Monday, December 10, 2012

Margaret Thatcher visits CERN in 1983

A brief moment in time with Margaret Thatcher

At the Royal Society, 30 November 2012

My husband Tejinder and I attended the Royal Society Anniversary celebrations recently and again met his undergraduate tutor Professor Peter Kalmus from Queen Mary, University of London.  In 1971 Peter had to advise about 35 first-year students and Tejinder was one of them, however he really only got to know him reasonably well in the mid 1980s when Tejinder and colleagues from Imperial College joined the UA1 Collaboration at CERN.  

This project was famous for the discovery of the W and Z bosons. This was the experimental verification that two of nature’s fundamental forces (the weak force which allows the Sun to shine, and electromagnetism ) were aspects of the same interaction: an important result which resulted in the 1984 Nobel Prize.

Whilst reminiscing over dinner about the old UA1 days, Peter recalled an amusing incident. During 1982 the CERN Directorate sent Peter and his team a message stating that a senior UK person would be visiting CERN. The directorate could not say who, but “she was very famous”, and the team should take the visit seriously. Peter had some responsibility for safety, and spent time just before the visit helping Swiss and French police.  

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher duly arrived.  It turned out that Mrs Thatcher, who had studied chemistry, had requested the CERN Director General to keep her visit private, and that she would like to be treated as a scientist. That day was a special one for Peter as he had the great honour of showing her around the incredible UA1 experiment. Another UK physicist, Alan Astbury, gave a short presentation, and ended on a cautiously optimistic note, saying that with luck the team might discover the W particle by the end of the year. “Right” said the Iron Lady “I will phone you in January to see whether you have found it”. Peter recalled that she did not specify what would happen if the team did not discover the W. The Director General in turn said that he would tell her in confidence when good evidence for the W was found.

On 25 January 1983 the discovery of the W was announced.  Peter remembered it well. It was his 50th birthday, and he gave a seminar  to a packed audience at Queen Mary, London whilst a Press Conference was held at CERN in Geneva. The Z particle was discovered later that year.  Mrs.Thatcher was kind enough to send Peter a letter of congratulation (see copy). 

Peter recalls that the letter, coming from a British Prime Minister, was, he said, perhaps understandably a bit nationalistic in its tone. UA1 (and its friendly rival UA2 which also found W and Z particles) were of course totally international.  Peter did not have the heart to tell Mrs Thatcher that even the Queen Mary group from London contained two American physicists, one Canadian physicist, one Italian postgraduate, one with a Greek mother and that Peter himself was born in Czechoslovakia !

30 Years later the Higgs Boson was discovered on 15 June 2012, announced at CERN on 4 July and the paper written and submitted on 1 August 2012.