Organized Curiosity

The CERN globe. Photo: PK Read

The CERN globe.
Photo: PK Read

Someone once described the work that goes on at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research that straddles the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, as a massive exercise in “organized curiosity”. CERN is the world’s largest particle accelerator laboratory, where international researchers have been collaborating to investigate the fundamental nature of the physical universe since the early 1950’s.

It’s where some of the largest scientific equipment ever built is used to peel back the layers on the smallest elements of what makes the cosmos.

Last night, we went to a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider. Thousands of people, an orchestra with a hundred-strong choir, and the Alan Parsons Live Project accompanied by the full orchestra and choir, took up residence out behind the CERN facility on the French side, in the middle of a large field.

The two official languages at CERN are French and English, but standing in the crowd, there was the likelihood of hearing Korean, Greek, Russian, Japanese and some I didn’t recognize, all spoken within arm’s length. At one point I was standing next to one of the senior scientists, and he said that one of the things he values most about his decades at CERN is the sense of collaboration and working towards a common goal on a global scale. Twenty member states support CERN, with numerous non-members participating in a variety of ways.

We often hear the question: Collaboration is nice, but what good does fundamental research do on a practical level? With all the money spent by various countries – tax money, public funds – what good does this kind of investigation really serve?

There is an objective and true response to this question. The exploration undertaken at CERN often requires equipment that doesn’t yet exist, leading to innovations in everything from computing to medical technologies to materials science and electronics.

But there is also another, more subjective and true response: This demonstrates us, as humans, at our most cooperative and inquisitive. 800px-CERN_international_relations_map.svg

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Fundamental Physics Prize

The silver Fundamental Physics Prize, designed by Olafur EliassonPhoto: PK Read

The silver Fundamental Physics Prize, designed by Olafur Eliasson
Photo: PK Read

I had the good fortune last night to attend the inaugural ceremony for the Fundamental Physics Prize, which awards outstanding achievements in fundamental research, hosted by the wonderful Morgan Freeman. There were nine recipients of the FPP for individual achievement, as well as two recipients of special achievement awards. One of the recipients of the special achievement awards was Professor Stephen Hawking, the second award being shared by a group of seven scientists who helped run the experiments at CERN which validation of the existence of the Higgs boson. The New Horizons Prize also rewarded three young scientists for outstanding work. With award money of $3 million going to each individual and each group ($100,000 for each New Horizon prize recipient), the FPP is the most richly compensated academic prize in the world.

FPP founder, Russian Internet mogul Yuri Milner, said in a New York Times article last year that, ““I wanted this amount to be meaningful. I think top scientists need to be compensated at a different scale in society. Somebody with experience will tell you that true scientists are not motivated by money — they are motivated by the quest itself. That is true. But I think an additional recognition will not hurt.”

As Alexander Polyakov, one of the recipients, said on stage, every year he holds a class for students who are considering whether or not to pursue physics as their main course of study. “If you have to ask yourself this question, then physics is not for you. A poet doesn’t ask whether he should study poetry. It’s a compulsion. Likewise a musician who can’t help playing the guitar. Studying physics must be a passion, a compulsion, because the fact of the matter is that it is too difficult to do if you see it as a job.” He said he always closes the class by saying, “If you want a job that will make money, that will make you rich, then don’t choose physics. Choose it because you can’t help yourself.”

Holding his award, he laughed and said, “How are they supposed to take me seriously anymore?” This was before he was awarded the evening’s overall

Physicists aren't accustomed to awards. From left to right: CERN special prize recipients Lyn Evans, Michel Della Negra, Tejinder Singh Virdee, Peter Jenni. Not shown: Guido Tonelli, Joe Incandela, and Fabiola GionottiPhoto: PK Read

Physicists aren’t accustomed to splashy awards ceremonies. From left to right: CERN special prize recipients Lyn Evans, Michel Della Negra, Tejinder Singh Virdee, Peter Jenni. Not shown: Guido Tonelli, Joe Incandela, and Fabiola Gianotti
Photo: PK Read

Fundamental Physics Prize, in which one of the recipients was chosen by all the others for special acknowledgement. And an additional $3 million award. To be fair to Dr. Polyakov, he seemed quite overwhelmed by all the attention and accolades. One of his fellow recipients said they had been collectively trying to come up with a name to call FPP recipients. So far, their mutual favorite was The Fundamentals.

Perhaps with this kind of award, excelling in the field of academic science will become almost as appealing as succeeding in the field of celebrity. Maybe even those who don’t feel the initial compulsion will discover that science studies, in general, can be very rewarding in a multiplicity of ways. Not one of the award laureates failed to mention the enormous amount of teamwork, international collaboration, cooperation and sharing upon which all their work is based. It’s a field dominated by those for whom science isn’t just work – it’s the stuff of life.

CNBC press release: 2013 Fundamental Physics Prize Awarded to Alexander Polyakov

New York Times article (2012): Celebrating Impractical Physicists

The Fundamental Prize ceremony: