Last week I had the privilege of attending a series of lectures, 60 Years of Science for Peace, held in the CERN Globe as a part of the celebration to mark CERN’s 60th anniversary. Considering we live just down the road from the Globe, I didn’t have far to travel, but it’s a nice journey to take nonetheless.
CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, was founded in the 1950s as a research institution, but it also had a key secondary function: that of fostering cooperation and collaboration between countries that had only just emerged from World War II. It provided a place where scientists could work together across political, linguistic, cultural and national lines by sharing research goals, methodology, resources and outcomes.
People from countries that had been at war worked side-by-side. Throughout the Cold War, CERN was one of the places where lines of communication remained open across the Iron Curtain.
There have been countless side benefits and developments over the decades that are the direct or indirect result of research done through CERN, from medical advances to computer technology, but seems particularly fitting that one of CERN’s major collateral contributions was the creation of the World Wide Web as a means of facilitating communication.
Sitting around me at the lectures were rows of CERN scientists, most of whom communicate with one another in English or French – but who come from dozens of different countries around the world.
One aspect of life at CERN that I’ve always found interesting is that while the scale of science that goes on there might be grand, the atmosphere is relaxed and collegial. The main cafeteria at lunch time is packed, abuzz, and the long tables and close seating encourage conversation.
Having lunch at the CERN cafeteria might mean sitting amongst a few Nobel laureates, or it might not – but what is striking is how much of the casual conversation in shared languages revolves around the free exchange of ideas. And it’s all open to the public.
This is the opposite of academics toiling away in an ivory tower.
So today I’d just like to tip my hat to the work of an organization that does more than just research the fundamentals of physical world: Truly open discussion and communication between people of vastly different backgrounds and beliefs is one of the best means of immunizing against misunderstanding and prejudice, whether intellectual or otherwise.