It is well known that the World Wide Web was developed at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, the large scientific experiment based in France and Switzerland. Less well-known is the long list of other important innovations to have emerged from an organization whose aim is to understand the fundamental physics of the Big Bang.
CERN’s mission is to discover the origins of the universe. Along the way, it has developed technologies that improve the health of people around the world. It was instrumental in the development of PET scanners. Positron Emission Tomography produces images that allow doctors to check for diseases in your body. It has played a central part in developing hadron beams that are used for accurate and effective targeting of tumours. And its machine learning algorithms are used to improve the production of vaccines.
Its experiments have been crucial for the development of computer science, and the range of its contributions also include improving civil engineering by increasing accuracy in tunnelling machines. CERN’s 27-kilometre ring of super conducting magnets that comprise its Large Hadron Collider needed extraordinarily accurate construction. The earth-boring machines that are nowadays building tunnels for roads and trains have benefitted from science at CERN.
What is deep science?
Deep science can be discovery-oriented, exploring fundamental questions such as what is the universe made of and what is life? And it can be mission-oriented, addressing the existential threat the world faces through climate change, and answering other challenging problems of our times; for example, energy production, improving health and dealing with antimicrobial resistance, or removing plastic from our oceans. Deep science involves massive financial investments for physical and technological infrastructure. It also requires long-term, collaboration between and within organizations that employ some of the smartest people on the planet.
CERN is 60 years old. ITER, the International Fusion Energy Development program in France, will cost around €20 billion to build. The first designs for ITER date back to the late 1980s, and its construction is planned for completion in 2024. Planning for the Human Genome Project began in 1984, and its research concluded in 2003. Deep science is not cheap, nor quick.
Great technologies emerge from great science
Many of the useful technologies that have emerged from these scientific experiments result from the efforts required to conduct them. The computer, the laser, machine learning and artificial intelligence and the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 can be added to the World Wide Web as tools developed in the course of helping scientists do their research.
The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), whose mission is to develop a fusion energy machine, has along the way developed world-leading capabilities in robotics and new materials, necessary to help it do its experiments. Reaction Engines, a world leader in engine production for hypersonic passenger flight, benefited hugely from research on development of heat exhaust systems for fusion energy, and is based on the UKAEA’s Culham Campus.
Some of the connections between deep science and its application are completely unexpected and serendipitous. Wifi was developed by Australian astrophysicists working for the government research organization CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), when they were given the job of developing a high-speed wireless network.
Research into faint radiation originating from the depths of space, funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, has led to detector technology that is being used by the security technology company Thruvision Ltd for people screening. Detectors for terahertz waves, which everybody produces naturally, are being used in body scanners to safely detect concealed objects, such as weapons and explosives, at a distance.
One of the most important innovations of all time had an inauspicious start. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee wrote an internal paper at CERN with the less-than-exciting title: Information Management: A Proposal. His boss scribbled “vague but exciting” at the top of the paper. Neither could possibly have imagined the impact the World Wide Web was to have.
Deep science needs deep support
What is needed to support deep science and enhance its ability to benefit humankind? Scale is essential, and the investment and skills needed often exceed the ability of individual nations to provide them. Deep science is an international collaborative activity. ITER involves 35 countries, including some who are not best of friends politically right now. It involves long, sustained financial investments, in order to conduct the science, and latterly continued finance to support its applications (link to our blog).
The skills required are deep and wide-ranging. These extend well beyond the extraordinary abilities of the scientists involved, and include those in the supply chains contributing to the construction and conduct of the science. They require exceptional operational, planning and project-management skills. Because these huge scientific projects are so demanding, the skills they require help raise the game in whole industries and professions as they are subsequently applied in different sectors and circumstances.
Management skills are also centrally important, including in being able to traverse and connect the creation and application of knowledge. Good managers help foster a culture among scientists that is externally orientated and mindful of demonstrating the value of what they do to the citizens whose taxes pay for their research.
Deep science brings enormous social and economic benefits, and given the existential threats we face we will rely on it for no less than ensuring the future of humankind. This is why these massively expensive and very long-term endeavours are crucial and irreplaceable. Yet there is another element to their contribution. They reflect humanity’s endless curiosity about improving our understanding of the universe, our world and the beings that exist in it. CERN aims to understand fundamental particles, the basic constituents of matter, by exploring the milliseconds of the Big Bang and the creation of the universe. Such ambitions capture much of what is noble about humanity.