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.
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.
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:
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:
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!
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!)