There was more coverage of the opening of the LHC in the Irish media over the weekend. My favourite was Ross O’ Carroll Kelly’s piece on the end of the world in The Irish Times on Saturday.
(Three rugger buggers are cowering behind the sofa: “Any last wishes before they hit the button?” – “Yes, I wish I’d studied physics at UCD instead of Orts”).
R.O.C.K. I wish I’d studied physics at UCD instead of Orts
I personally think this sort of coverage gets science into public consciousness far better than any number of earnest articles and letters. More seriously, there was also an excellent article titled ‘Science fact of fiction’ in the same paper on the reporting of ‘nonscience’ such as earth-eating black holes.
Best of all, The Irish Times devoted their Saturday editorial to the LHC, describing the importance of the experiment and bemoaning the lack of participation of Irish scientists due to the fact that Ireland is not a member of CERN. On the same page, they also published a letter of mine on the same subject – not as good as getting an article published, but it’s not every day one’s letter coincides with the theme of the editorial..
Hopefully, all this coverage will help re-ingnite the debate on Irish membership of CERN once more.. .below is my letter
Madam, – The Irish Times has given exemplary coverage of recent events at Cern, The European Organisation for Nuclear Research, with comprehensive articles, cartoons and other pieces all helping to raise public awareness of this outstanding international scientific centre.
It is a proud moment for Europe, as the experiments at the new particle accelerator will be watched with intense interest by scientists the world over for information on the fundamental structure of matter, and on the evolution of the early universe.
However, as your Science Editor Dick Ahlstrom points out, the participation of Irish scientists in this historic research will be severely limited by the fact that the Republic, almost uniquely among western European nations, is not a member of Cern. This oversight has decimated Irish research in particle physics, despite a proud tradition in the field (Ireland’s only Nobel prize in science was awarded for the splitting of the atomic nucleus by Ernest Walton). More pragmatically, Irish high-tech companies are severely disadvantaged in bidding for the huge contracts available in engineering and information technology at Cern.
So much for our efforts to become a world leader in science and technology. – Yours, etc,
Dr CORMAC O’RAIFEARTAIGH,
Lecturer in Physics, Waterford Institute of Technology
Update I: it looks like the editorial and my letter have sparked a debate on the topic, there are three letters on the subject in Tuesday’s Irish Times. One of them makes an interesting point:
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…
– Yours, etc,
DAVID SOWBY, Knocksinna Crescent, Dublin 18.
The point here is that Ireland is resolutely anti-nuclear (both power and weapons). Of course, it’s ironic if this is the problem – the name CERN is a misnomer, as it is the physics of elementary particles (not of the nucleus) that is studied at CERN. If you find David Sowby’s suggestion far-fetched consider another letter on the subject in the same paper:
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.
I rest my case – perhaps Irish scientists are paying a price for a famous misnomer!
Two more letters on the subject in Wednesday’s Irish Times, both of them castigating W.J. Murphy above. Actually, I think they’re a little hard on him – how is Joe Public supposed to guess that the European Organization for Nuclear Research is not involved in nuclear power or weapons? In fairness, it’s a pretty miseading title…here is what one of them said
Madam, – W.J. Murphy (September 16th) says, in a parody of Goering’s remark about Kultur, “Whenever I hear the words ‘nuclear research’ other words, such as ‘Nagasaki’ and ‘Chernobyl’ spring to mind’.
This ridiculous statement demonstrates the widespread ignorance that exists about anything to do with nuclear matters. The words “nuclear research” in Cern’s title refer solely to man’s attempts to discover the basic nature of the matter of which everything in the universe is made. At Cern it has nothing to do with weapons or power.
The comment about Ernest Walton and his peers is merely petty and uneducated. – Yours, etc,
DAVID SOWBY, Knocksinna Crescent, Dublin 18.
True, but a bit harsh, in my opinion
Update III: More letters on the topic in Thursday’s Irish Times. The hapless W. J. Murphy responds to the criticism above by retracting and apologising for the ‘nuclear’ slur, but raises a more difficult issue:
Madam, – David Sowby and George Reynolds (September 17th) are understandably critical of my letter of the previous day, but this is based on a misunderstanding. That is probably my fault: in an attempt to be brief, I grossly over-simplified a complex argument. I would agree with both of their points.
I wonder if they would agree with my substantive point: that the immediate results of the Cern project would not justify the pouring of millions of hard-earned Irish taxpayers money into it and that Irish high-tech companies that have the capability to win contracts in engineering and information technology will not be disadvantaged by this?
I accept that the word “nuclear” means different things to different people. And I should not have referred to Ernest Walton, mea culpa. – Yours, etc,
W J MURPHY, Malahide, Co Dublin
This is the hard question of course: would this money be better spent elsewhere? My own view is that the annual fee (about 10 million) is smaller than some Science Foundation Ireland grants for domestic research – the difference is that CERN is truly world-class work. Just how much it costs to deprive our staff and students the opportunity to work at this level will probably never be known. (We do know for a fact that Irish high-tech companies are seriously disadvantaged in bidding for the most lucrative contracts due to our non-membership, Murphy is quite wrong on this).
Update IV: I have written a new letter to The Irish Times on the above points. They won’t print it, having closed the debate, thus leaving Murphy with the last (incorrect) word. Sigh. I suspect this is why most scientists choose not to get involved in public debate