CERN Accelerating science

Interview with Sergio Bertolucci

by Panos Charitos

P.C. What does your role as CERN’s Director of Research and Scientific Computing entail?

S.B. My two main duties are to act as the interface between CERN as host laboratory and the experimental collaborations and to supervise the Physics and Computing Departments of CERN. So, my job has a component connected with the current activities and a part connected to the shaping of future programmes.

In both cases, it is of capital importance to be receptive to the inputs of the community as well as to be ready to give useful advice, and to transmit the attitude of the management towards the future. And of course it is not only about ideas, but also about their implementation!

I believe that in our field it is of fundamental importance to maintain a balance between the top-down and bottom-up approach. In retrospect, I judge that the current management has succeeded in realizing this equilibrium by reaching most of our decisions in consensus with the involved communities.

P.C. How did you feel when you started your mandate as Director of Research? Back then, CERN already had a long history and there was much enthusiasm about the LHC.

S.B. I felt thrilled and at the same time conscious of the great challenges ahead.

You should consider that I came to CERN at a rather difficult moment, when there was a lot of frustration and anxiety because of the incident at the LHC start-up. At that time nobody could be certain that a project of such complexity was ever going to work, and the first signs were not encouraging optimism. Our priority as incoming management was therefore to help focus the community toward the common goal of getting the project running again as fast as possible and as reliably as conceived. To say it with a metaphor, to act as a community with an optimistic heart and a slightly paranoid mind.

I believe that a management position should be service oriented, which means that you have to orient your priorities to the needs of the community and be ready to relegate your personal scientific “pleasures”to an (improbable) spare time. I think that the right manager has the generosity to do that, and at the same time keep the desire to go back to doing things first hand.

I would not like it to sound too heroic: a position like mine at CERN, with its great scientific span and its fantastic mix of people and cultures, gives you the immense privilege to be exposed to and  understand things that you might have never thought about before. This is a fundamental part of my job, as otherwise you may find yourself being totally ineffective: in our community, fortunately, authority is not the prime driver, being respected is the name of the game.

P.C. When did you arrive at CERN for the first time?

S.B. I had never worked on a CERN experiment, but I used to come occasionally to CERN to use its facilities, mainly the test beams. The first time I stayed for a rather extended period was in the beginning of the 1980s. I came for two weeks to learn from the experience of the ppbar collider, as at that time we were designing the Collider Detector at Fermilab. Since I firmly believe that it is important not to reinvent the wheel, I arrived here to see how many wheels had been already invented and it helped me enormously to avoid designing wheels with four corners. It was the first time that I could go around and sniff the atmosphere: it was a very positive experience which gave me a hands-on demonstration of the extent and depth of the knowledge which makes this place unique.

Following this period, I returned many times as a user to test detectors, before becoming a referee in the LHC Committee (LHCC), and later its chair, a good training for my current job.

P.C. Are you satisfied with the progress made so far for the upcoming second run of the LHC?

S.B. Very much. We are in the endgame of a very well executed LS1; it is being completed safely, on time, and we have accomplished much more than originally planned. The experiments will have enough time for recommissioning to a level of readiness as they were in the end of 2009, when they started for the first time, and with the added value of the enormous amount of experience from the previous run.

We are all thrilled to see what will happen next year, but we will not be impatient. According to a famous Latin quote: “Festina lente!”; we have a new machine and a long and solid physics programme.

P.C. Do you think that complimentary to this programme other approaches should also be explored?

S.B. The LHC physics programme is certainly the flagship for the future of HEP, but I believe that we should find the resources to allow  a multilateral approach to address the open questions in fundamental physics.

During our mandate, we tried to make CERN less monochromatic by diversifying and extending its research programme. I hope that the new management will continue along similar lines, especially now that, after the Higgs discovery, we have exhausted the “known unknowns” and we are left with a consistent number of “unknown unknowns”. In short , we cannot afford to be tourists, i.e. to follow the map, and we have to rely on our ability to be explorers.

No reason for despair, though: we are living in a very exciting period for fundamental research, we might be at the verge of a real change in the paradigm of our vision of Nature! And the LHC, with its 20 year program based on precision studies and on exploration of the high energy scales, plays a prominent role in this quest. 

P.C. You held the management role during a period of global financial turmoil. Do you think that citizens today are interested in the fundamental questions?

S.B. I think that citizens acknowledge the value of knowledge and of fundamental research and understand the importance of science and education as THE key enabler for a sustainable future. Possibly, this message is clearer to the citizens than to the politics, and we should not spare any effort in championing our role, showing the impact of our achievements in responding to the societal challenges.

I would conclude with a phrase that I often use and which I thinks that essentially answers your question: “if you know how to make candles, you can make better candles but you will never be able to make an electric lamp”. It applies very much to Europe, which has built its standard of living on knowledge. And Cern is the best example that Europe has produced in this sense, offering it to the global community: it is a powerful message of optimism and peace that should be defended as our first priority.