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Aidan Randle-Conde | Université Libre de Bruxelles | Belgium

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Margaret Thatcher, politician, scientist

Early last week Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister, passed away, aged 87. She was a charismatic figure who was known internationally for being a strong and decisive leader. She had close political ties with President Ronald Reagan, she opposed the communist policies in Eastern Europe, and she was skeptical of increasing integration of the UK with Western Europe. Her actions and legacy are entwined with the global political stage at the time. However, in the UK she was very divisive and at times controversial, and even to this day there is a mixture of high praise a bitter resentment about her policies. Much has been said about her legacy over the past few days, and I think that, regardless of one’s own views, one of the best things we can say about Thatcher is that she knew what her vision was, and she pursued it with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

Thatcher, the politician (Mirror)

Thatcher, the politician (Mirror)

During her undergraduate years, Thatcher was a chemist at the University of Oxford. It was only later that she studied law and became a politician, so from her very early career she had an appreciation for science. She knew about the care and attention needed to make discoveries, the frustration of waiting for data, and the need for peer review and skepticism. Given her status as an international leader, she had the opportunity to visit CERN in the early 1980s, but as a scientist she took so much more away from the visit than we could have expected.

Thatcher, the chemist (popsci)

Thatcher, the chemist (popsci)

She’d asked to be treated like a fellow scientist, and her questions showed that she had taken her background reading about CERN seriously. She asked why the proposed accelerator, LEP, would be circular and not linear. This is not an easy question to answer unless the person asking has knowledge about how accelerators work. After a discussion with Herwig Schopper, then Director General, she came back to the UK as an ambassador for CERN and LEP was approved in the UK shortly afterwards. One of her questions was very astute. When told that the LEP tunnel would be the last at CERN she knew from experience that scientists will usually want to go further with their research and in particle physics at the energy frontier, further usually means larger. It’s true that CERN has reused the LEP tunnels for the LHC, but there are also proposals for even larger projects that will probe even higher center of mass energies.

Thatcher must have made a very good impression on Schopper during her visit. A recent Scientific American article has revealed that she was told about the discovery of the W and Z bosons before the information was made public. This letter shows that Schopper kept his promise and trusted Thatcher to keep the tantalizing and preliminary evidence to herself:

Schopper writes to Thatcher (Scientific American)

Schopper writes to Thatcher (Scientific American)

When the news of the \(W\) boson discovery was public she wrote to Peter Kalmus of Queen Mary College, London, to offer her congratulations. Naturally she made a point to mention that there was a significant British effort behind the discovery:

Thatcher's letter to Kalmus

Thatcher's letter to Kalmus

On the one hand, Thatcher was genuinely excited about CERN and the research, but on the other she was a fiscally conservative politician with monetarist policies and she had to defend the spending to her colleagues, and to herself. She had to make sure that the physicists at CERN were using the funding effectively, and delivering high quality scientific results for the spending. During a visit to the Super Proton Synchrotron she spoke John Ellis, who introduced himself as a theoretical physicist. The conversation continued:

Thatcher: “What do you do?”
Ellis: “Think of things for the experiments to look for, and hope they find something different.”
Thatcher: “Wouldn’t it be better if they found what you predicted?”
Ellis: “Then we would not learn how to go further!”

Once again Thatcher knew what question to ask, and Ellis knew what answer to give. Thatcher seemed convinced and knew that the people at CERN has the right attitude when it comes to discovery and use of public money. You can see some media coverage of her visit to the UA1 (Underground Area 1) site on the CERN Document Server.

In 1993, three years after Thatcher left office, David Miller from UCL came up with an analogy for the Higgs field where Thatcher played the central role. Essentially we can think of the Higgs field like a room full of people milling around at a cocktail party. Someone famous and popular enters the room, and all of a sudden people crowd around, making this person’s journey through the room harder. They take longer to get up to a good walking speed, and when they are walking they become harder to stop. That’s essentially what mass is- a measure of hard it is to change an object’s velocity. The analogy goes further, to include rumors being spread from the vicinity of this famous person. They would spread in small groups of people, and each group would have its own “mass”, which is what the Higgs boson is, it’s just an excitation of the field in the presence of matter. Who was the famous person in this analogy? Margaret Thatcher, of course!

Thatcher and the Higgs field (Quantum Tangents)

Thatcher and the Higgs field (Quantum Tangents)

So her legacy with CERN is one of a scientist and a politician. She was genuinely excited to see the discoveries take place, she met with the scientists personally and interacted with them as another scientist. She took the time to understand the questions and answers, and even challenged the physicists with more questions. At the same time she put the projects in context. She had to defend the experiments, so she had to challenge the physicists to give her the information she needed to get the support from the UK. In a sense she knew the need for public outreach, to open up CERN’s scientific program to scrutiny from the public so that when we want to push back the frontiers even further we can count on their support.

If we’re to keep pursuing scientific discoveries in the future, we need scientifically literate and inspired politicians. It would be tempting to say that they are becoming more and more rare, but in reality I think things are more favorable than they have been before. With the recent discoveries we’re in a golden age of physics that has made front page news. Multimedia outlets and the internet have helped spread the good word, so science is high in the public consciousness, and justifying further research is becoming easier. However before the modern internet era and the journalistic juggernaut that comes to CERN each time there’s a big announcement it fell on the shoulders of a few people, and Thatcher was one of them.

(I would like to thank John Ellis for providing help with his quote, and for giving the best answer when asked the question!)


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10 Responses to “Margaret Thatcher, politician, scientist”

  1. Haryo Sumowidagdo says:

    Hi Aidan,

    A very good story about Margaret Thatcher legacy in science. There are two stories I would like to add:

    1) Thatcher first visited CERN in 1970, when she was Secretary of Education and Science. Post that visit, she gave the approval for UK support to fund the Super Proton Synchroton.

    2) Post the discovery of the W and Z bosons, Thatcher sent a letter to Peter Kalmus of Imperial College. There is a scan of this letter at Vatsala Virdee blog.

  2. Joe says:

    There is a difference between enjoying Science and practicing Science. In particular Scientists attempt to falsify any theory they come up with to test its mettle. I doubt that Prime Minister Thatcher applied such rigour to the radical ideologies she championed. For instance she claimed there was no such thing as society, only individuals. Yet a moment’s thought makes it clear that trust is an essential component of societies, without which all that is left are individuals who do not cooperate. It is by cooperating, and standing on the shoulders of giants, that we progress.

    • Hi Joe, thanks for the comment! Yes, I agree that she didn’t (and probably couldn’t) approach problems in the same way as scientists do. And her notion that there’s no such thing as society, while at the same time encouraging international collaboration is a strange one. I wasn’t at all a fan of hers, and strongly disagree with most of her policies, but at least she saw the value of big science and we had her on our side. The British physics program might have suffered terribly if that wasn’t the case.

    • Prodos says:

      For those who want to check out for themselves what Mrs Thatcher actually said and whether it was based on any sort of “radical” ideology, or any misunderstanding about how true cooperation and community works in reality, here is the transcript of the interview in which she said, “There is no such thing as society”:


      Warning: This transcript may “falsify” Joe’s “theory”.

  3. Very interesting post.I would like to add two points:
    1. The Irish experinece was not that she was ‘strong-minded’, but that she was inflexible, not the same thing. At several points in history, she flatly refused to change her approach to NI despite the mounting concern of her own civil servants. Many republicans over here claim that she was their best recruiting agent ever. Hers was a very different mindset to that of a professional scientist presented with evidence that an approach is not working.
    2. After she retired from politics she took a directorship with British American tobacco. This is very much at odds with the mantra of a ‘conviction politican’, given the implications for public health. I don’t know any politican as senior as this who has taken such a position, it’s very surprising it did not receive more attentio in the media
    Kind regards, Cormac

    • Hi Cormac, sorry to hear you didn’t have fond memories of her. I should confess that I strongly disliked nearly every policy of Thatcher’s and I’m certainly no fan of hers. However, despite all this she did help the British effort at CERN, and there are lessons there for us which I thought were worth talking about. In this blog post I tried to steer clear of the very divisive areas and the discussion about whether she was a feminist role model or not. There are plenty of people debating those points and I think it’s getting quite tiresome already, but I thought this angle was an interesting one to explore. Backing big science is probably the only area where Thatcher and I would have agreed.

      Thanks for your comment, those are some illuminating points! You say she was seen as a good recruiter- well I think I hinted at something like that with the comment about her charisma. Charisma can be a very powerful, sometimes dangerous, force in politics! I’m not so surprised about the tobacco position though, she favored cutting social medical spending and she was a monetarist, so she went where the money was.

    • Prodos says:

      Cormac writes that Mrs Thatcher took on a directorship with British American Tobacco.

      I thought it was with Philip Morris.

      And I believe this job and the lead-up to it did get a fair bit of (negative) publicity.

      I also note that Philip Morris is not just the world’s biggest tobacco company, but also one of the world’s biggest food companies and brewers.

      As for the “Irish experience” — that’s a tough one.

      Personally, I wish the good people of Ireland peace and prosperity.

  4. Xezlec says:

    As soon as I saw this post I knew there would be political comments. But I’m glad you did it anyway. This was a side of her that I was not aware of. Thanks for being bold and foraying into this subject!

  5. cormac says:

    Absolutely. Great post, I’m not suggesting for a second one shouldn’t ackowledge the support she gave to science. My point isn’t rally about politics, but that her approach was very different to that of a scientist, as you say

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