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Horst Wenninger (1938 – 2020)

Former CERN director Horst Wenninger played key roles in the approval of the LHC and in firmly establishing knowledge transfer at CERN

Horst Wenninger
(Image: CERN)

A newly promoted middle manager at CERN was angry. Some of the personnel he had inherited were not performing well and he would not be able to deliver equipment on time and on budget as he had promised. Irate, he had to complain. Twenty minutes later he came out from his boss Horst Wenninger’s office, calm and content. There were good reasons that Horst earned the epithet “Mr Valium”.

Top-flight physicists and those aspiring to be so would seek Horst out to get advice and help. He was universally trusted, because he was not going to steal their ideas and was therefore not considered a threat. He knew his way around CERN like no one else, and knew whom to contact to get things done (and crucially how to get them to do it).

Before becoming a physicist, Horst had considered becoming a diplomat. Somehow, he managed to combine the two professions, all in the interest of CERN. He cultivated the art of connecting scientists, engineers and administrators – always with the aim of achieving a goal.

Horst was born in Wilhelmshaven in 1938, the third child of a naval officer. His early childhood was spent with his mother and three siblings near Dresden. When the war ended, the family settled in Heilbronn (Baden Württemberg). He met his wife and started his family while studying at Heidelberg University, where he earned his PhD in nuclear physics in 1966. In 1968 he joined CERN to participate in the Big European Bubble Chamber (BEBC).

From the outset Horst was inspired by CERN. It satisfied both his interest in physics and his penchant for diplomacy. He saw the importance of the Laboratory for establishing peaceful worldwide collaboration and relished participating in the adventure.

Unsurprisingly, Horst was soon identified as a leader, first as physics coordinator for the BEBC programme in 1974. In 1980 he went to DESY to work on electron–positron collider physics in preparation for LEP, returning to CERN in 1982 to lead the BEBC group. In 1984 he became head of the Experimental Facilities division, providing support for Omega, UA1 and UA2. For the R&D and construction of the LEP detectors Horst needed to implement a new style of collaboration: for the first time, major parts of the detectors had to be financed, developed and provided by outside groups with central CERN coordination. In 1990 he became leader of the Accelerator Technologies division, comprising the major technology groups working on LEP2, R&D on superconducting magnets for LHC, and LHC-specific technologies such as vacuum and cryogenics. In 1993 as LHC deputy project leader, his profound knowledge of CERN, and what would be possible in the way of cost reductions and inevitable personnel cuts, was vital for the reassessment of the LHC project.

Horst was CERN’s Research and Technical director from 1994 to 1999. LHC approval was expected in 1994. However, the day before the crucial vote by the CERN Council in December that year, the German delegation was still not authorised to vote in support of the project. In a late-night action Horst managed to arrange contact with the office of the German chancellor, with the mission to sway the minister responsible for the decision. His cryptic reaction was conveniently interpreted by the supportive German delegate as a green light, a determined move for the good of CERN. Horst was later awarded the Order of Merit (First Class) of the German Republic.

In 2000 he helped launch the CERN Technology Transfer division and chaired the Technology Advisory Board. He was also instrumental in the execution at CERN of the Italian LAA initiative for LHC detector R&D. Thanks largely to Horst’s drive the 2017 book “Technology Meets Research – 60 Years of CERN Technology: Selected Highlights” was published, a tribute to the importance he associated with technology in the life of CERN.

Horst retired from CERN in 2003, but he continued to make major contributions thanks to his broad physics, technology and management experience and his international network. GSI in Darmstadt had recently embarked on the FAIR project, which was much larger than any previous undertaking at that laboratory. Horst was asked to help: his singular talents were immensely valuable, even vital, in charting a common way forward at a time when science, technology and politics pulled in different directions. He was instrumental in arranging the help of substantial CERN accelerator expertise, and later, as the facility relied on major international “in-kind” contributions, it naturally fell to Horst to take on the associated complex and delicate organisation and procurement. When in 2019 the EU approved the “South-East European International Institute for Sustainable Technologies” (SEEIIST), Horst was appointed to coordinate Phase 1.

Horst left his mark on CERN. The wider community also benefited immensely from his contributions in advisory roles throughout his active life. We have lost an outstanding colleague and a good friend from whose enthusiasm, advice and wisdom we all benefited tremendously.

His friends and colleagues