This Christmas, I came across a fascinating book: Present at the Creation, The history of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider. Written in 2010 by Amir D. Aczel, author of 14 popular science books, the book tells the story of an epic: the union of wills of 20 European countries to create the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, and the design, construction and operation of the most amazing machine imagined by man: a giant elementary particle accelerator known as the LHC.
The LHC is a human enterprise comparable in size with the construction of the pyramids of Egypt, or of the great European cathedrals. For twenty years, and spanning a circular 16.5 miles tunnel between France and Switzerland, thousands of engineers and scientists around the world built -- with an investment that exceeded USD 10 billion -- a machine that weighs, as a whole, more than 20,000 tons and whose main purpose, or at least the most publicized, is finding a particle invisible to the human eye: the famous Higgs boson or God particle.
The Higgs boson is "the last particle needed to complete and confirm the validity of the Standard Model of particle physics, the highly trusted twentieth century theory that had led to many accurately predictions." And its search, as did the space race in another era, has led to the development of major innovations, from the World Wide Web -- invented by Tim Barnes-Lee, "a scientist at CERN who was looking for a way to connect scientist and allow them to share results in the most efficient way" -- to modern medical equipment, which have saved thousands of lives.
The book, over its 14 chapters, expands on the theoretical reasons that led to the construction of the gigantic apparatus and on the consequences for science, and humanity, if their experiments are to be successful (on December 13th CERN spokesmen said they found the first hints of the Higgs boson, although, as required by the scientific method, refused to confirm their discovery until it has been clearly verified by the two large detectors inside the French-Swiss tunnel). For me, however, the most striking aspect of all is the human part of the project. What Nature magazine called "The Large Human Collider."
First: the idea. World War II produced a huge brain drain from Europe and a major project was needed to bring back those who left and retain those who remained. And European countries spared no effort to do so. Twelve of them approved the CERN in 1954 (with proportional contributions to their products). One (Yugoslavia) retired in 1961, but nine more joined in 1999. In total, 20 European countries joined their political wills to move forward with the CERN, which with the decision taken by the U.S. Congress in 1993 to discontinue funding for a supercollider that was planned to be built in Texas, became the world's leader in particle research.
However, far from the precautions of the Cold War, and given the importance of the research conducted there, for all mankind, the Europeans opened the center for many other countries. United States, Russia, India, Japan and Israel were admitted to the CERN with the status of "observers", which allowed its researchers to have access to the experiments through different institutions. "In fact, about a third of all the scientists involved research projects of the CMS collaboration [the CMS is one of the huge detectors of the LHC] belong to US-based institutions". Cooperation above confrontation.
Second: the concept. The soul of the LHC is its two large particle detectors: the aforementioned CMS and the ATLAS. They were built with different specifications and are managed by different teams that compete between each other, but have the same purpose, to discover the God Particle, and share their discoveries in order to validate them. It's what Aczel calls a fair competition. "I had never imagined that a place like this existed -- one where ten thousand scientists from around the World work together in great enthusiasm to pursue the ultimate knowledge about our origins and the nature of reality," writes Aczel. Common interest above individual achievements.
Third: the purpose. All scientists working for CERN -- about ten thousand, according to Aczel -- have a common goal: to unravel the secrets of the Universe. Not for their personal gain or satisfaction, but for the advancement of humanity. "CERN was designed as a consortium of scientists from many countries working together to pursue knowledge." The LHC is the result of more than one hundred years of progress in science, one hundred years that have radically changed the relationship between man and his environment, and have opened up possibilities never before imagined by man. "The LHC project is the most scientifically advanced cooperation in history." Knowledge as a tool for progress.
As was obvious, reading Aczel's book immediately brought to my mind the debates between the candidates for the GOP nomination for the presidential elections next November. Debates in which, with the notable exception of Jon Huntsman, each of the participants -- if not by conviction, to court their more conservative electorate -- have expressed their rejection of science in favor of faith on important issues such as the origin of the universe -- closely related to the CERN research -- evolution, climate change and stem cell research, just to name a few.
It is not hard to imagine what would happen if a candidate like Rick Santorum -- with his surprising result in Iowa -- became the president of this country. His combative speech in favor of Intelligent Design (which leaves out a century of progress in the field of physics), his controversial positions on climate change and human sexuality, his opposition to stem cell research, do not augur the best for the future of science in the country.
Like Michael Bloomberg stated during an economic forum last November, "We have presidential candidates who don't believe in science. I mean, just think about it, can you imagine a company of any size in the world where the CEO said 'Oh, I don't believe in science' and that person surviving to the end of that day? Are you kidding me? It's mind-boggling!".
According to Santorum, "science should get out of politics," and not just of politics but also out of the classrooms. Does he want an exodus of American scientists as the one suffered in Europe in the Second World War? Could the US, in that case, continue being a primary world power? This scenario is more than mind-boggling.