Sergio Bertolucci - Towards dynamic scientific research

Sergio Bertolucci has become Director for Research and Scientific Computing at the moment when the LHC is almost ready to deliver its first physics data. In this interview, he explains the importance of the perfect mix of collaboration and competition that will make the LHC scientific programme successful.

Sergio Bertolucci’s enthusiasm for being at CERN at this historic time is evident from the first minute of the interview and has not waned after an hour speaking with us. Bertolucci’s recipe for a successful start-up of the physics delivery phase of the LHC is "Festina lente", a Latin motto that means something like ‘hasten slowly’. "The LHC is probably the biggest and most complex scientific enterprise ever undertaken by humanity," says Bertolucci. "It will certainly lead us towards a new phase of our understanding of the Universe. Nature is already giving us some indications but only the LHC will allow us to observe the new phenomena that we expect to be out there. However, given its complexity, such a machine does not allow us to take any short cuts and all steps must be carefully taken".

For the physics community, the LHC is a discovery machine, in that finding just the Higgs boson anticipated by the Standard Model would be almost a disappointment. Given the fact that the LHC experiments will deliver their first physics data only in 2009-2010, the door might be left open for other experiments to get to the crucial discoveries first. "In principle, this is possible", confirms Bertolucci. "However, to me this would still be good news. In fundamental research, two important factors must be always present: the collaboration and the competition. From the point of view of the competition, I would not, of course, be happy to read that another laboratory had achieved any of the LHC’s scientific objectives. On the other hand, any signal of new physics at a different machine will open up the opportunity for the LHC to make further discoveries as well as detailed investigations of what might have been observed elsewhere. And this is a unique feature of our largest accelerator. In physics, understanding is often more important than being the first to discover."

One of the commitments of the Director-General is the imminent restart of the non-LHC scientific programme. This suggests that new, smaller experiments will soon flourish at the CERN facilities. After years during which more and more physicists have been assembling around the huge detectors, is this a step backwards? "When I started my career as a physicist" says Bertolucci, "an experiment was carried out by a group of 15 people, then in CDF we were about 90. The LEP experiments drew together 500 scientists, and ATLAS and CMS now have more than 2000 members. This not only changes the organization of the teams involved, but it profoundly changes how fundamental research is done. In the past, a physicist, in his/her working life, could participate in a number of cycles of design, construction, data taking and physics. Today, given the dimensions of the scientific projects that necessarily cause an expansion in time for both the construction phase of the apparatus and the subsequent data-taking phase and analysis, physicists often spend long years doing only one thing. If we do not do anything, this might lead to entire generations of very specialized physicists; therefore, favouring the birth of smaller experiments is also important in maintaining a dynamic physics community. ‘Smaller’ does not mean ‘less challenging’. One good example is the NA62 experiment, which will look for rare kaon decays and which is in a very advanced stage of approval: it is extremely challenging, both in terms of the detector requirements and physics studies. In Spring 2009 we will hold a workshop to assess the situation and to encourage the submission of more proposals of this sort."

So, despite the tight financial situation, CERN’s Management does not seem to lack optimism and enthusiasm for the future. "We have to enlarge the scope of CERN and make it a more global laboratory", says Bertolucci. "We are a unique place where the new generation of physicists and engineers can be exposed to exciting challenges, with the help of the expertise of older generations. Here we have some of the best accelerator experts, a wide spectrum of engineering competencies, as well as two very active communities of experimentalists and theorists. Our duty is to keep this excellence. To be able to do so, we have to seek new partnerships with the world’s three macro-regions: the Americas, Asia and Europe".

In 2008, our Laboratory experienced an increasing interest from the world at large, which had its climax on 10 September when millions of people followed the circulation of the first beams in the LHC through various media. This made us realise how closely people follow what we do and how much they want to know how we do research and why. "Society at large is our employer", confirms Bertolucci. "Our duty is to inform them correctly and pass on to them the enthusiasm we put into our work. Our research should never be perceived as dangerous. Fundamental research does not change or interfere with the natural mechanisms; it simply tries to find new ways of exploring nature and understanding how it works. History teaches us that curiosity-driven science is a principal cornerstone of progress. Technological developments without fundamental research would come to a halt, sooner or later. People think that antimatter is a totally abstract thing but without it, the PET scanner would have not been possible. As a global scientific laboratory, we are one of the main actors in the progress of knowledge; part of our duty is to learn how to communicate this correctly to society".

Sergio Bertolucci’s CV in brief

A former Pisa scholar, Sergio Bertolucci has worked at DESY, Fermilab and Frascati. He was a member of the group that founded Fermilab’s CDF experiment and has been involved in the design, construction and running of the CDF detector.

Bertolucci has been technical coordinator of the team responsible for the design and construction of the KLOE detector at the DAFNE storage ring at the Frascati National Laboratories (LNF). He was appointed head of the LNF accelerator division and the DAFNE project, becoming Director in 2002.

Before taking over the Directorate for Research at CERN, Bertolucci was already chairing the LHC committee and was a member of DESY’s physics research committee. He was also vice-president and a member of the Board of the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN).