Explainer of the Universe.
The roller blind in Rolf-Dieter Heuer’s office is stuck at halfmast.
It has been like that for a while. And yet, just a few hundred yards away on the other side of the road, is housed some of the most powerful, most complex and most expensive machinery particle physics can buy. Paradoxes like that are part of everyday life for Heuer, Director General of CERN, the European accelerator laboratory in Geneva. The German physicist’s job is to coordinate a 60-year-old research centre with 4,000 staff and 11,000 international researchers. He is also responsible for overseeing the operation of a gigantic machine, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC, see text box). Inside this powerful particle accelerator, protons are crashed into one another with extreme energies – in the hope of discovering new particles and gaining a better understanding of the forces and physical laws that hold the universe together.
Here in Switzerland, in 2013, CERN’s scientists discovered the last remaining piece of the jigsaw that completed the theoretical model of particle physics – the Higgs boson.
For Rolf-Dieter Heuer, 66, his is not an unsettling responsibility. In hushed, gentle tones, the Swabian-born physicist with a shock of white hair and matching beard talks about his work with one of the biggest machines.
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
Less difficult?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.
Really?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.
Everything works amazingly well, because scientific curiosity is what unites us all.
Which countries are you thinking of in particular?
If I give a lecture in India, I almost need personal protection – in a good way, I mean. After each talk, I’m surrounded by a wall of students. And it’s the same in Pakistan or Bangladesh. The potential there is huge. Sometimes I ask myself how I can justify flying so far to give just one lecture. Then I see the impact it has and I return home satisfied.
And at CERN all these researchers form one large community?
It’s interesting, since it makes absolutely no difference here whether an Indian is working with a Pakistani or an Israeli with someone from a Muslim background. Everything works amazingly well, because scientific curiosity is what unites us all. It’s just another aspect of the unique spirit that exists here.
The spirit of CERN?
Don’t ask me where it comes from, but it’s tangible. The laboratory is vibrant and alive. No one here locks the door behind them on the dot of 5 o’clock. There are meetings most evenings and you get people sitting talking for hours in the cafeteria …
… which is always full.Of course. There’s something wrong if an institute’s dining facility is not popular. It has to pulsate with people sitting, talking, arguing. After all, it’s much easier to talk to a colleague over lunch than to have to open the door to their office.
You could have remained a laboratory physicist instead of involving yourself with politicians and cafeteria opening times.I guess at some point I realized that even if I was good at research, others were better. But I can work with people, I know how to motivate them and show them the way forward. With the discovery of the Higgs particle, for example, all I had to do was exercise a little control and coordination. But this line of work is also very enjoyable.
“Natural science and religion are not mutually exclusive. We at CERN are trying to answer the question ‘How?’ – we leave the ‘Why?’ to other fields.”
Despite having discovered the Higgs particle, the LHC is now up and running again, better and more powerful than ever. Why the expense?
The Higgs discovery was one thing. Now it’s about understanding what we actually found. We have to measure the properties of the particle and see whether they really match up to the predictions derived from the standard model of particle physics. Were we to discover a deviation, it would open a window on a new world of physics. The standard model cannot be the definitive theory. Although it describes reality, it doesn’t really explain that much. So there has to be a more comprehensive theory in place. If we could now find clues to new, unknown effects, it would enable physics to take a huge leap forward. So that’s precisely why we need an improved particle accelerator, one that works with higher energy and delivers even more data per second. <