Ireland 'should be a member of Cern'

Sat, Jul 14, 2012, 01:00

HIGGS BOSON:IRELAND STANDS almost alone in being a European country who is not a member of Cern, the European centre for nuclear research that 10 days ago made the momentous announcement related to the Higgs particle. Yet Ireland should be, said the director general of Cern, Dr Rolf-Dieter Heuer.

“Ireland should be a member of Cern because it is prestigious, we do good science and I see you have good scientists,” Dr Heuer said during a briefing at the EuroScience Open Forum yesterday.

Ireland had a tremendous track record given our Nobel prize winner Ernest Walton was a pioneer of particle accelerators and shared the prize for being the first to split an atom, he said. There was also Lochlainn O’Raifeartaigh, a physicist at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies who was a world leader in the study of a concept called supersymmetry, something that is under study at Cern.

Dr Heuer had just flown in from Melbourne, where the discovery announced by Cern on July 4th was discussed by particle physicists. He was enthusiastic about the identification of a particle that was very like the Higgs.

“I think it is really a milestone,” he said. “It is a historical milestone but it is only the beginning.”

He explained why he was so reluctant to declare it to be the actual Higgs boson, the fundamental particle that because it gives mass to matter enables stars, planets and life to exist.

While they are sure it is a boson of some kind they can’t yet confirm it is the Higgs.

“We need a lot more data before we can say that,” he said. “Perhaps by the end of the year we might have an answer.”

This was no small challenge. Higgs-like particles occur only rarely but all the while there is an avalanche of data that confuses things and makes it more difficult to spot. Dr Heuer likened it to trying to take a photograph of a snowflake of a particular shape in a snowstorm. It could take countless photographs before the right one was discovered.

Cern’s operators had added an extra 2½ months’ running time for the Large Hadron Collider, the giant 27km-long underground ring used to make the discovery, before shutting it down at the end of the year for upgrading and maintenance, Dr Heuer said.

He stressed that the discovery was the beginning of ongoing research. The collider was expected to operate at least until 2030 and has much more to reveal.

“There must be physics beyond the Standard Model because we only know about 5 per cent of the universe,” he said.

The visible universe – the planets, stars and galaxies we can see – accounts for only about 5 per cent of the total. Another 95 per cent is made up of what is called dark matter and dark energy but we don’t understand what they are. The collider at Cern could help to answer this question once it restarts and begins operating at much higher energies, he said.

Ireland, Malta and Cyprus are not members of Cern, while Bulgaria is a member and Romania is an applicant country. Successive governments have assessed membership but have declined to join, but the matter was under constant review, according to Martin Shanahan, head of Forfás, the Government’s advisory body on science and innovation policy.

Ireland could not join now but the possibility was there for the future, he said. Membership would cost Ireland at least €20 million a year.