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New jewel in crown of European physics

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Friday, February 25th, 2011

What’s matter made of? Is there a God particle? How can physics explain life as we know it? These are some of the big questions theoretical and experimental physicists around the world are asking, and Israel plays no small role in finding answers.

With its Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator built deep underground near Geneva, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is helping shed new light on the deepest questions mankind has ever asked.

Israel, relative to its size, has contributed for years in a disproportionate way to ongoing research projects at CERN. Now the CERN board has taken a major step in asking Israel to become a candidate for full membership in the world’s most important particle physics research center. Serbia, Slovenia, Turkey and Cyprus were also asked to join the 20-country group.

For Prof. Eliezer Rabinovici, chairman of the Israeli High Energy Committee and a researcher at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the move legitimizes decades of research that he and his Israeli colleagues have contributed to CERN, which he calls “the jewel in the crown of European physics.”

“First of all, it’s recognition for the fact that Israeli high energy physicists, experimental and theoretical, have made significant contributions to the field in general over the years, and at CERN in particular,” says Rabinovici. “I think this is a badge of honor, and a recognition of everything [we’ve] done.”

Although the December 16 vote was just the first stage of three until full membership, “Israel has passed the hardest hurdle,” says Rabinovici. He goes to CERN’s facilities in Geneva about 10 times a year to do theoretical navigation, the “number crunching” that international researchers can put into practice in the collider.

Why CERN’s asking now

As CERN changed its rules of membership, member states were asked to decide which significant contributors should be invited to join. While Israel is geographically situated in Asia, and is regarded as part of the Middle East, it is most often classified in research and development as part of Europe – sometimes formally, other times informally. In as little as one hour, an Israeli scientist can fly to Greece and within three or four to Switzerland.
Full membership means full voting rights, and – of particular interest to Israeli businesses – access to tenders above the half-million dollar mark (600,000 Swiss francs).

To see if Israel has the right stuff, a CERN investigative team came last May to determine if Israeli industries could be useful for CERN today and in the future. They were looking for highly specialized welding, fiber optics and high-tech software in particular. “They reported on the scientific capabilities of Israel and its industry and came back with a very good report,” says Rabinovici.

Though Israel is not typically into what he calls “big science,” mainly due to the financial commitment required, CERN membership will give Israel an instant upgrade in the scientific community. To join the ranks as a full member, Israel will be asked to contribute a sum in proportion to its gross domestic product, which would be roughly $10 million per year.

But given the prospective dividends in tenders, it could very well turn out to be a lucrative deal, Rabinovici says. The same was true when Israel joined the EU research community. Since then, the required investment has paid for itself.

Big step into big science

In addition to Rabinovici, the Israeli “stars” regularly using the CERN facilities are Prof. Giora Mikenberg from the Weizmann Institute of Science and Shlomit Tarem from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Rabinovici, who also is director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem, concedes that what’s been achieved at CERN by international scientists so far hasn’t amounted to true breakthroughs, “but I hope there are big discoveries ahead.”

His own research is in string theory, a theoretical branch of high-energy physics that asks what he calls a “pretentious question” – what governs the behavior of elements in the material world?

Among the bodies in Israel that have been actively involved in seeking CERN membership are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which spearheaded an intense two years of intense diplomatic efforts with CERN; the Israel Academy of Science; the Council for Higher Education; and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry.

Israel now has the ball in its court. If the financial details can be worked out, the vote will go back to CERN. What then follows is a two- to five-year process to full membership in the world’s biggest and grandest science experiment.