Following Blackett’s advice

Your review of Antonino Zichichi’s tribute to Patrick Blackett (CERN Courier September 2016 p59) touched upon Blackett’s conviction that physicists should communicate to society the contribution of science to the progress of our civilisation. Never before has this been more pertinent.

You do not have to look very far to find the enemies of fundamental research. First there are those journalists looking for a dramatic storyline and the growing band of unqualified commentators on the internet. Then there are the politicians following an “impact” agenda that favours perceived short-term economic benefits of research over academic excellence. There is also a tendency for research councils, university presidents and learned societies to toe the government line, encouraging some fellow scientists to claim that attention and money should be diverted away from high-energy physics.

The discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 and gravitational waves in 2016 were triumphs of experimental physics that confirmed theoretical ideas first put forward in 1964 and 1916, respectively. Yet fundamental physics sometimes receives negative publicity because attempts to achieve the much more difficult goals of going beyond the Standard Model and unifying gravity with the other forces have not met some stricter artificial deadlines. Of course we must continually remind the politicians and the media of the economic benefits of fundamental physics: PET scans from the Dirac equation, GPS from general relativity, the Web from CERN, etc. But let us not fall into the trap of boasting only about these populist benefits, lest we be judged on them alone; let us also recall with Zichichi Blackett’s exhortation to communicate the progress of civilisation brought about by discovering the laws of nature.

• Michael Duff, Blackett Lab, Imperial College London.


Blackett, the UK and CERN

As pointed out in your review of Antonino Zichichi's book about Patrick M S Blackett (CERN Courier September 2016 p59), the author offers his personal testimony, from the first time he heard Blackett’s name to when he went to work with him, and then about the research he could be involved in. I would like to add one important point, outlined in the book, which was not mentioned in the review: namely the decisive role of Blackett in the foundation of CERN.

The important role of I I Rabi and other scientists, who initiated the foundation of CERN via UNESCO, has been outlined on many occasions. Zichichi’s book, however, describes the important role played by Blackett in getting the UK, which had been an observer until then, to ratify the CERN convention on 30 December 1953. Indeed, the influence that Blackett – who was a former chief adviser for operational research in the Admiralty during the Second World War – had at government level allowed him to overcome the initial resistance in the UK government, which was willing to accept expenditure on nuclear projects but reluctant to spend comparable sums on fundamental research in a European organisation.

Hence, in the words of physicist Lew Kowarski written in 1973 (CERN Courier September 2016 p62), “important events such as the creation of CERN – only a few years after World War II, with Germany joining and Britain among the signatories of the CERN Convention – do not happen without the engagement of strong personalities”

• Horst Wenninger, CERN.