ConCERNed for Humanity

Dr. Michael Dittmar worked at the Institute of Particle Physics in Zürich and at CERN between the years 1993 and 2020. His research focus included studying the Higgs-Boson, but he also published on energy and sustainability topics. For roughly 15 years he had held the course “Energy and Environment in the 21st Century (I & II)”, which is now continued by Dr. Peter Morf.

November 1989: a state of emergency prevails. CERN physicists pull all-nighters to evaluate the new LEP data. For the very first time, electrons and positrons can be accelerated to energies above 45 GeV. Z bosons are appearing in increasing numbers in the detectors. Teams delve into data analysis, calculating particle masses and decays with unprecedented accuracy. Will nature deviate from the core of theoretical physics? Will hypothetical supersymmetric particles be discovered? The Standard Model is at stake.

Finally: The publication initiated by Michael Dittmar is out, a small contribution to the big puzzle has been made, and Christmas is just around the corner. A moment of rest that has been missing for a long time. Michael’s thoughts relax, his particle tunnel vision widens and… slowly the new reality dawns on him: The Wall has fallen, the border between East and West is crumbling. He did receive the news, and his eyes had seen the headlines of the past weeks. But the euphoria from the research of the 27 km LEP tunnel had demanded his complete attention span. Time to wake up.

What is surprising about this story is that Michael is usually quite interested in politics. Growing up during the time of the Cold War, his school and university years in Hamburg were accompanied by debates on cruise missiles. “Pershing as the American answer to the Russian missiles… it made you queasy,” recalls the now 65-year-old. The enormity of these weapons, the energy released from atomic nuclei, did not leave the graduate physics student uninfluenced. When many colleagues began to specialize in nuclear physics, it was clear to him: “Better do no harm”. Foundational research in particle physics still seemed sufficiently distant from application. Thus, with his diploma thesis on the production of “vector mesons in e+/e- annihilation jets” he landed at the particle accelerator of his hometown: the DESY in Hamburg.

The enormity of these weapons, the energy released from atomic nuclei, did not leave the graduate physics student uninfluenced.

Not only was Michael able to follow up on his student joy of exploration there, he also made use of the possibility to speak up. Together with colleagues, he formed a small peace group at DESY and continued to campaign against the stationing of American missiles in Germany. However, Michael was yet to learn that meeting like-minded people would not always be so easy.

A jump to the year 1985: Michael has just arrived at CERN as a freshly graduated particle physicist and now lives near Geneva. His dream of eternal student life lives on – he can examine new data for clues to “what holds the world together at its core”. But particle physics is not the only part of the daily routine of this unique research community. As Cold War missiles continue to heat up, soon-to-be Nobel laureate in neutrino physics, Jack Steinberger, organises well-attended colloquia on peace issues as a side activity. To address these issues more concretely, a meeting of seemingly like-minded people ensues. “What should we do now?” is Steinberger’s opening question. Silence. “We had a peace group at DESY. There we organized actions against the Pershing missiles…”, Michael ventures, starting a suggestion. “Pershing? And what did you do against the Russian missiles?!” comes from the round; “Well, actually we didn’t want any missiles…”; “You are a communist!”; “Listen to his arguments first!”; “Be quiet, you are only a woman!”; “How dare you,”… This is how the first and only meeting of this peace group went. Michael shakes his head.

September 2001: a state of emergency prevails. The snippets of a conversation of oncoming hikers Michael picks up in Yosemite National Park are difficult to piece together. Palestine, Bush, skyscrapers… Outside the doors of a closed museum, surrounded by expansive mountain scenery and tranquil lakes, he finally learns the surreal news from New York. Barely digesting the report, he returns to Chicago. He had decided to take a sabbatical at the Fermi Lab to gain experience at the proton-antiproton accelerator. After only one year, he returns to CERN, where the LHC, including the CMS experiment, is under construction. But in the fall of 2002, Michael has not only acquired new experimental know-how. The tremendous shock of 9/11 and the preparations for war against Iraq convinced him to bring the peace movement to CERN as well. At the time of his return, awareness had already risen sharply in the European research community; peace groups were “mushrooming”, signatures were being collected for “Not in Our Name” – a campaign against the American government’s war policy. In the course of this dynamic, the club “conCERNed for humanity” is formed.

The tremendous shock of 9/11 and the preparations for war against Iraq convinced him to bring the peace movement to CERN.

Several years of exchange and activity follow. There are regular discussion evenings, and the club also takes advantage of the proximity of the UN to invite renowned speakers to hold talks at CERN. In parallel, the encouraging colloquium series “Science in Society” takes place. With an evolving climate problem and the unchecked destruction of the biosphere, the environmental situation of our planet is being discussed more and more in both forums, in addition to the peace situation.

Unlimited growth is bullshit.

These topics are not new to Michael. On the contrary: In 1972, his biology teacher introduced him to “The Limits of Growth” – a pertinent account of the dichotomy of finite resources versus exponential growth of economy and population. Playing with exponential functions and recalculating models was a favorite pastime for young Michael, and so it was promptly clear to him that “unlimited growth is bullshit”. In the 1990s, voices with similar opinions became louder and louder in the political arena, and the issues of limits, along with buzzwords like “peak oil”, were the focus of many speeches at UN summits and other conferences. But these debates have not been provided little clarity, and so, in addition to his professional research and conCERNed involvement, Michael decides to publish a paper outside of particle physics. “I needed to sort out the data for myself” is his personal goal. In 2004, “Man-made climate change: facts and fiction” appeared on arXiv, followed by other articles and the two-part ETH lecture “Energy and Environment in the 21st Century”. In particular, he looks back with some pride on publications on sustainability issues and his thesis that nuclear fusion for energy production on our planet is not feasible. The feeling of having left the ivory tower of particle physics gives him satisfaction. The fact that his publications are hardly appreciated in physics circles bothers him (only a little).

… who is going to be interested in the Higgs boson when the world is falling apart in hundred years from now?

In 2015, on the other hand, Michael receives an e-mail that not only shows little recognition, but direct rejection. Traits of disappointment cross his otherwise happy face. The Staff Association of CERN wants to close the club. The reason? “Certain donor countries might misunderstand some statements”, Michael learns by chance. What he would like to say about it today? “When you’re doing something extremely specialized and fascinating, it’s easy to forget that there are other problems… But who is going to be interested in the Higgs boson when the world is falling apart in hundred years from now?”

December 2020: a state of emergency prevails. A difficult year dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic is coming to an end, the lives of many are full of question marks. But not everything this year has been negative, quite the opposite: the Physics Department of our ETH has taken action, written a comprehensive analysis of its CO2 emissions, and officially adopted a roadmap regarding their reduction. Michael himself was also involved in the working group – the milestone makes him smile. Even physicists who explore the fundamentals of our nature through experiment and theory cannot close their eyes to the crises of today. Because even as a physicist, you are always part of society. This is the message with which today’s generation of students should set out into the world: “Pursue your talents and interests, build a solid foothold in physics, but don’t forget the real problems of the reality in which you live.”

About the Author

Anna Knörr graduated in physics at ETH and is continuing her studies at the Perimeter Institute in Canada. During her time at ETH she was president of the Student Sustainability Commission, part of the CO2 working group at D-PHYS, and one of the initiators of this project.

One comment

  1. Excellent description of Dr. Dittmar, one of the most sincere scientists I ever knew.

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