Peace on Earth, and good will to all

Particle physicists from around the world converge at CERN to do research. Photo: Maximilien Brice, CERN

“Wait,” you may be thinking, “I thought this was a science column. What has science to do with peace?” Those who visit Fermilab or CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Switzerland, understand.

CERN had its origins in 1952, shortly after World War II. Many European physicists had moved to the United States, where the government was strongly supporting research. No European country could compete, and physics there needed rebuilding – the motivation for CERN. Physics is universal – literally: It’s the same not just for English and Germans, Japanese and Americans, but on Earth and in distant galaxies! Physicists work together very naturally.

Forty years ago, I was at CERN in a team of 60, including Europeans, Americans, Israelis, Chinese and Russians. That was during the Cold War, and we were friends. Today CERN has over 12,000 physicists using its particle accelerators, and some 4,000 scientists from 52 countries use Fermilab.

Picture this: It is a warm summer day, lunchtime, and the CERN cafeteria is crowded with hundreds of people from all over the world, many of them students. Seated around a table on the patio outside under the trees, some Americans, Europeans and Asians have an animated conversation about a particle detector they have all helped to construct and commission. Now it is used to collect data from the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile-around underground ring of superconducting magnets, the most complex project ever built. The data is transmitted to universities and laboratories around the world.

Particle physics has managed to achieve a healthy balance between competition and collaboration, apparent opposites. Both exist at all levels; between individuals, groups, laboratories, and countries. But only by working closely together will we ever really understand matter, forces, energy, and the universe.

Today there are many international scientific organizations, at least partly inspired by CERN’s success. In last month’s column I said that the Nobel Prize in physics cannot be given to an organization, so Fermilab cannot get it for discovering the heaviest known particle, the top quark, or CERN for discovering the Higgs boson that gives electrons and quarks their mass. But the Nobel Prize for peace, citing “work for fraternity between nations,” is often given to an organization. Perhaps CERN and Fermilab could share that?

In this holiday season and all year, I wish peace on Earth and good will to all!

This is a version of an article that originally appeared in Positively Naperville.