By Dr. Jim Grozier
John Krige’s brief history of politics and physics at CERN (published in Viewpoint 110, June 2016) provides a useful insight into the factors that brought the European research centre into being in the 1950s, including the Cold War, the rise of “big science”, and competition with the USA.
Unfortunately, this history makes up only the second half of his article. To reach it, one must wade through several hundred words of what can only be described as a rant – about the current “astronomical” cost of CERN; the high pay and “upmarket lifestyle” of some of the physicists; their undue influence over research budgets; and the “mundane” nature of much of the science done there. The only justification given for this section of the article comes in Krige’s promise to contrast present-day CERN with the challenges faced by the founding fathers – a promise he fails to keep, since there is no suggestion that these things were any different in the 1950s.
The first three of these have little to do with the history of science, but since they have been said, I feel that a response is needed – if only to draw a distinction between the useful historical material and its author’s irrelevant prejudices. And I feel that I am appropriately qualified to deliver such a response, being neither a particle physicist nor a historian of science, whilst holding qualifications in both fields.
Quoting the size of the UK’s contribution to CERN (£113 million) without providing any yardstick against which to judge it is surely just a cheap tabloid-style ploy. Most readers will not be able to assess sums of money that are many orders of magnitude away from what they are used to dealing with. To make a proper comparison we might estimate, on an order-of-magnitude basis, the contribution per UK taxpayer; this comes out at about £4 a year. Astronomical? Hardly. Another way of placing this in context would be to compare the cost of CERN with, say, the annual cost of the Trident nuclear weapons programme, which has been put at around £2 billion – on the same scale, that would be perhaps £70 per year each.
Krige might have done better to ask whether the money is well spent. Big science requires project management skills, which few scientists possess. He rightly gives engineers a prominent rôle in early collider physics, and describes how this change was “deplored” by the older generation of physicists of the time – a topic examined in great detail by Peter Galison in his book Image and Logic. In my own experience of small-to-medium size particle physics collaborations, I have to say that, 50 years on, and despite the second director-general of CERN having been one, engineers unfortunately still play only a subsidiary rôle in the running of most projects, despite the fact that many of them have been trained in project management whilst most scientists haven’t. I have witnessed many expensive cock-ups and delays which simply wouldn’t have happened if an engineer had been in charge.
A physicist friend who visits CERN regularly told me: “It is true that some CERN staff have very good salaries, and since it is an international organisation, those at the top have diplomatic status, and pay no tax. But remember, these people have been uprooted from their home countries, and some compensation is justifiable. Geneva is an expensive place to live. Also, while CERN employs the bureaucrats, it does not employ many experimental physicists itself – most of them are on secondment from their universities and research institutes. They keep their university salaries, but most countries (including the UK) pay a foreign service allowance on top, which used to be fairly generous, but certainly the UK one is now rather less generous.”
Working abroad, even with the top-up, is certainly not seen as a perk by those at the bottom of the ladder. A few years ago I surveyed an entire UK-wide cohort of former particle physics PhD students. Of the 60% of them who had since left the field, most cited low pay, long hours, and excessive travel as reasons. As for “those at the top”, we should note that they are described as bureaucrats, not scientists (although they may have formerly been working scientists) but, as CERN employeees, they will be unlikely to be affiliated to any particular research group, and even more unlikely to have much time for practising science. Hence I think it is a little inaccurate for Krige to describe these people as “scientists”. And those who actually do the work are probably paid no more than historians of science.
As for particle physicists being “outstanding lobbyists”, that would be an interesting issue to pursue, and it’s a pity Krige did not explore this charge in more detail. How are funding levels actually decided at a national scale? How on earth does one juggle the cost of what Krige eloquently describes as “the human spirit’s yearning to know the sublime” with the needs of the sick, the hungry and the homeless? I remember that during the age of the “space race” there were constant debates about whether space exploration was justified when money was needed to feed and heal the poor. But it was a false dichotomy: only by taking into account all factors, including “elephants in the room” like Trident, can we hope to achieve an equitable distribution. Are physicists really as good at lobbying as Krige makes out, or is there perhaps a military factor?
One point on which I agree with Krige is his criticism of the way that money spent on CERN is often justified by pointing to “spin-offs” such as the World Wide Web and proton therapy. We cannot know what future “spin-offs” might appear, and we should not retrospectively justify the spending after they have done so. The human spirit’s yearning to know the sublime must be defended on its own merits, and not by linking it to accidental benefits.
The most serious charge that Krige makes, in my opinion, is the view, implied by his description of the science done at CERN as “Kuhnian normal science”, that it is “mundane”, and hence relatively unjustified. This is where the history comes in.
Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, postulated that sciences progress through a series of revolutions, during which there is a fundamental change in our theoretical understanding of phenomena, otherwise known as a paradigm shift. For Kuhn, in the periods between revolutions, any given science will be conducted on the basis of the accepted paradigm of the time, where a paradigm can be thought of as a theoretical framework or pattern – a way of looking at the world. He argued that the paradigm moulds not only how we explain phenomena, but even the experiments we do to investigate them, and how we interpret their results. Such investigations, based on a firmly accepted paradigm, he dubbed normal science: “research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements, achievements that some particular scientific community acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice”. Successive paradigms may be mutually incommensurable – we see things in either one way or the other, but not both – like the famous drawing which can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit.
At least, that’s the way Kuhn tells us it is supposed to work; but it is not at all clear whether 20th century physics can be analysed in this way, due to the stubborn refusal of old, superseded paradigms to roll over and die. To my mind, the current situation more closely resembles Hasok Chang’s pluralistic doctrine of “active realism”, in which different paradigms can co-exist, and one chooses the most appropriate one for the task in hand. This certainly applies in the field of dynamics, where we may frame an argument in terms of a Galilean constant-acceleration hypothesis, Newtonian gravitation, or general relativity, depending on which of these is most suited to our needs. It also applies to another “revolution” which Kuhn missed – what I call the “magnetic revolution”, in which the concept of Ampereian currents gradually replaced that of magnetic poles – with which it is surely utterly incommensurable – during the period from 1820 to the mid-20th century. Even today, pole-based concepts are still in regular use, since in many situations they are simply easier to manipulate, despite the fact that no-one believes in poles any more. As for particle physics, it is hard to know what the paradigm is supposed to be; if it is the Standard Model, there are surely many current research projects at CERN – including searches for strong CP violation, supersymmetric particles, extra dimensions, and dark matter – which do not qualify as normal science.
Kuhn’s tone is remarkably self-assured, considering that he was attempting to draw parallels between a hotchpotch of historical events, some of whose “revolutionary” status is disputed. He identified normal science with the somewhat derogatory term “puzzle-solving”, and claimed that “no part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena”. Nevertheless, his disciples were keen to point out that it does play a key rôle in the advancement of science; Sharrock and Read, in their 2002 book Kuhn: Philosopher of Scientific Revolution, tell us that “the idea of ‘normal science’ is one that can easily seem unappealing, making scientific work sound routine, dull and unimaginative, but this is a false impression. ‘Normal science’ is the condition under which most of the achievements of science are made”. So, whether you agree with Kuhn or not, there seems to be little justification for Krige’s use of the word “mundane” to describe what goes on at CERN, nor for the implication that it is therefore unimportant, and not worth the money spent on it; and in fact, at a time when so many research grants are being cancelled and projects mothballed, it is surely unlikely that an experiment which did not aim to “call forth new phenomena” would get funded at all.
In the midst of the rant, Krige makes an astonishing statement: “As historians, we can only deplore our failure to have made the slightest contribution to critical thinking among this scientific community”. Astonishing because, for a start, painting such a negative picture of the target community as Krige does in this article is unlikely to win over the members of that community sufficiently to influence them: such negative criticism, based on such sweeping generalisations, and unsupported by evidence, rarely encourages critical thinking. Furthermore, it is not clear why Krige thinks historians (of science?) should be in a position to influence scientists, even if relations between historians and scientists were less hostile than they are. Surely the engendering of critical thinking is something that must start at school: it is science teachers who need to be convinced of the merits of such an approach.
Nevertheless, some progress can be made by forging better links between sympathetic members of the two communities. The history of science is an interdisciplinary subject, and on that basis, I have always maintained that its practitioners must be proficient in both parent disciplines – as Krige himself is – although this view is not shared by all historians of science. Indeed, within the history of science itself, there are two largely separate academic communities, comprising those who describe themselves as “professional” historians of science – who tend to be historians by training, and to be located in humanities faculties – and those whose training is mainly in science itself, but who have an “amateur” interest in its history. It is bad news for the history of science if the members of these two groups cannot work together, but instead resort to puerile bickering. Collaboration – something the physicists at CERN could teach them a thing or two about – would surely be the best way of achieving Krige’s goal of “injecting uncertainty into a narrative of seemingly unbroken, unstoppable success”.