorvo and one of the Via Panisperna boys who worked in Fermi’s group. CERN looks to the future, but like my grandfather and the Via Panisperna boys, the physicists here continue to bombard particles and continue to seek precise answers to questions about the quantum nature of the universe.
In Enrico’s time, clever scientists made fundamental discoveries with primitive equipment. Now, to answer the next set of questions, they turn to ever–more elaborate and powerful tools. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the largest particle accelerator in the world and the pride of CERN. Situated along its 27 km. ring, over half a dozen different experimental stations, each with a specific approach, delve into the mysteries of matter and energy.
One of these experiments is ATLAS and Ludovico Pontecorvo is the ATLAS Muon System Project Leader. He explained the incredible precision of the ATLAS experiment to Diane and I. CERN video about detecting particles, details of muon spectrometer analysis at ATLAS.
Next we visited the LHC Control Center and the SM18 facility to see the LHC magnets, responsible for hurtling the sub–atomic particles around the LHC ring at close to the speed of light. Thanks to the largest collection of helium anywhere on Earth (140 tons of it), they function in an environment colder than the Universe. The magnets are a wonder of creative engineering as Christine Sutton explained to me in this four min. Neutron Trail video:
I asked her about the purpose of the experiments and for example, were they looking into how to deal with toxic nuclear waste? She stated, we’re “… hitting different materials with neutrons and seeing the interactions. Some of those interactions might be relevant to nuclear waste solutions, some to what’s going on in stars. Do we understand stellar processes? Some might even have to do with medical applications.” It’s an open–ended inquiry at CERN to find answers but also to be challenged with new questions.
For our nTOF (neutron time of flight) tour, we walked underground with Enrico Chiaveri, spokesperson for the nTOF Collaboration and donned white lab coats and booties. NTOF looks at arrays of speed of different elements via the neutrons of each.
By the time we reached ISOLDE, the last experimental station on our itinerary, I was rather full–up on neutrons, pions, electrons, hadrons and quarks. But I do remember our physicist guide Dr. Yorick Blumenfeld explaining that ISOLDE uses electrons to modulate nuclei. I thought it a fascinating concept.
During a most illuminating particle physics tutorial with Sutton, she imparted to us the concept of sub–atomic particles as tennis balls, transmitting energy between atomic building blocks. She used the example of the pion, which my grandfather had elucidated in post World War II research.
“Pions are a mixture of anti–quarks and positive quarks [as are neutrons, protons, etc.]. …These pions are the tennis balls… they flit between protons and neutrons inside the nucleus, holding it together,” Sutton told us. “Your grandfather’s research with pions got people looking in that direction, he was sort of kickstarting things.”
This concept of tennis ball–like sub–atomic particles transmitting various forces came in handy when, later in the week, I met Dr. Carlo Rubbia, physicist, environmentalist and former Director of CERN. At my request, Rubbia kindly explained how he had deepened Enrico Fermi’s concept of the weak interaction — this work won Rubbia and his colleague Simon van der Meer the Nobel Prize in 1984.
The weak interaction is one of the four basic forces of nature — electro–magnetism, gravity and the strong force are the other three. My grandfather’s 1933 theory was not disproved; rather it stood the test of time and was deepened. Rubbia described Enrico Fermi’s theory “as based on point–like object, no specification of what was behind it.” Rubbia and his group discovered the intermediate vector bosons, the particles that transmit the weak force and also showed the weak force is a deeper layer or another aspect of electro–magnetism.
We talked about clean energy and the potential of thorium to help solve the climate/energy crisis. According to Rubbia, the element thorium could replace toxic plutonium and uranium, giving us clean abundant nuclear energy. He said, “technically, there is no problem about solving the energy crisis. … [For example,] Prius [cars] are manufactured in China. Each Prius utilizes six grams of rare earth, which includes thorium. If you took the thorium for all the Prius cars, you would supply China’s energy needs for 22,000 years.”
In the end, I think we both agreed, technology can provide tools, but we humans need to adapt our behavior, or as Rubbia put it, “demonstrate courage,” for us to really expect to live long and prosper.
As we left, Rubbia’s office, it was threatening to rain, but there was one more thing Diane and I wanted to document — the statue of Shiva, presented to CERN by the Department of Atomic Energy of India.
“O Omnipresent, the embodiment of all virtues, the creator of this cosmic universe, the king of dancers, who dances the Ananda Tandava in the twilight, I salute thee,” reads the inscription, also in Sanskrit, at the base of the statue.
I appreciate Shiva for the reminder of our tiny place in this vast universe. Creation — existence — can only happen in conjunction with destruction, is Shiva’s basic message. CERN is dedicated to studying a tiny piece of the vast nature of the universe. In this sense, the statue is a fitting statement of the humble place of CERN in the cosmos and also of its significance to humanity.