CERN is not to produce black holes
JPA/DICYT The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva (Switzerland) is the largest laboratory in the world devoted to study particle physics, it is a research center with good stories to tell, but their spreading is very complex. Corinne Pralavorio is one of the persons in charge of bringing these stories to the public and on April 18th 2013 she went to Salamanca (Spain) to explain controversial situations that may benefit journalists and scientists in order to perform good scientific communication.
The first issue to understand CERN’s work grows in the organization’s name: it contains the word “nuclear”. This term “comes from the fact that fundamental particles of atoms are in the nucleus and, therefore, many of the particles we work with are nuclear particles, but our studies have nothing to do with nuclear energy or nuclear weapons”, as Corinne Pravalorio explained to the media.
Nevertheless, people often associate CERN’s activity with military research and they even think CERN’s work is secret; quite the opposite, it is scientific knowledge open to everyone. Fighting this perception and spreading facts are real aims of de Department of Communication that, on more than one occasion, has encountered difficulties during the last few years.
Corinne Pravalorio gave two examples in the closing session named Black Holes and Faster than Light Neutrinos. How to Turn Scientific Controversy into an Opportunity, of the Master in Social Studies on Science and Technology and the Postgraduate Certificate in Scientific Public Communication at the Universidad de Salamanca.
The first example was the controversy over the speculative theory that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN facilities could produce black holes. Although this theory lacks scientific basis for various reasons, this extravagant approach triumphed in the media all around the world, but it was actually useful to announce the real experiments that, so far, have led to the discovery of the Higgs boson.
Super Fast Neutrinos
The second example of communication problems came from the very center: it was announced that some particles called neutrinos travelled faster than the speed of light, which is impossible according to Albert Einstein’s theories and foundations of current physics. Later, it was found a serious miscalculation was made while performing an experiment; but this event also set people talking.
These polemics can become a great opportunity for communication experts and they can even be a chance to rethink and to improve scientists’ work; as we were told by Pralavorio, Deputy Head of the Communication Group at CERN.
During her lecture, she also discussed general aspects that may give an idea on the large size and the scientific importance of CERN, which houses thousands of experts from all over de world. “Even if this is basic research, technologies developed at the center have allowed us to implement technological breakthroughs in fields directly linked to everyday life, such as medicine,” she states. Specifically, some technologies currently used in hospitals allow to better perform diagnoses through imaging.
Pralavorio said that CERN works with a significant budget for research, but not enough for communication. In any case, she believes that there are not major differences between scientific communication by a large center as hers and that by modest centers such as universities; but in Geneva there are “more resources and larger facilities to contact with”.
The audience was mainly made up of people interested in scientific communication since this activity was part of the Master in Social Studies on Science and Technology and the Postgraduate Certificate in Scientific Public Communication, organized by the Instituto de Ciencia y Tecnología (eCyT) at the Universidad de Salamanca and by the Fundación 3CIN, respectively.