Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Why particle physics?

I am back to CERN, after 11 days in Rwanda (including travel, and some visits to mighty African animals that are part of our collective imagination since we were children, but that I had never seen in the wild before!), but my mind still goes back there, despite the enormous backlog of things to do.
During the last dinner I was discussing with other lecturers about a topic often mentioned among us, that lies at the core of the school. The point is: why teaching a curriculum centred around particle physics to students who are not working in this field, and that in most cases will never? Would it not be better to teach something closer to their current research topic?
All that of course is not denying the positive aspects of this school from the social perspective, but are we optimising the return of the effort?
I has similar questions in Dakar, when I realised that indeed the particle physics students in this school are a minority.
After some thinking, I thought that indeed what we are doing does make sense (even if everything can be improved of course).
In most countries and universities, a Physics curriculum includes a compulsory course (usually in the third year) on particle physics. This is often not available in Africa, given the lack of research in this field. This school tries to partially fill this gap. In addition to that, it gives a glimpse of the future, of the applications of accelerator technologies, and of modern computing techniques. All this is very important for the scientific culture of the students, some of them will be professors in their universities and form new students on their turn. We are also showing an example on how Cern managed to operate super-complex machines with thousands of physicists from all over the world working together. It is not obvious, even if we give it for granted somehow.
Some of the students may decided they are really passionate about particle physics, and try to get a PhD in this field (sadly, from the time being, mainly outside of Africa). However, some of them may come back, and starting building something in their own country. Of course nobody thinks that at least how things stand now a large particle physics accelerator will be built in Africa (not talking about light sources, mainly used for matter physics, but really about a high-energy machine); however Africa has mines, and land; already several cosmic ray projects are taking place there, and more can come, attracting foreign investments. Participating to Cern experiments may still be expensive for some countries, but perhaps if they join their efforts and create a cluster, plus hire some professor who is already in the collaboration it is not impossible.
The alternative is also far from clear. If we do not teach particle physics, well in that case the organisers and lecturers should be found in other disciplines, but which ones? It is already very dense and difficult to teach a topic to people with so different backgrounds. If we have a school of cosmology, condensed matter, environmental physics etc. all in three weeks, the risk is that only a superficial introduction to each topic can be given. So it is perhaps better to concentrate on a topic, and perhaps give more emphasis, with the students and not only in the forum, on what Africa can do on it.

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