All big scientific projects start off with a few people gathering somewhere to talk about an idea (which has already begun to develop in someone’s mind) and to give it a certain framework and a platform on which to develop.
Ususally a group photo is taken at the time of the meeting and the people there are immortalized for hundreds of years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solvay_Conference) and can be read about in school books. Well, I cannot presume to have taken such a quantum leap as mentioned in the link above, but recently my face also appeared on such a picture.
In October 2015, a small group of people, most of them directors of international neutron research centres, meet in Unkel on the Rhine (with a view of the “Drachenfels” (Dragon’s Rock, a hill in the Siebengebirge uplands near Bad Honnef in Germany) and signed a partnership in order to create a network to build medium-sized accelerator-based neutron sources, to replace older research reactors. I gave a presentation on my research topic which is the development of moderators for this type of HBS neutron source, before checking out the hotel (including the food and the view) and accompanying some high-level scientists around Cologne to visit the well-known and also the lesser known landmarks and pecularities of the Rhineland.
However, I found it really shocking to see that even in such a project, where the participants, due to their profession, must surely be obliged to engage in logical, rational and non-emotional thinking, the human aspect of things and interpersonal reasons appeared to dominate the proceedings. It was clear as the scientists talked to each other that the general atmosphere and interpersonal relations were as important as the scientific content. Thanks to my boss’s judicious planning, everything worked well and the meeting was a great success in terms of personal relationships (scientific collaborations which subsequently developed) as well as the scientific content. Nevertheless, I was reminded that if even scientific meetings are influenced at such a high level by personal interrelations, how much more important must this aspect be in business and politics?
Coming back to the topic of the meeting: as I already mentioned on several occasions, neutrons are a great tool for scientists and it would be best if each university (complementary to various x-ray sources) had a neutron source in their laboratories. Unfortunately the small difference between x-ray and neutron sources is that neutrons cannot be produced so easily and most research up to now has been done on research reactors. Meanwhile, these are getting old and are being closed down one after the other, leaving the poor neutron scientists high and dry unless a new type of source is built. The largest one ever built is the ESS, which I have commented on here already. Apart from this beacon of neutron science, there is a desperate need for a broad basis to support research and this was the reason for the meeting described here.
I find it particularly satisfying (in a very European sense) when national sources are realised by a common concept on a European level through collaboration with various international partners. In times when the idea of a united Europe seems to be drifting away, this serves as a reassuring contrasting programme, also in view of the European collaboration with Russian neutron sources (more about this in a later blog). At the moment I am working on a paper on the planned neutron source (What is the HBS Jülich?) but this paper has to meet a higher standard, and seeing as my daily workload is not getting any lighter, this will take a few more days to complete.