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Paul Jackson | CERN | Switzerland

View Blog | Read Bio

“nuclear”+”al-qaeda”=”press orgasm”

The arrest by French police last Thursday of a particle physicist on allegations that he has links with Al Qaeda has generated some potentially misleading statements and headlines in the press:
Dr Adlene Hicheur, 32, who worked in Switzerland, had previously been based at the top-secret Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire and is suspected of involvement with the North African arm of Al Qaeda. He has now apparently been charged with “criminal activities related to a terrorist group”.

Dr Hicheur has been referred to as a “nuclear scientist” in the press and similar liberal uses of language have allowed the press to paint a picture of this particle physicist in whatever way they see fit.
An example, from ‘The Independent’, is included here:
“Adlène Hicheur appears to have specialised in the measurement side of nuclear physics. His office at Cern was in the main complex, where the collider is located. His academic papers have included accounts of research on the “electronic width of the Upsilon particle” and “measurement of the branching ratios of colour suppressed decays”. His recent work at Cern has included “studying, improving and designing new tracking tools” to measure the effects when the collider finally operates.”

This is *only* clearly incorrect to the trained eye, as, “improving and designing new tracking tools” mean something completely different to a high energy physicist than to anyone else picking up a newspaper. “Tracking tools”, in the sense of the LHCb experiment where Hicheur worked, correspond to alignment of detectors and following particles through them, usually requiring a lot of effort, something I seem to recall Hicheur having worked on for many years now. Yet I imagine what “tracking tools” means to the average person reading an article including the buzz words “terrorism” and “nuclear” is something rather different though.

It is dangerous that the general public may misconstrue these stories. CERN, and other high-energy physics labs which
are frankly incriminated in some of the press coverage, are not involved in any research that could be considered a threat.
The labs resemble a cross between University campuses and large company complexes. There are no sinister activities lurking in the underground tunnels and for most part there is no “nuclear” physics going on. With all due respect to my colleagues most of us have a basic knowledge of nuclear physics that most University science students could match.
CERN have issued a few press statements since the arrest meant to quell any fears and reiterate that the lab is pursuing a mission of research in particle physics and nothing untoward. But this isn’t slowing the media seemingly having a field day with all of their popular science buzz words:”al-qaeda”, “God particle”,”nuclear”, “Big Bang”, “terrorist”, the journalists much be salivating!!

I know nothing of the details of this case but I’d be surprised if there were such coverage without some evidence existing. We will wait and see how this transpires but if he has been found guilty of the charges Hicheur will surely face a very stiff penalty.

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