I studied Maths at university, but I have to confess that when I read Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ most of it went over my head. Since then, I read the New Scientist regularly and my microbiologist niece briefs me regularly on the science she thinks an MP should know.
Bristol’s academic scientists are brilliant at inviting me up to various departments to be briefed; so too are the huge number of scientists in the private sector – people helping to make aeroplanes that fly safely, technology to help diagnose illnesses more quickly, or medicines to treat them better, for example.
Only about thirty MPs, including me, studied a STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Indeed, there was criticism recently of the Parliamentary Scientific and Technology Select Committee for having few MPs with a science or technology degree on it. However, when I ask scientists if they would like to be MPs, they say: ‘Of course not! I love science.’ Quite! But, considering the importance of science, it’s vital that policy and science meet and learn from each other.
CERN – Centre for European Nuclear Research, in Geneva, where the Large Hadron Collider is (LHC) – recently invited interested MPs to visit. It was during their winter ‘down’ period, when the LHC is turned off, for various reasons including maintenance.
But what is CERN and what does the LHC do? And why does it matter? I discovered more than I expected.
Put as simply as I can, CERN brings scientists from across the world together to share and develop knowledge about what the universe is made of and how. One of the scientists there, and old school friend of mine, physicist Pippa Wells, said: ‘We use enormous machines producing massive amounts of data about tiny objects and events which took place at the start of the universe.’
At CERN, tiny particles are made to collide together at close to the speed of light. This gives physicists clues about how particles interact, and provides insights into the fundamental laws of nature. The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before the beams are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions. The LHC itself, in which some of these collisions take place, is underground in a 27km circumference tunnel below Geneva. Because it was switched off, it was safe for us to go below ground to see it. It was an awe-inspiring sight, a feat of engineering as well as physics.
There are many different research projects there. I was taken on arrival to the ‘Antimatter factory’! And yes, they are trying to make anti-matter. If you want to know more, do have a look at the CERN website.
But what has it ever done for us? As if discovering the origins of the universe is not enough, we have CERN to thank for the internet, MRI scanners (Magnetic Resonance Imaging – used in hospitals to diagnose and treat life-threatening conditions) and touchscreen technology! I was thrilled to be in the same room as the data storage where CERN scientists said: ‘We need a way to connect these billions of pieces of data between computers.’ I was moved to learn that the banging magnets which scan you when you have an MRI scan is technology developed by people wanting to discover what happened just after the ‘Big Bang’. Other scientists working there told me about how their work will eventually improve the ability of MRI and PET scanner to help clinicians.
Scientists from the University of Bristol are well represented at CERN, which has partnerships with academic institutions across the world.
The Bristol connection goes beyond this though – Peter Higgs, who predicted the existence of the Higgs-Boson Particle, discovered at CERN in 2013 after decades of research, went to Cotham School. He won the Nobel Prize for his work, but he had been inspired by another former Cotham pupil and Nobel Physics Prize winner, Paul Dirac! Two Nobel Prize-winning physicists from one Bristol school. What a great tradition to be proud of.
CERN runs school visits and other outreach activities as well as opportunities for technician apprentices and university students – Pippa first started out her career at CERN after she participated in a summer school. If you’re studying science, have a look at the CERN website. Perhaps you could be the next Bristolian to be awarded the Nobel Prize!