Friday, April 5, 2013

Riding on the CRISP of a wave

What place does big physics have in a world full of conflict, famine, disease, and economic collapse? At times, probing the subatomic nature of matter, or trying to understand the evolution of galaxies, may seem frivolous when people don’t have enough to eat, or entire populations are plagued by disease. Yet look a little more carefully, and you begin to understand the positive impact that big physics has had – and continues to have – on our lives, in all manner of different areas: medicine; new materials; renewable energy; understanding our climate, and even improving crop yields. 

I’ve never worked at a large, physics-focused international research institute – CERN of course being the archetype, but there’s also DESY, ESS, ESRF and PSI Villigen, where the 2nd annual CRISP meeting took place – but the impression I get from visiting such places, or talking to colleagues who work in them, is that their success as centres of innovation is due in no small part to the cultural melting pot they provide. People from different countries, with different cultural backgrounds, trained in different disciplines and at different institutions, all brought together to work on scientific problems. Collaboration  is about scientific bridge building; capitalising on research is about building bridges out to industry. 

The River Aar, not at Villigen but at nearby Brugg
Fitting, then, that the CRISP 2nd Annual meeting was held at PSI Villigen, a research institute comprising two sites – spanned by a bridge – on facing banks of the river Aar in northern Switzerland. Due to a misreading of the programme, my start to the 2nd Annual meeting was spent crossing this bridge to PSI-East unnecessarily, which meant crossing back to my starting point before I could attend my intended parallel session. The journey wasn’t wasted though: the Aar was majestic below, and gave me the opportunity to see what had once (before 1988) been the Federal Institute for Reactor Research; the East side is also where the SwissFEL facility is currently being constructed.

My eventual late entrance to the IT and Data Management parallel session was, rather fittingly, marked by there being a nice slide of the Oresund bridge – a metaphor for building bridges, over long distances, connecting distant communities. I had walked into a talk by Almudena Montiel Gonzalez of the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt. Almudena talked about linking access federations with Umbrella, which securely keeps track of linked accounts (local organiser Mirjam van Daalen spoke on this subject; her slides are here. A bit like a federation of federations, if you will. If you took a look at the last e-ScienceBriefing on Security (PDF Link), you’ll know how important federated identity management is!

 The two days at the CRISP covered the topics outlined on their website: Accelerators, Detectors and Data Acquisition, Instruments and Experiments and IT and Data Management. But it was the synergies, both between research institutes and industry, as well as across the cluster of research institutes comprising CRISP, that left the biggest impression. Acting more synergistically to use EC funds better in the future is a big topic with the advent of Horizon2020. Research Institutes in CRISP are already doing excellent science independently, but by working together with the help of the CRISP coordination team, the organisation can help make sure that links with industry make Europe more competitive, and the science they discover leads to better society.

Which brings me back to the place itself. Rounding off the second day’s science nicely ahead of the excellent gala dinner that evening, we were treated to a tour of PSI Villigen where we found out about the institute’s work in the health field. In addition to structural studies of soft materials including proteins and tissues, vital to understand biology and disease, PSI is also working on pioneering therapies to treat tumours in young patients using protons. Physics isn’t just about lofty, distant or – to some – arcane subjects like the universe or the nature of matter, it’s also about saving and improving real human lives: something happening right now at physics research institutes worldwide. If that’s the case, how can we not afford to support them?

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