Life

What particle physics can teach us about global co-operation and hope

Dr Suzie Sheehy asks whether adopting the methods of great scientists could help us work towards global peace

Illustration: The Big Issue/Shutterstock

Ernest Rutherford – the ‘father of nuclear physics’ – was a tall, bolshie New Zealander with a voice so loud that he’d disrupt electrical equipment in the lab in Cambridge. His students and staff were famous for concocting physics experiments out of tin cans and sealing wax, adding a few wires or magnets and making major breakthroughs.

They would sit for many hours staring down a microscope, counting little flashes of light on a screen in the dark. Rutherford knew how hard this was. His students would later recall hearing him singing songs at the top of his lungs as he jovially surveyed his labs. Rutherford intuitively understood something important about how to do difficult, ground-breaking, long-term work: we need to work together.

In the early 20th century, teams of experimental physicists consisted of only a few people, yet managed to revolutionise physics. It was discovered that the atom wasn’t solid but instead consisted of mostly empty space. Light and matter turned out to have both particle-like and wave-like properties.

And our view of matter was shifted from one of eternal constancy to inexorable change when it was discovered that atoms decay. As I explore in my book, these findings changed our view of the world, while also giving us the capacity to create powerful new technologies.

The decay of atoms gave us the ability to put an accurate chronology to ancient history, archaeological objects and geology – including the age of the Earth. The discovery of X-rays led to their everyday use in diagnosing and curing diseases. Our understanding of the electron and of quantum mechanics would lead first to electronics, TV, radio and telecommunications, and eventually to the modern semi- conductor devices on which we now depend. Well before any association of the word ‘nuclear’ with weapons and destruction, scientists worked across domains like physics, medicine and engineering to use our knowledge for the good of humankind.

When the Second World War broke out, physicists were asked to use their skills for their nations. Given unprecedented funding and a mandate to develop powerful weapons, physicists unintentionally became the ‘destroyers of worlds’ – to paraphrase Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan Project. The deployment of nuclear weapons was not in their control. Science, the physicists became aware, was now inseparable from politics. This changed everything.

After the war, some physicists chose to work in fundamental physics, collaborating at large laboratories to further our knowledge of the universe. Others developed medical technologies: cancer therapies including radiotherapy and advanced imaging techniques like MRI and PET. In war-decimated Europe, scientific and political leaders realised the potential of bringing together likeminded scientists, and they formed CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, whose maxim is ‘Science for Peace’. Rutherford’s low-cost mode fell by the wayside, and a new, internationally collaborative team-based approach emerged.

Today, we collectively undertake scientific problems that are too large to tackle with a small team using a ‘Big Science’ model. NASA and ESA, the Human Genome Project and CERN, home to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), are great examples. CERN’s flagship project involved collaboration across 110 countries and thousands of scientists. The result was the 27-kilo-metre circular proton collider, which was used to discover the Higgs Boson particle in 2012 after 45 years. The complexity and ingenuity of this experiment is staggering. But foremost it is the collaboration and co-operation that leave me in awe at what humans can achieve.

So now, when we seem to live in unprecedented times, what can these stories teach us? Science is certainly relevant to today’s challenges: climate change, pandemics and now an uncertain political era ushered in by Russia’s aggressive war in Ukraine. We know that in the 21st century science can no longer claim to be apolitical, and scientific organisations must carefully uphold their core values: for the first time in its history, CERN has suspended an ‘observer nation’, removing Russia’s status in the organisation.

Yet within these stories is a message of hope. It was echoed by my colleagues whom I interviewed for my book. I asked them all – whether from the UK, Germany, Italy, the US, Australia, Turkey, Russia, Japan or China – the same thing: “What can people learn from the story of Big Science, particularly from our exploration into particle physics?” To my amazement they all said the same thing: “How to collaborate.”

Perhaps now we need to attempt the impossible in the only way we know how: by working across boundaries toward a common goal. Perhaps what the world needs is to create CERN-like entities for climate change, for pandemics, even for peace. It might seem impossible, but then so did the LHC. As Nelson Mandela said: “Everything seems impossible until it is done.”

Dr Suzie Sheehy is a physicist developing new particle accelerators for use in medicine. Her book, The Matter of Everything: Twelve Experiments That Changed Our World, is out now (Bloomsbury, £20) and she can also be found on Twitter.

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