Do you often have to counter criticism that the billions of dollars CERN spends looking for invisible particles would be better used in the fight against cancer or world hunger?
We need both. Take the current Ebola crisis. Focused research is now vital if we are to develop effective medicines and vaccines. But that will only be possible if we have the foundations in place to carry out this research. And that calls for appropriate foresight. If we want to take a real leap forward, then we have to be permitted to carry out research without concrete objectives.
Does the general public also see it that way?
Interest in CERN is huge, and not just since the Nobel Prize. Even though the research is immensely complex and fairly unintelligible to the public, it is incredible how much hype it generates. Our work fascinates and inspires people from all social backgrounds and all ages, from elementary pupils to pensioners. Each year, around 300,000 people apply to visit CERN, but we can only give guided tours to a third of them.
What generates this interest?
Of course, not everyone is able to understand our work. But everyone sees the hugely important science behind it, knowledge that touches on the fundamental questions of our existence.
Well, let’s think about the Higgs particle for a moment. Without that, we wouldn’t be sitting here today, because the Higgs gives other fundamental particles their mass. In other words, we need it in order to explain our existence. We humans like to ask fundamental questions. Where do we come from? How was the universe created? And thanks to our research, we can now give partial answers to some of them. These are the points at which knowledge and faith, science and philosophy intersect. That’s what people find so fascinating. For me, personally, it’s also very exciting to conduct research into areas that form the basis of our knowledge and our existence. We help to promote mutual understanding between natural scientists, philosophers and theologians.
How does that happen?
The better we understand one another, the more we begin to accept other disciplines and dismantle barriers. Ultimately, natural science, philosophy and theology are all dealing with related questions.
Are these also the issues that attract graduates and PhD students to CERN? A few years ago, a survey was conducted among students in the United Kingdom to determine why they chose to study physics – and they said it was because of these big, esoteric questions. But we should be careful to ensure Europe is not left behind by countries with even more enthusiastic students.