Irish scientists at CERN's cutting edge

Friday 19 July 2013 19.31
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RTÉ's Science and Technology Correspondent Will Goodbody reports from CERN
RTÉ's Science and Technology Correspondent Will Goodbody reports from CERN
The corridor where the web was born in CERN
The corridor where the web was born in CERN
A worker cycles through the Large Hadron Collider tunnel
A worker cycles through the Large Hadron Collider tunnel
Irish scientists (l-r) Dr James Keaveney, Dr Dermot Moran and Dr Ronan McNulty in the CMS cavern in CERN
Irish scientists (l-r) Dr James Keaveney, Dr Dermot Moran and Dr Ronan McNulty in the CMS cavern in CERN
The main lecture hall at CERN
The main lecture hall at CERN
CERN is unique in many ways. It is actually considered international territory in diplomatic terms and so those working and living there enjoy certain immunities
CERN is unique in many ways. It is actually considered international territory in diplomatic terms and so those working and living there enjoy certain immunities
Part of CERN's computer centre
Part of CERN's computer centre
To non-physicists the LHC can appear a 'daunting technical morass'
To non-physicists the LHC can appear a 'daunting technical morass'
The 27km long particle accelerator travels in a loop under the French-Swiss border
The 27km long particle accelerator travels in a loop under the French-Swiss border
The Large Hadron Collider is 100m underground
The Large Hadron Collider is 100m underground

 RTÉ's Will Goodbody reports from CERN


In a corner of the CMS detector experiment control room at CERN, there sits a collection of empty champagne bottles. Each one tells its own story of celebration. Individual measures of success achieved over a five-year period in the cavern housing the gigantic CMS detector 100 metres below.

A similar collection also sits in a corner of the LHCb detector control room, and presumably in the control rooms of Atlas and Alice, the other two main experiments on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) ring.

Because since the first proton beams were fired into the €5 billion LHC in 2008, the project has recorded scientific breakthrough after scientific breakthrough. Slowly unlocking the secrets of the dawn of the universe, the "Big Bang", and the moments that followed. Painstakingly fleshing out our understanding of the mechanics of particle and nuclear physics, as well as adding significant new knowledge.

To non-physicists the LHC can appear a daunting technical morass. But in the simplest terms, the 27km long particle accelerator, which travels in a loop under the French-Swiss border, works like this.

Beams of hydrogen protons are created. The speed of those beams is gradually increased in a series of smaller accelerators before they are injected into the LHC where they zip around the loop at almost the speed of light, bent and directed by super-strong magnets. There are two tubes in the tunnel, and a single beam passes through each, but in opposite directions.

When they want to, those controlling the four detectors – CMS, LHCb, Atlas and Alice – can bring the beams together, causing them to collide with massive energy. The resulting spray of tiny shattered particles is recorded by the gigantic detectors – which are essentially exceptionally high speed cameras that can take millions of snaps every second. That data is then filtered, with information on the important collisions sent to the CERN computer centre where it is processed and stored by hundreds of servers there, and on a grid CERN has built around the world.

The aim is to recreate the fractions of a second after the “Big Bang” to see what particles existed, how they interacted and what the result was. To a significant degree the LHC experiments have already been successful in this regard. They have more or less definitively found evidence of the existence of a Higgs Boson particle – the strange elusive field which gives all matter mass, and without which nothing material would exist. They are also working hard to learn more about why there is more matter than anti-matter in the world, and to understand whether the theory of super-symmetry, for example, is more than just a theory.

Last week CERN facilitated a visit by RTÉ News. We were afforded access to the CMS and LHCb caverns – massive holes in the ground filled from floor to ceiling with tiny components measuring even tinier particles. We were also brought down to the tunnel and shown the insides of the LHC as technical crews carried out repairs and maintenance. We were shown around the computer centre, met Irish researchers working on spin-off products and experiments and were given time with some of the senior management of CERN, including Belfast native, Dr Steve Myers, who is in-charge of the LHC.

Watch interviews with some of the Irish working at CERN by clicking the Video tab at the top of this page.

CERN is unique in many ways. Although it straddles the Swiss-French border, it is actually considered international territory in diplomatic terms and so those working and living there enjoy certain immunities. It has its own police and fire services and on site accommodation for visitors. Its roads are all named after internationally renowned scientists, like Albert Einstein and even the Northern Irish physicist, John Stewart Bell. It has an annual operating budget of over €1 billion, paid for by its 20 member states.

It is an awe-inspiring place where everything is enormous. The ideas are big, the product of decades of theorising and experimentation by some of the most intelligent people ever to walk the earth. The machines and technology are big, on a mind-boggling scale that is hard to put into words. The spin-offs are big, like for example the World Wide Web, created there two decades ago. And the passion is big, as the campus is teaming with 2,500 physicists, technicians, engineers and support staff, who are all equally dedicated to answering these most fascinating of questions.

Many of those are visiting academics who spend most, if not all, of their spare and holiday time in CERN, away from their home institutions. Often they survive on a shoe-string, because their funding only goes so far in a country which has an extremely high cost of living. Why do they do it? Because they adore what they do, thrive on the collaborative atmosphere and feel they are fortunate to have the chance to work on a project that is truly amazing. And walking around the campus, you see that spirit of ideas and collaboration everywhere. The conversations, conducted through a plethora of different languages and accents, are dominated by new ideas and hypotheses.

Among those accents you might be able to pick out the odd Irish one. There are perhaps a dozen Irish scientists who either work permanently for, or are regular visitors to CERN. Ireland is not a member. So while researchers from Ireland can through networking and persistence get involved in collaborating on experiments there, there is no formal programme of involvement. Nor do we have any say in the direction that CERN evolves. That, it should be said, hasn’t stopped those few Irish scientists in CERN from having a significant impact. Indeed they have been and continue to be involved in many aspects of the LHC’s construction and operation.

But it was striking that of the Irish we met, while most were educated in Irish universities, they are now based abroad in institutions whose national governments have formal ties to CERN. One wonders if Ireland were a member, would they bring their knowledge, experience and contacts home? Membership fees are based on national economic output, so ironically right now, it would prove relatively inexpensive for us to join. Senior CERN managers estimate full membership would cost Ireland in the region of €12 million a year, associate membership one tenth of that.

In return Irish companies could compete for CERN contracts worth €500 million each year. Irish Government agencies would be able to have an input into CERN’s direction and operations. Our students would more easily be able to participate in CERN’s many education programmes. But perhaps most important of all, it would allow Ireland to be a part of an enormous movement of cutting edge science, and access ideas, knowledge and experience.

The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation says Ireland’s membership of international research organisations is reviewed on a regular basis and the value of membership in terms of support to Irish researchers, companies and jobs is considered to justify the costs of our membership. It says the question is whether we should divert very scarce, and in most cases committed, funding away from areas identified through in-depth analyses as having the best chance of contributing to our economic recovery. It also adds that in addition to substantial fees for any type of membership, it is important to note that significant extra amounts of expenditure would be necessitated in order to ensure that Ireland benefits fully from membership. It says the matter will continue to be reviewed regularly on the basis of a consideration of how to use Ireland’s public research funding to best contribute to economic recovery and jobs.

In the meantime, CERN, and its handful of Irish scientists will continue to carry out extraordinary science.

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Keywords: cern