UNESCO and CERN: a story of interconnected atoms
Promoting scientific cooperation, improving science education, facilitating access to scientific knowledge in order to create a more just world: these are the aims of UNESCO and CERN, two organizations which have been closely linked for 60 years.
“Our fields of competence are very different, but we are like-minded,” declared the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, during her visit to CERN on Saturday, 23 October 2010. “We are pursuing the same goals and our collaboration should be expanded through further practical actions,” added Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director-General of the European Organization for Nuclear Research which has kept its historical acronym: CERN.
The acronym dates back to 1950 when the idea of establishing a European Council for Nuclear Research was raised at the fifth session of the UNESCO General Conference, held in Florence, Italy. Sixty years ago the world was recovering from the still fresh wounds of the Second World War. European intellectuals, cultural leaders and scientists had realized that cooperation was a key tool for the reconstruction of peace. What was needed was to rally European researchers from the Allied countries and also from former Axis countries around a single project.
The Florence project came into operation two years later before the Convention for the establishment of CERN (the Council had by then become a centre) was signed by 12 countries (*) in 1954 and before the first stone of the building was laid near Geneva, Switzerland, in 1955.
Today, the CERN buildings shelter in their basement the world’s largest particle accelerator with a circumference of some 27 kilometres: the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). This gigantic instrument contains a total of 9,300 magnets, examples of which are on show in Hall SM18. The Director-General of UNESCO visited this imposing space with Maurizio Bona, adviser at CERN for relations with international organizations.
On 30 March 2010, CERN was in the news: the LHC had successfully conducted its first experiment in particle collision at a speed approaching that of light, thus opening up new avenues for research into the creation of the universe. This laboratory recreation of the conditions that existed just after the Big Bang was conducted with the ALICE detector. “The ALICE experiment is as complex as sending a man to the moon”, said Sergio Bertolucci, the Director for Research and Scientific Computing at CERN. It involves more than 1,000 scientists from some 30 countries.
ATLAS, the largest detector ever built, is 46 metres long, 25 metres wide and 25 metres high. It weighs 7,000 tonnes and is used for the observation of unknown particles. If the famous Higgs boson (the hypothetical particle referred to as the Holy Grail of physicists) is ever discovered it will be thanks to ATLAS, as Martin Aleksa and Michael Hauschild, who show us the ATLAS control room where some 20 researchers monitor the operation of the detector on screens of all sorts and sizes, explained. Our two guides belonged to the ATLAS collaboration, defined by CERN as a virtual nation involving some 3,000 physicists (including 1,000 students) from some 40 countries and belonging to more than 170 universities and laboratories.
In its own way UNESCO is also a kind of ATLAS collaboration in the world of education, science, culture and communication, bringing together for the same humanist purpose thousands of people across the world.
Just as the Symbolic Globe by the Danish engineer Erik Reitzel, built in 1995 with 10,000 aluminium rods, has pride of place at UNESCO Headquarters, so too did the Globe of Science and Innovation by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor become, six years ago, an emblem for CERN. This wooden structure, 27 metres high, houses a fascinating multimedia exhibition on the universe of particles which enables CERN to further its mission of informing the general public, as Rolf Landua, Chief of the Education group at CERN, explained.
It is true that immersion in the sound and light of the particle universe, from the Big Bang to this day, makes the laws of physics seem poetic. This has provided the Director-General of CERN arguments for his idea of launching a new approach to science education in secondary schools. He has asked Ms Bokova to support, in contacts with UNESCO’s Member States, his project to develop worldwide physics and mathematics syllabi that are more attractive than methods currently used.
The Director-General of UNESCO stressed the importance that the Organization ascribes to scientific skills building in the developing countries and the role to be played by its related institutes, namely the UNESCO International Bureau of Education (IBE) in Geneva (Switzerland), the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) in Paris (France), the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste (Italy) and the International Centre for Synchrotron Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) in Allan (Jordan).
The most recently established institute is actually, in terms of scientific cooperation, the Middle East’s equivalent to CERN: SESAME brings Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey together within the same scientific project.
While CERN places its scientific expertise at UNESCO’s disposal under SESAME and other initiatives, such as virtual libraries in African universities and teacher training, UNESCO’s International Basic Sciences Programme (IBSP) offers CERN a framework for cooperation with researchers from countries that are not CERN members (**).
In order to pursue this exchange of good practices, the Director-General of UNESCO invited Mr Rolf-Dieter Heueur to be associated with the most recent project adopted by the Executive Board of UNESCO, namely the establishment in Lisbon of a centre for the advanced training of researchers from developing countries, which will initially cater to the Portuguese-speaking community.
If the main thrust of future cooperation between UNESCO and CERN, which should shortly find practical expression in the signing of an agreement, were to be defined in three words, the words would be “advocacy for science”.
(*) Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Yugoslavia.
(**) In fact the Chairperson of the IBSP Scientific Board is Mr Herwig Shopper, former Director-General of CERN (1981-1988). During the talks held on 23 October, he gave invaluable advice on the holding of conferences on technological and scientific innovation in Africa, the teaching of physics and science for peace.
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