September 23, 2011 3:20 pm

Domestic science

The head of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research crosses a border to escape from the laboratory – and the clamour for his next discovery

As head of Cern, the world’s biggest physics laboratory, Rolf-Dieter Heuer leads the scientific effort to map the mysterious landscape of forces and particles that make up our universe.

For a mind wrestling with the elusive Higgs boson, dark matter and extra dimensions in space, the terrestrial view from his home in the foothills of the Jura could hardly be more inspiring.

Above the house forested mountains stretch as far as the défilé de l’Ecluse, the great gap where the Rhône cuts through the Jura. Below, a flower garden falls away to a teardrop-shaped swimming pool, followed by the village of Péron, then the plain where Switzerland meets France south-west of Geneva, and finally the tantalising outline of the Alps 40km away.

Heuer moved to the centre of the international scientific stage in 2009, when he became Cern’s director-general after five years running Desy, Germany’s particle physics lab in Hamburg. He and his wife Brigitte focused their house hunt on the Pays de Gex on the French side of the border, where spectacular views are more affordable than in Switzerland.

After several months they settled on an unfinished house designed by a local architect in a contemporary chalet style. “We knew we’d be here for five years [the fixed term for the Cern post] so we really wanted to fall into a ready-made bed but this one was so appealing that we could not resist,” says Heuer, driving us from the sprawl of Cern to his well-appointed home village.

Leaders of big institutions fall into two camps in the way they regard home. Some see it as a place to entertain contacts, others as a haven where they can refresh their mind and body. Heuer is firmly in the second group. “I separate my private and business life,” he says. “I don’t like to have things here at home that remind me of work.”

The dining side of Heuer’s open living space

The dining side of Heuer’s open living space

Work includes a punishing travel schedule that takes Heuer away from home for almost a third of the year, attending conferences and spreading the word about particle physics and more generally about the importance of fundamental scientific research.

“Cern was founded as a European institution but today the E in its name is coming to mean ‘everywhere’,” he says. “We have become a truly global organisation.”

One of Heuer’s missions is “to bring science back into society”. He is concerned that people do not talk about science as much as they used to, and that “politicians are increasingly putting public resources into applied research that will bring immediate returns, rather than into basic science which may not pay off within their lifetime.”

So Heuer gives “outreach” talks about particle physics around the world. In private conversation he speaks thoughtfully in a gentle German accent – in public he is a powerful speaker. “When I gave a public lecture in St John’s [Newfoundland] this summer, more than 1,000 people came,” he says. “It meant a lot to me when a local farmer came up afterwards and told me how much he had got out of the talk.”

As another way of engaging with society, Heuer is leading Cern’s fast-growing arts programme. This month he announced an artists’ residency called Collide@Cern, and the FT’s visit to the laboratory coincided with the installation of an Antony Gormley sculpture over the main staircase of the headquarters.

A future project, for which Heuer hopes to raise €20m, is to create a landscape by Charles Jencks, a master of science-inspired design. The proposed Cosmic Rings of Cern – an echo of Jencks’s private Garden of Cosmic Speculation, which Heuer visited recently in Scotland – would give the labscape a swirling green heart laden with scientific symbolism.

Drinking coffee on the Heuer’s terrace, shaded first from a brief shower and then hot sun by motorised white awnings that fold out from the house, our eyes are drawn to the hills and mountains – until a dozen swallows suddenly appear, skimming the teardrop pool for a drink of water.

The doubleheight open living space

The doubleheight open living space, with twin windows on either side of the chimney breast and Maralunga sofas

“We didn’t buy the house for the swimming pool,” Heuer says. The winning feature – apart from the view – was the double-height living space, with windows soaring on each side of the chimney breast. Two Maralunga sofas, a classic 1973 design by Vico Magistretti, provide the main seating. The room’s most striking work of art is a sculpture of a woman by Dutch ceramicist Jikke van de Waal-Bijma.

Heuer escapes here from a world impatient for discoveries from Cern’s Large Hadron Collider, where protons have been smashing together at close to the speed of light for more than a year. Each collision reproduces on an infinitesimal scale the conditions of the Big Bang. By analysing the particles generated, the thousands of scientists involved will understand better the hidden structure of the universe.

This summer Heuer had to rein back speculation that LHC had found its most prominent early target: the Higgs boson which, according to the Standard Model of particles and forces, gives matter its mass. He also chided the media publicly for their impatience.

“We have to be very careful what we say because this is an experiment watched by the whole world,” he says. By the end of 2012, the LHC will either have found the Higgs boson or disproved its existence – a non-discovery that would throw theoretical physics into turmoil.

Much more is in the offing. There is five times more dark stuff than the ordinary matter that makes up all the galaxies, stars and everything else astronomers can see, but scientists have no idea what it is. Heuer hopes it will soon reveal itself, like the Alps coming into view from his terrace as the sun burns off the morning mist.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor

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FAVOURITE THINGS

“My favourite objects are not necessarily man-made,” he says. “But they are objects that have a story behind them.”

A pile of stones on the corner of the fireplace comes from deep within the Alps. It came from a visit to the world’s most ambitious tunnelling project, which is laying a 57km railway track beneath the Gotthard massif to connect the high-speed train networks of southern and northern Europe.

Cern too depends on tunnels. The LHC runs in a circular tunnel 27km in circumference, between 50 and 175 metres below the ground, with several deep shafts dug for access to the underground detectors.

Chunks of white quartz and speckled granite

Chunks of white quartz and speckled granite

The small chunks of white quartz and speckled granite demonstrate Heuer’s love of “connecting science with the natural world”.

Another favourite is a miniature model railway. As a boy Heuer played with the larger Scale 0 but today he prefers the tiny Scale Z, the smallest available.

“What I enjoy is not so much running the trains as laying out the tracks and the whole landscape that goes with them,” he says. When one track is finished, he invents a new one.

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