CERN, one of the proudest flagships of European cooperation

French diplomat François de Rose was one of CERN’s founding fathers. Shortly after the end of World War II, on a diplomatic posting in the United States, he made the acquaintance of several leading physicists who, like him, were sitting on the Atomic Energy Commission, a body set up by the fledgling United Nations. He became friends with Robert Oppenheimer and met Isidor Rabi and the Frenchmen Lew Kowarski, Pierre Auger and Francis Perrin, all physicists driven by the conviction that developing fundamental research infrastructure was one of the keys to rebuilding Europe.


François de Rose, during CERN's official 50th Anniversary Celebrations in 2004.

The United States had built itself powerful particle accelerators and the Soviet Union would soon follow suit. The growing sophistication and scale of such apparatus were beyond the means of a single European state, and this is what spurred François de Rose and his scientist friends to embark upon a tour of Europe’s capitals, advocating to governments the creation of the first fundamental research centre on a truly European scale. And the rest is history… CERN was founded in 1954 and François de Rose was Council President from 1958 to 1960. His term of office notably saw the extension of the CERN site into French territory. He was also French delegate to the Council for a number of years. Nearly 60 years on, CERN has become the world’s leading fundamental physics laboratory, a source of immense satisfaction to François de Rose, the only founding father still alive. Now in his hundredth year, he has agreed to share his impressions of the Organization with the readers of the Bulletin.

You were part of the great adventure that was the creation of CERN. In the early 50s, fundamental physics was dominated by the USA and the USSR, while European science was in decline. Today CERN is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. What are your thoughts on this development?

I can still recall the pride and enthusiasm we felt during those early pioneering days. We all felt a bit like adventurers on an extraordinary journey. This feeling was common to everyone involved in the project, from the giants of science like Niels Bohr to the humblest theorist or experimenter. We had a tremendous esprit de corps right from the start.

I think it’s the only time a scientific endeavour has ever inspired such commitment and passion. I even believe that CERN’s influence goes far beyond its own field. CERN has become a byword for large international scientific undertakings, which explains why it reaches across frontiers and attracts scientists, students and professors from all countries of the world.

Do you still follow CERN news?

I take an interest in CERN research when it’s not too hard to understand. I was proud and happy at the start-up of the LHC. I’m particularly interested in the aspects of the LHC that deal with the origins and evolution of the Universe. It’s letting us look into a whole area that used to be completely closed off. The future discoveries will certainly not solve all the riddles we’re facing but they might allow us to take a few tentative steps into this uncharted territory.

Why do you have such a strong attachment to CERN?

I’m attached to CERN because it’s an amazing undertaking that brought me into contact with some extremely intelligent people, opened my eyes and exposed me to concepts beyond my imagination. It’s also because CERN is one of the proudest flagships of European cooperation, a hub for European culture in the most universal of its incarnations, and a centre for peace where researchers from all over the world can meet. As a former diplomat, I’m proud of the success of this international cooperation venture.

And as a diplomat, what is your opinion on the links between fundamental science and cooperation between nations?

You could say that everything related to the sharing of knowledge contributes to bringing peoples closer. So often the tool of war-makers in the past, science has become an instrument for bringing nations together. Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci and many others contributed to engines of war. But it is said that fireworks were the only use the Chinese could find for gunpowder. Having rubbed shoulders with scientists all my life, I can unequivocally state that they are devoted to the peaceful development of their activities.

In your view, what use does fundamental science have in a world interested mainly in short-term financial gain?

Its greatest use is to provide intellectual speculation of the most disinterested kind. The whole principle of fundamental science runs against the notion of usefulness. Even so, many of fundamental research’s spin-offs have nothing to do with the original aims but are simply direct or indirect consequences. A good example of this is the Worldwide Web, which originated at CERN.

What message would you like to send to CERN and the scientists working there?

Several generations of scientists and administrators have passed through CERN’s doors over the past fifty years or more. They have all been imbued with an awareness of the scientific importance and international dimension of their common endeavour. My wish would be for everyone who has the privilege of working at CERN to be permanently inspired by those same ideals. Actually, I’m certain this will be the case.

by Corinne Pralavorio