From Physics to Daily Life: Applications in Informatics, Energy, and Environment
From Physics to Daily Life: Applications in Biology, Medicine and Healthcare
By Beatrice Bressan (ed.)
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The old adage that “necessity is the mother of invention” explains, in a nutshell, why an institution like CERN is such a prolific source of new technologies. The extreme requirements of the LHC and its antecedents have driven researchers to make a host of inventions, many of which are detailed in these informative volumes that cover two broad areas of applications.
Eclectic is the word that comes to mind reading through the chapters of the two tomes that are all linked, in one way or another, to CERN. The editor, Beatrice Bressan, has done a valiant job of weaving together different styles and voices, from technical academic treatise to colourful first-hand account. For example, in one of his many insightful asides in a chapter entitled “WWW and More”, Robert Cailliau, a key contributor to the development of the World Wide Web, muses wryly that even after a 30-year career at CERN, it was not always clear to him what “CERN” meant.
Indeed, as the reader is reminded throughout these two books, CERN is the convenient shorthand for several closely connected organizations and networks, each with its own innovation potential. There’s the institution in Geneva whose staff consist primarily of engineers, technicians and administrators who run the facility. Then there’s the much more numerous global community of researchers that develop and manage giant experiments such as ATLAS. And underpinning all of this is the vast range of industrial suppliers, which provide most of the technology used at CERN, often through a joint R&D process with staff at CERN and its partner institutions.
From a purely utilitarian perspective, the justification for CERN surely lies in the contracts it provides to European industry. Without the billions of euros that have been cycled through European firms to build the LHC, there would be little political appetite for such a massive project. As explained in the introductory chapter by Bressan and Daan Boom – reproduced in both volumes, together with a chapter on Swiss spin-off – there has been a great deal of knowledge transfer thanks to these industrial contracts. Indeed, this more mundane part of CERN’s industrial impact may well dwarf many of the more visible examples of innovation illustrated in subsequent chapters.
Still, as several examples in these two volumes illustrate, there is no doubt that CERN can also generate the sort of “disruptive technologies” that shape our modern world. The web is the most stunning example, but major advances in particle accelerators and radiation sensors have had amazing knock-on effects on industry and society, too, as chapters by famous pioneers such as Ugo Amaldi and David Townsend illustrate clearly.
The question that journalists and other casual observers never cease to ask, though, is why has Europe not benefitted more directly from such breakthroughs? Why did touch screens, developed for the Super Proton Synchrotron control room, not lead to a slew of European high-tech companies? Why was it Silicon Valley and not some valley in Europe that reaped most of the direct commercial benefits of the web? Where are all of the digital start-ups that the hundreds of millions of euros invested in Grid technology were expected to generate?
Chapters on each of these technologies provide some clues to what the real challenge is. As Cailliau remarks wistfully, “WWW is an excellent example of a missed opportunity, but not by CERN.” In other words, to be successful, invention needs not only a scientific mother, it requires an entrepreneurial midwife, too. That is an area where Europe has been sorely lacking.
The only omission in these otherwise wide-ranging and well-researched books, in my opinion, is the lack of discussion on the central role of openness in CERN’s innovation strategy. Open science and open innovation are umbrella terms mentioned enthusiastically in the introductory chapter by Sergio Bertolucci, CERN’s director for research and computing. But there are no chapters dealing specifically with how open-access publication or open-source software and hardware – areas where CERN has for years been a global pioneer – have impacted knowledge transfer and innovation. Perhaps that is a topic broad enough for a third volume.
That said, there is, in these two volumes, already ample food for more thoughtful debate about successful knowledge management and technology transfer in and around European research organizations like CERN. If these books provoke such debate, and that debate leads to progress in Europe’s ability to transform innovations sparked by fundamental physics into applications that improve daily life, they will have made an important contribution
• Francois Grey, University of Geneva.
• For the colloquium held at CERN featuring talks by contributors to these two books, visit https://indico.cern.ch/event/331449/.