At home: Lars Anell

The chief negotiator of Europe’s next big science project – a neutron-scattering device – explains why it is remarkable

One hour north of Copenhagen, over the Øresund Bridge and along the west coast of Skåne, Sweden’s answer to Cape Cod, is a modern glass apartment building jutting up off the sand dunes. This June, after countless summers spent cutting grass and repainting shutters, one holiday resident, Lars Anell, traded in his two-storey clapboard house (and annual home repairs) and moved with his wife, Kerstin, to a top-floor flat in the brand-new compound.

There, from behind dramatic floor-to-ceiling glass walls, Anell can look out at the sea, the sky and the rose-dotted dunes below, and mull over plans for Europe’s next big science project: a neutron-scattering device with the tongue-twisting title of the European Spallation Source (ESS).

So is this the next Cern? “Not quite,” says Anell, 70, who, after posts that have included vice-president of Volvo and Swedish ambassador to the EU, is now chief negotiator for the ESS. “The Large Hadron Collider at Cern looked for the most basic elementary particles, like the Higgs boson particle.”

“Here we are going to run protons along a linear accelerator at the speed of light and smash them into a heavy metal to release neutrons. Then we’ll use the neutrons to study the properties of materials,” says Anell. The neutron facility will pick apart materials that span the range from heavy metals to grains of sand. “No physical material on Earth is excluded. Neutrons can be used to study any kind of physical materials at the atomic level. For example, you can look at the plastics that make up much modern furniture to the properties of the paint on this table,” he says, tapping on a traditional, 19th-century-style table that was bought from a workshop south of Stockholm and is now situated in the Anells’ open-plan front room.

“We’ll even be able to look at biological material and human tissues, which are usually killed off by radiation. But ESS will be a non-nuclear facility. People inside will be able to wear normal clothes,” he adds.

The exterior of the compound

ESS is a European-wide collaboration. When it opens in 2019, facilities will be split between the nearby Swedish university town of Lund, which will house the accelerator and instruments, and Copenhagen, where a data management centre is being built. And while Sweden, Denmark and Norway are bearing the brunt of the costs, 17 countries are taking part in the construction of the device.

Yet with two major neutron scattering facilities already up and running in the US and Japan, does the world need another? “Most of the world’s top neutron scientists are actually in Europe, at universities, in industries. We want to keep them here with a high-power facility.” Anell acknowledges that the long gap from conception to construction reflects the sometimes snail-pace of European decision-making. “Obviously it was easier for Japan and the US to build their facilities as they are individual countries. But by the time this opens, ESS will be by far the most powerful neutron-scattering facility in the world.”

Outside, there is a brief pause in the rain and Anell, a father of four, leads me out on to a wrap-around balcony where high glass railings have been secured for visiting grandchildren. To the right, we can see the picture-perfect village of Torekov, summer refuge of the Stockholm business elite. On the balcony, Danish all-weather furniture provides Anell with a refuge of his own. “I can sit and watch the storms out here; and go inside and still feel as if I’m still outdoors.” The building’s architect, Karin Pettersson, is local, from the town of Angelholm.

The office

The apartment complex was built on the grounds of a former hospital. “It was a children’s tuberculosis hospital. The man who built it in 1903, Ernst Lindahl, convinced local farmers that if he built the sanatorium on this land, there would be demand for milk and work. They gave him the land.” According to Anell, most patients lived in the sanatorium for years. “They were usually from poor families. There was no cure. The state-of-the-art medicine then was fresh air and good food, which they didn’t get in the cities.”

Anell has another day job as chairman of the board of the Swedish Research Council, where he plays a role in shaping the future of medicine and other research topics. “We are in charge of funding the most basic research at all Swedish universities, from nanoparticles all the way to economics and humanities. There are six eminent scientists on the board. I don’t pretend to be one of them. I pretend to be a fairly good bureaucrat,” says Anell, who is also author of eight books on subjects ranging from Adam Smith to the European Union, where he took part in original negotiations.

“Cern also involved a lot of negotiation and took a long time to build,” says Anell. “When I was in Geneva [where Anell was an ambassador to the UN] I hosted a group of Cern scientists who told me that they were going to recreate the conditions that prevailed one billionth of a second after the Big Bang when the basic laws of physics were established. If I had got that application for funding when I was in the Swedish finance ministry, I would have stuck it in the trash. But the Hadron Collider is an engineering masterpiece.”

The kitchen/dining area

The rain returns and drives us back into the kitchen, where thin, rectangular windows offer side views on to a small forest. “There are forests around here named for people who planted them. This forest was planted at the same time as the sanatorium was built. The land was only grass and sand, not useful for anything.”

We return to the neutron-scattering facility. With Europe in the throes of deep financial crisis, can countries really afford another big science project? “The cost is not very much when you consider that this will be in use for almost half a century. If we want to maintain our indisputable lead in neutron science, we cannot afford not to build it. On top of this, the facility has practical implications for the competitiveness of European industry. Companies can come and test materials, improve materials, like those used, for example, in pacemakers, and even invent new materials.”

Outside, afternoon light breaks on to the sea and we marvel at the fast-moving sky. In the end, says Anell, the ultimate goal of all big science projects is to give us tools to help us see and understand the world. “You can think of this as a giant microscope. It is fascinating that with Cern you are trying to see farther down to the actual time the universe was created. With ESS, you’re penetrating deeper and deeper into the elementary particles we’re made of. That is a remarkable thing.”


Favourite things

The view: “I like it because you can see that the world is actually round. Here you don’t have a completely unrestricted horizon. To get that you have to go to the west coast of France but here there’s enough of a panorama,” says Anell, pointing through the sheer walls out at the horizon and clouds in fast motion. “Right across the bay I can see the light house of Kullen and the little village of Arile. And on the right I can see the end of the peninsula. You don’t know why you like a view but it reminds me that I’m living on this small earth; in a very small piece of the universe.”

The Princess Victoria Hospital Museum: “I’m trying to help to keep this little museum open,” says Anell. Inside are displays on the history of the original tuberculosis hospital built on the grounds in 1903, complete with period medical instruments. In the 1950s this became a polio hospital; and then in the 1980s, it was reopened as a centre for refugees. So it shows how a building can keep alive important parts of social history.”

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