Missing the 'Big Bang' party


Madam, - Thank you for giving good and balanced coverage to the switching on of the hadron collider at Cern, unlike some of the English sensationalist media. May I add a historical note on the background to the Irish relationship with Cern?

I visited Cern in Geneva on more than one occasion during the 1950s, when working with the late Cormac Ó Ceallaigh in the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. Ó Ceallaigh was the discoverer of the K-meson, which he had done with Powell in Bristol earlier; as a result he was well known and had many international contacts in the elementary particle physics domain. This work had depended on cosmic rays as energy source, but in the 1950s the transition was made to focused beams of high-energy protons from the accelerators in Berkeley and then later in Cern. In the DIAS, thanks to Ó Ceallaigh's international standing, we had access to both sources for our work.

Ó Ceallaigh made a creditable attempt to interest the then government in joining Cern, but to no avail. Despite this, with the limited resources available, we did work which attracted international attention. We were, I think, the first to use a computer (the HEC in the sugar company in Thurles, the first in Ireland) to analyse scientific data. We also built a rudimentary special-purpose computer for processing the mass of trivial calculations we were faced with, in the analysis of measurements of high-energy particle momentum by multiple Coulomb scattering.

Historians of science need to chronicle the transition from the total neglect of science to the reawakening which took place in the 1960s, leading to the setting-up of the National Science Council. The 1964 OECD Report "Science and Irish Economic Development" was an important factor; this was authored by Prof Patrick Lynch and H.M.S. "Dusty" Miller.

The reasons for the relative neglect in the early decades of the Free State need analysis, in the context of the history of the independence movement. The lessons from such an analysis would probably be relevant in many current post-colonial political situations.

- Yours, etc,

ROY JOHNSTON, Bushy Park Road, Rathgar, Dublin 6.

Madam, - Both you and Dr Cormac O'Raifeartaigh (September 13th) have pointed out that Ireland, almost uniquely among European countries, is not a member of Cern. Surely the reason is simple: the presence of the dreaded word "nuclear" in the organisation's title. What a pity the centre wasn't built on the Swiss-German border, in which case it might have been called something like Europäischerrat für Kernforschung, an unfathomably bland word that wouldn't get up the nose of an Irish politician.

- Yours, etc,

DAVID SOWBY, Knocksinna Crescent, Dublin 18.

Madam, - Unlike Dr Cormac O'Raifeartaigh (September 13th), I am not at all concerned that Ireland, "almost uniquely among western European nations", did not pour millions of hard-earned taxpayers' money into the Cern project.

Whenever I hear the words "nuclear research" other words, such as "Nagasaki" and "Chernobyl" spring to mind and I wish that Ernest Walton and his peers had not "split the atom". I am sure that if "Irish high-tech companies" have the capability, they will not be "severely disadvantaged in bidding for huge contracts available in engineering and information technology" by our unwillingness to pour millions down the bottomless pit of Cern.

- Yours, etc,

W.J. MURPHY, Malahide, Co Dublin.