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Scientists of Wales; the Swansea-CERN connection

(September 01, 2012)

Scientists of Wales – Swansea and CERN

 CERN LHC administrators with transfer line magnetsLeft to right: Lyn Evans (LHC project leader), Luciano Maiani (CERN’s Director-General at the time), Alexander Skrinsky, Kurt Hubner, on the last of 360 dipole magnets and 180 quadrupoles from Novosibirsk, Russia. They form the transfer lines carrying protons into the Large Hadron Collider from the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) at CERN (image © CERN 2001)

For me, the National Eisteddfod is a miracle. All the more remarkable because it happens annually and at a different place in Wales each year. This year, this festival of Welsh culture – poetry, prose, music, dance, reciting, speaking, singing, individuals, groups, choirs – was held in the first full week of August (as every year) on the site of the old Llandow airfield, some four miles from Cowbridge, in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Why do I call it a miracle? Because the whole enterprise, each year costing about £3 million, is created by a full-time team of only about 15 people and scores upon scores of unpaid volunteers whose driving motivation, Welsh-speakers from birth and many more others, is to put on a spectacular show that gives prominence to Welsh.

The Eisteddfod is over 100 years old and has evolved in several aspects to provide the stunning experience that it is, with a total of over 100,000 people attending over the week. Over the past 10 years a very prominent example of this evolution is the Science and Technology Pavilion, in which I have had close involvement, but not this year because I was busy learning the musical compositions that, as a member of the Eisteddfod Choir (another annual miracle), I performed on three occasions. The Science and Technology Pavilion houses all manner of science exhibits and activities, mostly related to a central theme, which this year was the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the Organisation européenne pour la recherche nucléaire (European Organization for Nuclear Research), based near Geneva, Switzerland. It was established in 1955 as Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research) - hence the acronym - a centre for collaborative studies involving scientists from (by now) some 34 countries. It is a remarkable organisation, representing the best of 'open' science; much of the output is to do with the 'closed' (i.e. not easily understood by many) world of sub-atomic studies, but a very prominent and very 'open' output is the world-wide-web, the www which most of us know and use.


CERN LHC TunnelLarge Hadron Collider tunnel at CERN

From its inception nearly 60 years ago, CERN and the physics department at Swansea University have had a very close association, which continues. Many Swansea physics graduates have spent periods of years at CERN, and many more have visited CERN from time to time, to use its facilities to further their research back home. These facilities are huge machines that accelerate sub-atomic 'particles' and cause them to collide. From the debris of these collisions, scientists can, by collecting and analysing data, create models of how all matter (from this page of this journal, to a planet) is constructed; what holds it all together.


CERN Lyn Jones portraitLyn Evans, project leader for CERN's flagship LHC project (image © CERN 2007)

One of the Swansea CERN physicists – Dr Lyn Evans from Cwmbach, Aberdare – spent his entire career in Geneva, going there in the late 1960s and retiring in 2011. He came to public prominence in 2008/9 as the Director of the LHC - an enormous circular tube, about 100 metres below the ground of both Switzerland and Italy, of 27 km total diameter and internal cross-section big enough for two buses to drive along side-by-side. This collider accelerates large hadrons (a group of sub-atomic particles) almost to the speed of light; 299,792,458 metres per second (186,000 miles per second). Amid quite a flurry of excitement among physicists across the world – and the general media picked it up – when, on 10 July this year, CERN announced that there was strong case for believing that the LHC had provided sufficient good evidence for the probable existence of an elusive particle called the Higgs boson. Note the restrained language of the announcement. If this is ultimately proved - i.e. that there is overwhelming consensus among those scientists that are close to these studies – it will change the model that is closest to giving an understanding of the structure of matter. Such a change will not affect our lives until it gives rise to a new, everyday technology, much as the emergence of the www did.

CERN Magned cyntaf yr LHC CERN ceremony for the last of 1746 superconducting magnets
 CERN The last LHC dipole magnet is lowered CERN Lyn Evans changing banner - from cyntaf (first) to olaf (last) 1

CERN Lyn Evans changing banner - from cyntaf (first) to olaf (last)Ceremony to mark the last of 1746 superconducting magnets lowered into the 17 mile (27 km) circumference tunnel that houses the LHC. The LHC project leader, Lyn Evans, changes a banner reading 'MAGNED CYNTAF YR LHC' (first magnet for the LHC) to 'MAGNED OLAF YR LHC' (last magnet for the LHC) in his native Welsh (images © CERN 2007)

Ahead of Dr Evans at CERN, and a life-long friend and mentor, was Dr Eifionydd Jones, of Morriston, Swansea, Like Lyn, he graduated in physics from Swansea and spent his whole career at CERN. Lyn is very generous in his public acknowledgement of his indebtedness to Eifionydd for general friendship and professional guidance. Eifionydd died in 1990 at the age of 50. The family of heavy sub-atomic particles known as bosons has more members than the Higgs. Two others, known as W and Z, were identified about 20 years ago from experiments on another large collider. Eifionydd was very prominent in this work, to a degree that, in the view of knowledgeable and responsible scientists, merited consideration for a Nobel prize.

What has all this got to do with this year’s National Eisteddfod in Llandow? The connection is that the main science lecture was given in fluent and eloquent Welsh by Dr Rhodri Jones who spoke about the LHC. Rhodri has been at CERN for several years where he leads a team of about 100 people charged with, among other studies, ensuring that the LHC continues to perform at its ultimate level, serving scientists from all over the world.

Finally, another physics-eisteddfod link, although not this time directly connected to the Swansea-CERN axis. Rhodri’s father, Dyfrig, after graduating in physics at Aberystwyth, became a distinguished cosmologist based on distinctive research in the Netherlands. In 1986, when Dyfrig had important research news to share with the world community, he did not confine himself to the usual procedure – an international conference – but rather he did so in a lecture at the very, very wet National Eisteddfod in Fishguard. Dyfrig died aged only 48, in 1989.

Science topics are not the favoured focus of Welsh poets, but a notable exception was Emrys Roberts who became an Archdruid. He composed a fine poem of tribute to Dyfrig and his distinctive contribution to the Fishguard Eisteddfod. Emrys died earlier this year.

Neville Evans, 1 September 2012


If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

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