CERN and Pakistan: a personal perspective

5 October 2003

How can a country like Pakistan benefit from working together with CERN? Ishfaq Ahmad explains.


From its inception, CERN was international in character. The construction of its first 600 MeV accelerator was a fine example of international co-operation. After the Second World War, a group of European scientists realized that the brain drain during the war was a serious problem, which was continuing even after the war had ended. This realization gave birth to the idea of a European laboratory funded by several European nations. These scientists had a strong will, considerable political influence in their own countries and a commitment to do basic research, while recognizing that no single country had sufficient resources to build a large accelerator. CERN owes its creation to the dynamism and indomitable will of scientists such as Isidor Rabi, Eduardo Amaldi, Pierre Auger, John Cockroft and others. Thanks to their efforts, CERN, when it became operational, was gradually able to reverse the brain drain.


The informal scientific co-operation between CERN and Pakistan dates back to the 1960s, when Pakistan was introduced to CERN through Abdus Salam, the country’s only Nobel Laureate. Salam had a desire that a group of Pakistani scientists commit themselves to both theoretical and experimental high-energy physics. On the suggestion of Salam, stacks of nuclear emulsion exposed at CERN were provided to Pakistan for the study of pions, kaons and antiprotons. In this informal co-operation, Owen Lock from CERN and the newly created Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) played an important role. Nuclear emulsions were later superseded by newer particle-detection techniques, and gradually this activity faded away. Meanwhile, some theoretical physicists from Pakistan had the opportunity to work at CERN through short visits. During the 1980s, some of the experimental physicists from Pakistan, specializing in the technique of Solid State Nuclear Track Detectors (SSNTD), also benefited from CERN by exposing the stacks in the beam at the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS).

In 1994 I visited CERN as chairman of PAEC. The visit took place on the initiative of Pakistani physicist Ahmed Ali, who works at DESY. It brought back good memories of my earlier visits, which date back to 1962 when I came to CERN as a young post-doctoral fellow working at the University Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen (now the Niels Bohr Institute) to perform a nuclear emulsion experiment. During my visit in 1994, I was fascinated to see the exciting developments in physics that were taking place at CERN, and I had only one wish – that my own country, Pakistan, should somehow become involved in scientific collaboration with CERN, and that our physicists and engineers could also become part of the most advanced, challenging and rewarding scientific endeavour: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

On my return to Pakistan, I kept my contacts with CERN, and a few months later a co-operation agreement was approved by the government of Pakistan, which was signed by me, as chairman of PAEC, and the then director-general of CERN, Chris Llewellyn Smith, who has now been appointed as director of the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s fusion programme. In 1997, PAEC signed an agreement for an in-kind contribution worth one million Swiss francs for the construction of eight magnet supports for the CMS detector. The signing of the agreement was followed by the visit of Llewellyn Smith to Pakistan in 1998. The agreement provided an entry point for Pakistani scientists and engineers into the CMS collaboration.


In 2000, CERN’s new director-general, Luciano Maiani, visited Pakistan, and during this visit another agreement was signed, which doubled the Pakistani contribution from one to two million Swiss francs. This new agreement covered the construction of the resistive plate chambers required for the CMS muon system. Recently, a protocol has been signed enhancing Pakistan’s total contribution to the LHC programme to $10 million. I very much hope and wish that these developments may eventually lead to Pakistan becoming an observer state at CERN.

A source of inspiration

One of the inspirations for scientific co-operation with CERN was Salam’s theories, which were always at the forefront of CERN’s scientific programme. Salam, Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg formulated the theory that unified the electromagnetic and weak interaction and predicted the existence of weak neutral currents. In 1973, neutral currents were observed at CERN, verifying the theory. The discovery created quite a lot of excitement in Pakistan because of Salam. A later important breakthrough was the discovery of the intermediate vector bosons, W and Z, at CERN’s SPS in 1983. This provided yet another verification of the theory of Glashow, Salam and Weinberg.

The Large Electron Positron (LEP) collider was built at CERN to study electroweak theory and the Standard Model in more detail. It started up in 1989 and operated for 11 years, making precision tests of different aspects of the Standard Model. In particular, LEP experiments measured the number of neutrinos, and for the first time the mass of the Z boson was measured to an accuracy better than 2 MeV. However, one important ingredient of the Standard Model that is still missing is the Higgs boson, which is the elusive particle that in the Standard Model is responsible for giving masses to elementary particles.

It is hoped that the LHC, now under construction at CERN, will discover the Higgs boson, not withstanding the bet of famous physicist Stephen Hawking, and possibly physics beyond the Standard Model. The LHC will be able to explore physics at the TeV scale, where it is certain that some new physics will be found, most probably supersymmetry. Supersymmetry may explain a number of unsolved problems in the Standard Model, such as why masses differ by an order of magnitude as one moves from one quark family to another; why there are three families of quarks and three families of leptons; and how to explain the dark matter predicted by astrophysical models.

The importance of the Grid

The amount and size of experimental data generated at the LHC will pose the greatest challenge to the physicists. The collection, storage, retrieval and analysis of LHC data will require novel techniques in the field of information technology. The physicists working in different institutions around the globe will access LHC data; this implies a need for distributed computing. In recent years, a new approach in computing is emerging, called the Grid. The Grid is a natural evolution of the World Wide Web, which was invented at CERN in 1991. While the Web made information retrieval via the Internet extremely easy and simple, the proper implementation of the Grid will allow information processing and the solving of complex problems that would otherwise require supercomputers, in a very simple manner. Grid computing will be particularly useful for developing countries, where the cost of a supercomputer is prohibitive and there are also political difficulties in their purchase. It is very important for Pakistan to establish the proper infrastructure for Grid computing to acquire the full benefits of its investment in the LHC.


Information technology, on which CERN is to hold an important conference, “The Role of Science in the Information Society (RSIS)”, in December this year, is going to have a tremendous effect on billions of human beings who are being increasingly exposed to pressures due to the unabated instinct of the poor to reproduce and the insatiable desire of the rich to consume. Our planet is, of course, limited in space and resources. The new interactive electronic communications will have a strong impact on society. The hope is that Grid technologies, like the Web, will be widely used in both developed and developing countries alike. In its wake, the Grid will bring many changes to the socio, economic and cultural fabric of society.

Coming back to Pakistan, it is important to note that due to the influence of Salam, a number of high-calibre Pakistani theoretical particle physicists were trained in the latter part of the 20th century. On the other hand, Pakistan has always lagged behind in experimental particle physics due to a lack of resources. It was strongly felt by the scientists of Pakistan that a national centre for physics of very high international standards was needed. In 1994, I led a group of physicists to meet the president of Pakistan to discuss this issue, and the president very kindly approved the concept of such a centre. So in 1998, during the inauguration ceremony of the 23rd International Nathiagali Summer College on Physics and Contemporary Needs, I announced the creation of the National Centre of Physics (NCP) and invited the well-known Pakistani theoretical physicist Riazuddin to head the centre, which he kindly accepted.

The NCP is the cradle and the focal point for all CERN-related activities in Pakistan. At present, the centre is involved in a number of LHC-related activities such as detector construction, detector simulation, physics analysis and Grid computing. Several other Pakistani institutes are also collaborating with CERN indirectly through the NCP. The activities of these institutes cover areas such as software development, manufacturing of mechanical equipment, alignment of the CMS tracker using lasers, and the testing of electronic equipment.

Former CERN director-general Victor Weisskopf wrote in his book The Joy of Insight that anybody who enters CERN should be regarded as European and no longer a citizen of any nation. Now CERN is open to any scientist from anywhere in the world. Moreover, beyond its 20 European member states, CERN currently has co-operation agreements with 30 countries. Had Weisskopf been alive today, he would probably have rephrased his remark by saying that “anybody who enters CERN is a citizen of the world”.

bright-rec iop pub iop-science physcis connect