Astroparticles win over the public

The first ever European Week of Astroparticle Physics, held from 10 to 17 October, provided an opportunity for the general public to learn about this still relatively little-known branch of science.

Members of the public were able to meet scientists and find out more about a little-known branch of physics.

A laser beam lit up the Paris sky each time a muon was detected at the top of the Montparnasse tower.

The year 2009 was proclaimed the International Year of Astronomy in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the first astronomical observations by telescope, conducted by Galileo Galilei. While astronomy is a topic that the general public is familiar with and interested in, the same is not true of astroparticle studies, a branch of modern astronomy that in many ways is very close to particle physics.

The ASPERA network, to which CERN belongs, coordinates European research on astroparticles. ASPERA wanted to exploit the heightened interest in astronomy to raise awareness of the work currently being done in this field, and that is how the idea of the European Week of Astroparticle Physics was born.

One of the week’s highlights, literally, was the brainchild of the IN2P3 research institute in Paris: a laser beam between the Paris Observatory and the Montparnasse tower lit up the sky each time a muon from outer space was detected. A great way to raise awareness: "We were all over the Parisian press," notes Arnaud Marsollier, head of communication for ASPERA and a key figure behind the event. "This initiative stimulated interest in the events that had been organised in the participating countries."

However, it’s one thing to attract public interest, and another to satisfy it. There is no patent solution. Across the ten European countries involved, some 40 events were organised for the week—and beyond. "There were many public lectures, of course, which are the easiest events to organise," explains Marsollier. "In Paris, a science café was set up that gave the public a chance to interact with the scientists. In Rome, a major exhibition was opened towards the end of October. And in Spain, physics went on stage in the form of a magic show!"

"The goal was to inform the public about existing experiments, to explain how they work, what we are looking for and what results have been achieved already", he continued. "There is a genuine desire out there to find out more, but the subject is a complicated one. What is needed is a strong campaign of education and communication." For its part, the public was appreciative of the efforts made by the scientists who came to talk about their research into the universe.

The organisers had another task: mobilising physicists to join in the effort to popularise their discipline. "We’re going to have a follow-up meeting to see what worked and what didn’t," concludes Arnaud Marsollier. "I think that there will be some support for repeating the experiment." Another European week? Maybe not right away. However, 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of the discovery of cosmic rays, and an excellent opportunity to raise public awareness once more.

Antoine Cappelle