vrijdag 23 december 2011

Big Science

The Technical University Delft (TUD) had the good foresight to award a honorary degree to Andre Geim in 2009, one year prior to the Nobel Committee’s decision to honor him with the Nobel Prize in Physics for his experiments on graphene. I attended the ceremony in Delft and I also was a guest at the dinner in Geim’s honor the same evening. It was one of those dinners with the seating arrangement changing half way through. Should you be stuck in boring company, you get a second chance. My wife and I in fact were in very pleasant and interesting company. One of the other honorary doctors, Wybren Jouwsma, told us about his adventures in ‘high tech’ industry (he had founded a very successful company; the ‘very successful’ is my addition, he is too modest to make such statements). In particular he told us about his interactions with CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics near Geneva. He was very enthusiastic about the orders he had won for delivering ‘flow meters’ with specifications so challenging that they were just beyond what he could make. But, working with the engineers at CERN, he had managed to reach the required specifications. And subsequently he had the business. And his, then still young company, an expertise that it did not have before.

After the second course or so we moved to another table and had the honor to be seated at the table of Andre Geim. In an attempt to make conversation – with hindsight that is absolutely superfluous in Geim’s presence – I referred to a colleague, a common acquaintance I presumed, at the University of Manchester, Geim’s university. This colleague is a high energy physicist, like myself. This led Geim to a long tirade about high energy physics. Expensive, big equipment, massive; involving large groups of scientists, for that reason probably not very good ones, Geim asserted. If you could not find ‘the Higgs’ on a table top you were either stupid, or it was not worthwhile to look for it. My attempt to make conversation had failed. If you consider conversation an interactive process involving at least two people, that is.

The status reports on the search for the Higgs boson, presented at CERN recently, December 2011, have drawn a very great deal of attention. Somewhat surprising perhaps and certainly prematurely. But the achievement to be celebrated already now, is not small. Technology and science have made a giant leap forward to bring us where we are today. We will, with certainty know how much the Higgs boson weighs and begin to explore what its properties are within a year from now. That is Progress with a big P. These results are going to be part of mankind’s heritage. (And if the Higgs boson is not found, it means that it does not exist. This is not a trivial statement! It means that we have to go back to the very foundations of physics.)

The status of the ‘Higgs search’ has also received much attention, certainly for a scientific topic, in the news media. This attention is stimulating and heartwarming for scientists in general and for those who are actually involved in the Higgs programme in particular. Our Dutch national institute for particle physics (NIKHEF) has been deeply involved in this programme from the days it was defined. It can, rightly, claim to be part of the success. Its scientists play leading roles in the multinational endeavor that is required to make this ‘big science’ project possible. And they are very active in deciphering the messages Nature has hidden in the data that are now being analyzed.

I hope they find the recognition they deserve, after years of hard and very innovative work. In large international collaborations, yes, but not anonymously, no. At the pursuit of great science. And perfectly capable of explaining to the world what they find and how they did it. Such that also critical observers like Andre Geim will be able to share in their enthusiasm!

Jos Engelen

zaterdag 3 december 2011

De kleren maken de man?

Verbonden aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam hoorde ik, jaren geleden, dat collegevoorzitter Jankarel Gevers gesuggereerd had een beroemd oud-voetballer, oud-ajacied, te benoemen tot hoogleraar. Jankarel was zijn tijd ver vooruit. Wim de Bie en Youp van ’t Hek zijn onlangs benoemd tot hoogleraar Satire aan de Universiteit Tilburg, respectievelijk Cultural Professor aan de Technische Universiteit Delft.

De Nederlandse universiteiten hebben het niet gemakkelijk. Ze moeten in hun opleidingen-aanbod wieden. Ze moeten beter samenwerken. Ze moeten efficiënter werken. Dat zijn belangrijke opdrachten, daar heb je als College van Bestuur je handen aan vol. Het rapport van de commissie Veerman over het toekomstbestendig maken van het Nederlandse hoger onderwijs; het bereiken van een akkoord hierover met staatssecretaris Zijlstra; het inpassen van het economische topsectorenbeleid van het kabinet in de wetenschappelijke onderzoekagenda; de positie op allerlei mythische ‘rankings’ – die van de Times, die uit Shanghai, die van Leiden; de beknelling van de Balkenende-norm: het leven van een universiteitsbestuurder is vol zorgen. Toenemende studentenaantallen, afnemende budgeten. Diepgang moet worden versterkt en pretstudies moeten worden opgeheven.

Wim de Bie en Youp van ’t Hek gaan de helpende hand bieden.

Er zijn nog twaalf universiteiten. Wie worden daar benoemd? Freek de Jonge hoogleraar Prediken in Leiden. Dolf Jansen hoogleraar Spreektechniek in Twente. Najib Amhali hoogleraar Europese studies in Maastricht. En dan zijn er nog negen vacatures te vullen. Ook Jörgen Raymann, Paul Sibbel, Paul de Leeuw, Raoul Heertje, Jan Jaap van der Wal verdienen een plaats. Waar en in wat? Zijn we nog iemand vergeten? Misschien heeft U suggesties voor de andere universiteiten?

Wim de Bie en Youp van ’t Hek, allebei briljant, twee katten die in hun nieuwe academische omgeving op het spek worden gebonden. Of worden ze door de toga getemd?

Jos Engelen