By Dennis Overbye
Rolf-Dieter Heuer, a crinkly-eyed German with a snowy goatee, showed up at Four Seasons at Manhattan, dressed like the physicist he is — in a sweater and baggy jeans — rather than the diplomat he had just been playing. The UN was in session, and Heuer, the director-general of the European Organization of Nuclear Research, or CERN, had a featured role in events celebrating the laboratory’s 50th anniversary.
In 2009, when he took over, dark clouds were hanging over CERN, the world’s largest physics lab. A few months before, the lab’s new Large Hadron Collider, the most expensive particle accelerator ever built, had blown up. Some scientists were taking their research to a competing collider at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the US. “If you start with such a low point, you can show your team was able to bring everything out of a low point up to a high point,” he said.
Heuer, 66, is entering the last year of his term; in 2016, Fabiola Gianotti, an Italian particle physicist, will take over as the director. Heuer will become the director of the German Physical Society.
If he rode in under dark clouds, he will ride out on a white horse. It was Heuer who stood up on the morning of July 4, 2012, in front of the world’s physicists and said, “I think we have it,” declaring an end to the half-century chase for the Higgs boson, a keystone of modern physics that explains why elementary particles have mass.
CERN, formed after World War II to rekindle European science, now has 21 member states. The newest, and the only one outside Europe, is Israel. In December, Heuer went to Islamabad to sign up Pakistan as an associate member. He said his long-term dream was a network of international labs, “islands where people can work together independently of the political situation in their home country.”
Energy is the coin of the particle physics realm. The more energy with which two particles can be collided and transformed, the more intimately nature can be studied. The Large Hadron Collider was designed to be powerful enough to shake loose the Higgs boson. “I think everybody was surprised it went so fast,” Heuer said of the Higgs hunt, especially because the collider had to be operated at only half its capability to avoid straining its circuits after the 2009 explosion.
It will start up again in March, running close to full strength for the first time, with proton bullets of 6.5 trillion electron volts —enough energy, scientists hope, to break into new ground.