Magazine plays its part in physics history

25 January 2002

Gordon Fraser, who has stepped down as editor of CERN Courier looks at how the physics scene has changed during his time working on the magazine.


A news magazine is about developments. As scientific developments have unfolded over time, the many issues of this magazine have helped to reveal the history of particle physics.

The rate of particle physics discoveries, which was tumultuous during most of the 20th century, has slowed down. In the final years of the 20th century our knowledge and understanding reached a plateau in the Standard Model (few physicists share Murray Gell-Mann’s passion for coining imaginative words where they matter).

From this plateau, the view has widened. High energy means high temperature, so that particle physics and astrophysics, and even cosmology, find themselves more and more on common ground, tracking the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang in a still-hot universe. Not that long ago it would have been inconceivable for particle physicists to be interested in what happens in the sky. Now the latest news on microwave background radiation, supernovae, black holes and gamma-ray bursters is followed enthusiastically at major particle physics meetings. Astrowatch is one of the most popular features of this magazine.

Technological stampede

The rate of pure particle physics breakthroughs may have slowed temporarily, but an accompanying rush of technological innovation continues and even accelerates. To seek the elusive particle signatures of tomorrow, large experiments involving thousands of ingenious researchers scattered across the globe are today exploiting new materials and pushing innovative techniques to achieve what seemed impossible only yesterday.

The World Wide Web is just one example. Take telecommunications, microelectronics, cryogenics etc. At no time in history has technology been advancing so rapidly. Fundamental science is the spring from which many of these developments flow. Physicswatch monitors this evolution.

Visiting CERN recently was Mike Lazaridis, the president and co-chief executive of Research in Motion of Canada. He is a leading designer and manufacturer of wireless communications equipment. As a great believer in the importance of fundamental physics for society, Lazaridis is personally funding the Perimeter Institute in Southwestern Ontario – an institute dedicated to theoretical physics.

Lazaridis said: “Theoretical physics gave rise to virtually all of the technological advances of present-day society. From lasers to computers and from cellphones to magnetic resonance imaging, the road to today’s technological developments was based on yesterday’s groundbreaking theoretical physics.”

A continuing theme at CERN is international collaboration. The universal culture of physics brings people and nations together, surmounting political and other barriers. CERN was the first example of scientific international collaboration in post-war Europe. As well as furthering research in its member states, CERN helped to catalyse new contacts further afield, where contact was difficult because of politics or recent history. Even in the depths of the Cold War, there was contact between scientists at CERN and their counterparts in the Soviet Union.

Dwarfs and giants

The Geneva laboratory has gone on to become an even wider stage. Building the detectors for CERN’s proton antiproton collider in the late 1970s and early 1980s demanded a major international effort, mainly in Europe. However, even this is being dwarfed by the operations now under way worldwide to construct the Large Hadron Collider and its mighty detectors. While G8 powers and lesser giants naturally play an important role, being part of this effort is a source of great pride for nations that would otherwise not be able to participate in such prestigious research.

Today’s Standard Model may be a plateau of understanding, but it is not the ultimate summit of knowledge. Particle physics is poised to enter the next act in a drama for which the script has yet to be written. To understand a universe of unfathomable complexity will demand fresh insight and imagination.

The new theories…cannot even be explained adequately in words at all.

Paul Dirac

Describing the ultimate physics is a continual challenge. Quantum mechanics pioneer Paul Dirac pointed out: “The new theories…cannot even be explained adequately in words at all.” And that was back in 1930.

Fundamental science attracts keen minds.Working with these intellects is rewarding, but demanding. Articles written for a wide audience are not always welcomed by specialists who quickly point to the verbal inadequacies anticipated by Dirac. In constructing the intellectual cathedral of science, attributing individual recognition is particularly difficult. The world’s great lasting monuments may have been designed by far-sighted architects, but they were built by protracted teamwork.

Words aid comprehension. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote in Novum Organum: “The ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding.” In a field where terminology is not always adopted for its transparency (quark fragmentation means exactly the opposite of what it implies), CERN Courier is widely appreciated. Its decoding of physics jargon is particularly welcomed by the world’s media. Above all, it delights in its use of that supremely functional instrument – the English language – which remains highly resilient to the abuse heaped upon it.

From news editor to new editor

Starting with this issue, James Gillies takes over as editor of CERN Courier, succeeding Gordon Fraser, who has been a major contributor to the magazine since his arrival at CERN in 1977 and its official editor since 1986.

The new editor is no newcomer to physics or physics writing. He began his career as a graduate student at Oxford working on CERN’s EMC experiment in the mid-1980s. Moving on to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), he then became increasingly interested in communicating science, working for a summer with the BBC World Service Science Unit; setting up a regular local radio science spot; and producing public information material for RAL.

In 1993 he left research to become the head of science at the British Council in Paris. After managing the council’s bilateral programme of scientific visits, exchanges, bursaries and cultural events for two years, he returned to CERN in 1995 as a science writer, and was soon installed as news editor of CERN Courier. He co-wrote, with Robert Cailliau of CERN, How the Web was Born – a history of the World Wide Web, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

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