It’s always nice to have an opportunity to see behind the curtain, and all the better if you feel like you’re doing it for a good reason. I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the delegation of Irish parliamentarian James Lawless TD on a fact-finding mission to CERN, the particle physics research centre which straddles the Swiss-French border in a way that is a metaphor for how it brings countries together.
Deputy Lawless, Prof Ronan Nulty, Dr Kevin Byrne (both of UCD, Dublin; School of Physics and School of Medicine, respectively), and myself visited the facility and met with leaders and scientists who make it work. The aim of the trip was for CERN to put the case for Irish membership of the body to us, for us to see what benefits would come to the country via participation in the many exciting ground-breaking projects happening, and for Deputy Lawless, as opposition Science and Technology spokesperson on to bring this back to the relevant Oireachtas committees and lobby for Ireland making room in its 2019 budget for CERN membership.
It was wonderful to tour the sprawling campus of rolling fields which lie no less than 50 metres above the Large Hadron Collider and visit the various experiments set up along its 26.7-km circumference. At ALICE, CMS and LHCb (‘b’ for ‘beauty’, a flavour of quark) we met scientists, enthusiastic to talk about their work in everything from fundamental particle physics, to medicine and data processing. I was particularly interested by some work at ISOLDE using radioactive lanthanide isotopes in medical applications in hospitals near the collider. It was noted that while a few of the staff were Irish, in almost every case they also held another passport, because as a non-member state, our citizens do not have the same access to employment in this project as those from the 22 member states.
What most surprised me, as we looked at Irish-made semiconductors in action, and visited the factory where they design and assemble particle-accelerator parts, was that, while Irish people do make a contribution here, it’s often relying on loopholes or having a unique product that no one else can offer. Membership, however, would ensure us access on an equal footing to all other partners. Importantly this would mean returns to the Irish economy in every sector, allowing Irish firms to tender for contracts in construction, cleaning, catering, office supplies etc. in addition to the obvious high-tech and engineering opportunities. Big optimistic scientific exploration has positive knock-on effects throughout society.
One of the most obvious examples of unexpected by-products of investing in fundamental research is the very technology by which you are reading this post now. The World Wide Web was invented at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee. We were able to visit the office where this revolutionary technology came to life, almost as an afterthought, to share information from this worldwide collaborative research. And even if you don’t think quarks and neutrinos effect your life (they do!), at least the Web is tangible evidence that clever people allowed to create and explore together can do great things!