Professor Heuer, the quest to find the Higgs particle is over.
But the Nobel Prize for the discovery went to two theoretical physicists, Peter Higgs and François Englert, rather than CERN, where most of the work was carried out. Do you feel you were overlooked?
No, on the contrary. We’re rather proud that the prize was awarded to this great discovery – and rightly so. Ultimately, it is irrelevant who receives the award. The main thing is that the research has been recognized.
So you’re not left with even a tiny sense of unfairness?
No. Obviously anyone would welcome that kind of recognition, but it’s really about the quality of the science. In any case, everyone knows that the Nobel Prize was awarded only because CERN was able to substantiate the underlying theory.
Do you benefit from the award?
The Nobel Prize certainly hasn’t done any harm. Positive headlines are essential if we are to remain part of the discussion, particularly when it comes down to basic research. Besides, they also make it less difficult to get our hands on vital resources
The kind of research we do demands a great deal of patience and persistence. No one can guarantee it will end in a discovery at some point – and certainly not during the relatively short mandate of the politicians who decide on funding. Many such decision-makers question the point of investing public money in something from which they, and perhaps even the next five governments down the line, will almost certainly see no financial return.
You don’t have a product with which to promote yourselves?
Our goal, our product, is to broaden scientific understanding – not a commodity that has a ready use. In most cases, this new knowledge eventually finds an application. It’s just that you can never predict when – or even where – that will be.
Can you give an example?
Over 85 years ago, when the physicist Paul Dirac used a simple equation to postulate the existence of antimatter – the counterpart of “normal” matter – he could never have imagined his discovery would eventually find a use in hospitals. Today, Positron Emission Tomography is a tried-and-tested procedure that uses antimatter to generate cross-sectional images of the human body. But it took many decades to develop. Or take the World Wide Web, which was developed at CERN 25 years ago to support us in our daily work. Today, it has revolutionized most people’s lives.
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.