Celebrating the first of a kind

This joint opinion piece was written by Agnieszka Zalewska, President of CERN Council, and Rolf Heuer, CERN Director-General.

It was on 7 and 8 October 1954 that the first meeting of the CERN Council took place, opened by Frenchman Robert Valeur, retiring Chairman of the interim Council that had overseen the establishment of CERN. On the day we celebrate that first meting with a special Council Symposium, it’s interesting to look back at the meeting’s minutes. 

Penned in the dry official language that is the hallmark of such documents, the momentous nature of what had been achieved nevertheless shines through. “The retiring Chairman stressed the importance of the creation of the Organization which would be the first scientific organization of its kind in the world,” Valeur was reported as saying, before going on to introduce such luminaries as Swiss writer and federalist, Denis de Rougemont, and American Nobel Prize winner, Isidor Rabi, who had both played instrumental roles in the creation of CERN. CERN pioneer Pierre Auger would only be present the following day, reported Valeur, while Louis de Broglie, whose 1949 submission to the European Cultural Conference started it all, was unable to attend.

In words that set the tone for transatlantic relations in particle physics, Rabi “stressed the great interest of American scientists in the work of the Laboratory and offered, on their behalf, the most cordial and complete cooperation. This, he hoped, would lead to a fair competition between Europe and America for the benefit of science”. Opening formalities aside, the meeting very rapidly got down to business, with elections of officials, financial and staffing matters, and detailed discussions about the suitability of the local geology for the construction of the proton synchrotron.

What made the origins of CERN so remarkable, and continues to make CERN remarkable today, is the extraordinary resonance between visionary scientists, diplomats and government representatives, all recognising science as a vehicle for peace. The names cited in the minutes of the first Council meeting include scientists and non-scientists. Today’s Council continues in that tradition, being composed of representatives of our Member States’ governments and scientific communities. It is this that makes our governance model so robust, our scientific record so proud, and it is what makes that first meeting of the Council so worthy of celebration today as we approach the International Day of Peace this weekend.

Sixty years after CERN’s creation, there is still much conflict and intolerance in the world. In such a climate, institutions like CERN, islands of peace and stability, are more necessary than ever. New ones, such as SESAME, should be encouraged, while those that exist should be nurtured. This is the message that we hope endures from CERN’s 60th anniversary year.