Science: transcending national ideology

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Mar 3, 2008
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I've written about Brian Cox before; he's a UK physicist working on the new Large Hadron Collider in France. He's a smart fellow, as you might expect.

He was interviewed for Wired magazine, and in the course of talking about life at CERN (the research lab in charge of the LHC) this exchange occurred:

Wired: CERN has about 5,600 scientists from dozens of countries running the experiments. How does this mini United Nations get along? Had any bar fights yet?

Cox: No, it's a miracle. It's one of the great things about CERN, when you see what strange bedfellows it's created. We've got Iran and Pakistan and the U.S. and Israel. List any two counties that you think wouldn't be able to get along and they're at CERN, getting along. I think it's one of the great achievements at CERN; and CERN is very proud of it. They're very insistent, for example, that the U.S. has to sign papers with Iranian scientists. In general, the U.S. doesn't sign papers with scientists from particular countries. That ethos is very strong at CERN; that there's one CERN in the world and it's part of the world and everybody who wants to work at CERN is allowed to work at CERN.

He's right. I've heard the same story from international missions with NASA and other astronomy projects as well. Sure, there can be personality conflicts, and individuals have their own idiosyncrasies, but as a group, scientists tend to transcend national ideologies.

Sagan talks about this in several of his books; he would meet with Soviet scientists back when the Cold War was strong, and they would risk political suicide -- and severe punishment -- just to do the science. When I was working with different NASA missions, it was common to be side-by-side with people of all nationalities, and it usually hardly ever came up except in the introductions (or to compare cultures, which was always fun). Hubble, as one example, has equipment from several countries on board, as does GLAST, which launches in a few months.

I know it's not just science; other fields have similar stories. When I hear things like this, I will readily and happily admit it makes my heart sing. It reminds me that in almost all cases, there are more similarities joining us all than there are differences. But our brains are wired to detect those differences, so they take on an import that is magnified beyond what they deserve.

We need to be reminded of that sometimes. I know I do. It's nice to have my own preconceptions shaken -- well, maybe "nice" is the wrong word; it can be difficult, it can be painful, and it can be embarrassing, but it is also necessary. Reality is what it is -- I might venture to offer that up as a definition -- and we have to overcome our prejudices and accept that. Scientists have just as many prejudices as anyone else, of course. It's just that the thrill of discovery and the search for knowing are more important.

Maybe we all need a little more scientific method in our lives.

Ironically, after I had drafted this post, I read an article in the New York Times by science writer Dennis Overbye. It seems that there are issues science sometimes can't overcome.