Reflections on the past and future of CERN

The well-known science historian, Dominique Pestre, gives his insight into CERN's history and changing trends in the perception of fundamental research. 


Dominique Pestre, Director of Research at Paris's Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS).

What does the history of CERN teach us? How have the ideas which gave birth to the largest fundamental physics research centre in the world evolved? It is always interesting to stand back and look at the history of one's own organisation in relation to developments in society. On Monday, 13 December, at the University of Geneva's physics faculty, Dominique Pestre will give a lecture and moderate a discussion on these issues.

As director of research at Paris's Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Dominique Pestre is one of France's principal science historians. With his physics background, he has many publications to his name on the history of physics, the practice of science in the West and on the interactions between science and society in general. He knows CERN very well as he was co-author of The History of CERN, a detailed account of the Organization’s development from its creation to the 1970s.

Why is CERN an interesting subject for a science historian to study?

”CERN is a remarkable success from a scientific and technical but also from an institutional and organizational perspective. The Organization continues to function extremely well in its own particular field of fundamental research. In this respect, it is a fascinating subject for a science historian like me. But CERN is living in a very different climate to the one that made it a success in the 50s and 60s. Next Monday in our discussions we shall be looking back over the changing circumstances in which CERN has evolved.”

In what ways has the context in which fundamental physics is conducted changed?

”In the aftermath of the Second World War, an extraordinary aura was conferred on physicists by the development of nuclear weapons. They also had great influence during the subsequent Cold War period. At the time, the prevailing idea in science was reductionism. It was thought that fundamental physics underpinned everything: if you understood the elementary structure of matter, you understood all the higher orders. This view changed in the 1970s, as a result of the thesis propounded by Nobel Prize for Physics Winner, Philip Warren Anderson, in his article « More is different ». In this article he developed the thesis that specific physics properties emerge at each higher order level. Thus no reduction to the fundamental scale is possible. Ideas on the relationship between fundamental research and applied research have also evolved: We now know that the link is not linear. These changes of perspective are of primordial importance for CERN”.

Paradoxically, growing public interest in CERN has been noted over recent years. What do you think the reasons for this are?

”Perhaps there is a renewal of interest in fundamental research that is disconnected from mercantile requirements. Society’s increasing preoccupation with materialism has generated a reaction in the form of movements opposed to mercantilism. Physics research at CERN is precisely disinterested in that it has no other goal than itself. It can therefore be seen as a beacon of altruism and transcendence. This is an interesting debate which we can pursue during the discussion next Monday, 13 December.”

All the details of the conference are available here.

by Corinne Pralavorio