CERN: a source of European spirit

If we look at mid-1945 Europe, a continent broken up as it emerged from World War II, in the minds of political leaders and diplomats the restoration of Europe’s place in the world meant not only the world of politics or economics but also of culture.

This was particularly evident in that post-war summer, with the demonstration of the might of a branch of advanced science which had been considered removed from immediate applications. Because of this unexpected identity between cultural achievement and worldly power, those dreaming of European restoration chose scientific research for a first manifestation of unity and, among the domains of research, nuclear physics.

The unity of European science involved not only personnel and information exchanges, but also big machines and a commonly owned piece of land under a new form of common European sovereignty. In the early 1950s Professor W Heisenberg considered that, on the way towards Germany’s re-integration in the common aspirations of Western Europe, full participation in a common scientific enterprise would be a significant and readily acceptable step. In a very different region of politics, a prominent French politician, when hearing that Britain was among the signatories of the CERN Convention, exclaimed that CERN was worth founding and financing if only to prove that co-operation with the United Kingdom was no less feasible and desirable than with any continental nation.

The common enterprise in European physics did not seek to put itself apart from its counterparts in the United States, the Soviet Union and elsewhere but expected to entertain a fruitful dialogue with all these colleagues and competitors. At the beginning, contact with America was by far the easiest to maintain. Its first manifestation was the friendly rivalry between the physicists of united Europe and those of the united universities on the American East Coast. Fruitful contact was kept up by a constant stream of American visitors and research fellows, whose participation in CERN’s life was, for several years, financed by the Ford Foundation.

The same years coincided with the thaw of the Cold War. Soviet scientists paid us the highest compliment – that of following our example. The nuclear institute at Dubna, already in existence for several years, was transformed into an international enterprise in which every member of the Soviet-led group of nations was invited to take part.

In addition, other scientifically advanced nations – Japan, Israel, India and others – developed a network of contacts which became a significant part of CERN’s scientific function. Offering the use of one of the top-rank machines was largely responsible for CERN’s worldwide appeal. On a somewhat more modest plane, CERN’s initiatives in processing visual data have spread over the world and become the starting point for other devices invented elsewhere.

Steps were taken to avoid CERN becoming just another research institute. New forms of co-operation between CERN and the national institutes were developed and by mid-1961 CERN had assumed its character of a research “commonwealth”.

First plans for the 300 GeV project [which became the Super Proton Synchrotron], finally approved in February 1971, were made approximately at the time when European unification was suffering an abortive attempt to get Britain into the Common Market (1962–1963). Towards the end of the same decade, the picture had changed and the initiation of procedures to extend the Market and to build the CERN Laboratory II took place in a nearly identical time sequence.

The enlargement of CERN into a network of inter-institute collaboration and the extension of CERN’s validity from a regional to a worldwide scene may pre-figure the future role of Europe in the world at large.

• Compiled from texts on pp251–254.


Compiler’s Note

With Europe in post-Brexit turmoil, it is interesting to recall the mood of the 1970s. This article was written by Lew Kowarski, a naturalised French physicist born in St Petersburg. Lew fled to Poland with his parents after the Bolshevik Revolution, moved to France in 1934, and to England and Canada during World War II. He became an important founder member of CERN, and headed Scientific and Technical Services at start-up in 1954. In 1961, these became part of an evolving series of data-handling divisions. Although written more than 40 years ago, the article clearly expressed hopes for European integration and an eventual enlargement of the laboratory to become a global endeavour.