This year has marked the passing away of two great former director-generals of CERN, Willibald Jentshcke on 11 March and Viki Weisskopf on 21 April. On 17 September, CERN hosted a symposium to remember Viki, a great physicist and a beloved director.
I was pleased to see many former colleagues of Viki’s, particularly those who were members of the Scientific Policy Committee, and I wish to thank the speakers and the representatives of Viki’s family, who kindly accepted to be the protagonists that afternoon.
I was not at CERN during the time of Viki’s mandate – from August 1961 to December 1965 – but everyone I know who recalls this golden age for CERN is unanimous in celebrating his qualities, his understanding and his commitment to both particle physics and the laboratory.
Viki retained a strong attachment to CERN well after leaving office, and this was reciprocated by anyone who had the privilege to meet him, or to attend one of his famous lectures in the laboratory’s academic training programme. He kept a house in the French village of Vesancy, close to the laboratory, and I have fond memories of conversations with him during the summers he spent there. Viki was also very much a part of the local community in Vesancy, which bestowed on him the title of honorary fireman. At first sight, this may seem a trifle for someone of Viki’s calibre, but I know that it meant a lot to him and to the people of Vesancy.
Director-generals, as you know, have to take care of practical things, such as balancing the budget, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this has been a major preoccupation of my mandate.
“It is hoped that the governments will soon indicate their confidence in the future of the laboratory by granting the necessary funds to support this programme. It is only by doing this that it will be possible to maintain in Europe this vital and fundamental branch of science, now on the threshold of new insights into the basic structure of natural matter.” Although this sentence would be quite appropriate today, it was in fact written by Viki in the introduction to the CERN annual report of 1964.
It is reassuring for me to share somehow the experience of a great director-general of the past, but also the feeling of contributing to the preparation of the tools for fundamental discoveries of the future. Through his steadfast support and advocacy for CERN, Viki laid the foundations for the successes that have followed. Through his openness, he paved the way for the global collaboration in particle physics of which CERN is an indispensable part. And through his humanity – to paraphrase the great French physicist Louis Leprince-Ringuet – he defined the spirit of CERN. Nearly 40 years after he stepped down as CERN’s director-general, he remains a hard act to follow.
I would like to thank Cecilia Jarlskog, who organized the symposium, and Daniel Treille, who advised us both.