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University of Silesia in Katowice

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CERN | Interview with Jerzy Jarosz, PhD, Associate Professor

20.07.2021 - 11:53 update 02.08.2021 - 08:04
Editors: MK
Tags: CERN, wywiad


Science communication in the world of large research devices

| Jerzy Jarosz, PhD, Associate Professor, Katarzyna Balin, PhD, Weronika Cygan |

Jerzy Jarosz, PhD, Associate Professor has been involved in promoting physics and science for many years. He is an employee of the August Chełkowski Institute of Physics of the University of Silesia, Coordinator of the Children’s University of Silesia of the Open University, and President of the National Club of Physics Demonstrators. He served as the Head of the Educational Laboratory of Physics of the University of Silesia for many years. He creates and coordinates lots of activities aimed at promoting not only physics, but science in general. Often awarded for this activity, he recently received the main prize in the Popularizer of Science 2020 competition. The scope of Prof. Jarosz’s activities is impressive, however, the following interview focused only on one of them – his relationship with CERN.

Katarzyna Balin, PhD: The first of July marks 30 years since the Polish accession to the European Organization for Nuclear Research – CERN. The organisation conducts research into the fundamental structure of matter that makes up the Universe and its properties. For that purpose, scientists use accelerators, colliders, and specially designed measurement systems. Professor, you have extensive experience in making the achievements of CERN more widely known. How did this adventure begin?

Prof. Jerzy Jarosz: CERN is a unique place, important to every physicist, irrespective of their particular field of expertise. One could even make a bold statement that every physicist should visit CERN at least once in their lifetime. For scientists exploring fundamental knowledge about the structure of the Universe, CERN is virtually Mecca.

However, my first contact with the centre was of a completely different nature. It had more to do with activities promoting science than with science itself. In 2000, CERN together with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), organised a pan-European science festival Physics on Stage. It brought together about 450 delegates from 22 European countries. There were two projects representing Poland – Physics of ping-pong by Prof. Krzysztof Ernst and We live on Earth, the noninertial system, which was developed in the Educational Laboratory of Physics. Both projects were very successful, we hit the bull’s eye, and we even received a standing ovation from the audience.

Weronika Cygan: So, your first visit to CERN was a great success in science communication! Was there anything else that you remember fondly from that visit?

J.J.: It should be mentioned that the year 2000 was very important for CERN. At that time, the Large Electron-Positron Collider (LEP) working in an underground tunnel with a circumference of 27 km, drilled at a depth of 100 m below Geneva, was about to end its operation. The tunnel housing the disassembled accelerator was accessible and could be explored, and it was even possible to enter the detector of the DELPHI experiment. It was all very impressive and we were amazed not only by the size of the collider and the operating equipment, but most of all by the subject matter of the research, which for many of us was not very well known.

This first meeting later resulted in many years of joint cooperation between CERN, the Educational Laboratory of Physics and the Institute of Physics of the University of Silesia involving education and science communication.

K.B.: Your cooperation with CERN, as we know, was later continued. However, please tell us something more about the Physics on Stage festival. Did the Polish participants continue to take an active part in it?

J.J.: The Physics on Stage festival was the first large project initiated at CERN related to education and science communication oriented towards school and university environments. Subsequent editions of the Physics on Stage festival were held at the headquarters of the European Space Agency in Noordwijk in the Netherlands, before returning to CERN again in 2004 in an extended format as Science on Stage.

By then it was a joint project of seven research organisations that formed the EIROFORUM (European Intergovernmental Research Organisations Forum) group, associated with various fields of science, which consisted of: CERN – particle physics, ESA – space exploration, ESO – astronomy and astrophysics, EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory) – molecular biology, ESRF (European Synchrotron Radiation Facility) – synchrotron radiation, EFDA (European Fusion Development Agreement) – nuclear fusion, and ILL (Laue-Langevin Institute) – neutron source.

During the first edition of Science on Stage in 2004, the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which has become known as the world’s largest and most complex machine, was already underway at CERN. It was a preliminary stage of construction and at that time it was not yet possible to visit the collider tunnel, but you could take a look inside the transport shafts and see the first structures being built. The anticipated collision energies of 14 TeV made waiting for the start of its operation, and first results quite exciting.

It is important to note that people representing Poland at European festivals have always been very active and successful. Many physics and chemistry teachers were involved in these activities. We won several awards and distinctions in almost every edition of the festival. In later editions, as a member of the Organising Committee and Chairman of the Jury of the Polish festival Natural Sciences on Stage, organised by the Adam Mickiewicz University, and later as a member of the European Organising Committee of Science on Stage Europe, I was more of an organiser than a participant. However, the relationship with CERN remained solid.

W.C.: Science festivals are one of many forms of science communication and introducing science to a wider audience. However, it is well known that the cooperation of Polish scientists with CERN has also involved other activities. What other activities of this type have you engaged in?

J.J.: A few years later, a training programme for physics teachers was launched at CERN, and the Institute of Physics already had a large group of very active teachers – so it seemed that things just fell into place on their own…

Acting on behalf of CERN and the Institute of Physics of the University of Silesia, with the support of the Silesia Board of Education, in April 2007 we put together the first group of 44 Polish physics teachers who went to CERN for training. From then on, groups went there on a regular basis under the supervision of staff from the Educational Laboratory of Physics. Lectures at CERN were conducted in the native language of the group receiving training. They were delivered by scientists working at CERN and by Polish scientists who were invited specially for this purpose. Mick Storr, PhD and Andrzej Siemko, PhD were in charge of the training programme and the organisation of the lectures. They also led the evening discussions, introduced the topics of the following day’s activities, and answered numerous questions.

By then, the LHC was already in the final stages of construction and was expected to begin operating in 2008. You could still go down into the tunnel and see the collider being set up, as well as the ATLAS and CMS experiment chambers and their huge detectors.

We used that moment very well – at that time we were hosting a popular science programme COGITO in cooperation with TVP3, filmed in an improvised studio in the Educational Laboratory of Physics. And so, two episodes of the programme were produced at CERN. We also produced a film entitled ‘The Big Bang’ in cooperation with TVP3, about research conducted at CERN, which achieved considerable success at the popular science film festival in Sopot, winning 3rd prize. In later trips to the centre, we were accompanied by a reporter from Radio Katowice, which broadcast reports on the teachers’ daily activities and on the facilities they visited.

W.C.: These were all activities aimed at familiarising an average Joe with the research conducted at CERN. Could you point out any initiatives aimed directly at young people which would encourage them to take an interest in this particular field of science?

J.J.: Activities promoting research conducted at CERN were mainly geared towards teachers who in turn transferred them to their classrooms and schools. One-day visits to CERN, however, were always possible, so the student groups could visit the interactive Microcosm exhibition and later also the Universe of Particles exhibition held in the unique exhibition hall called the Globe of Science and Innovation.

A training and lecture programme aimed directly at young people was not launched until 2017. CERN then proceeded with pilot editions of another European programme, this time for the most talented secondary school students – the High School Students Internship Programme (HSSIP). In 2018, 23 students selected from nearly 2,500 participants of physics olympiads and science competitions took part in classes over two weeks during the Polish edition of the programme. I coordinated that programme together with a representative of the Teachers Council at CERN, but our task basically boiled down to selecting the candidates, which was by no means easy, and organising supervision for the group.

It is worth noting that two winners of competitions organised by the Institute of Physics and the Institute of Chemistry of the University of Silesia took part in the programme – the National Crystal Growing Competition and the National Chemistry Competition.

Another thing worth remembering is the participation of the Institute of Physics in the previous educational programme addressed to secondary school students – International Masterclasses, in which lectures on the physics of elementary particles were conducted at our Institute, and later real measurement data from CERN were made available to the students for their own analysis. A day of classes at the Institute would end with a live video conference with scientists from CERN, during which the obtained results were discussed.

W.C.: Experiencing real-life science must have been very inspiring for young people, and since there was such an opportunity for students, surely teachers were not neglected either?

J.J.: As part of the training programme for Polish physics teachers, CERN cooperated with two partners from Poland: the Institute of Physics of the University of Silesia, represented by the Educational Laboratory of Physics, and the National In-Service Teacher Training Centre (CODN) in Warsaw.

The first group of teachers who went to CERN was organised by the Educational Laboratory. It consisted of teachers from Silesia, Warsaw, the Wielkopolska Voivodeship, and Szczecin. That same year, CERN was also visited by a group organised by CODN. The trips took place every year, starting from 2007. Unfortunately, despite CERN’s efforts, no agreement was reached and no systemic solutions were worked out at the ministerial level. As a result, CODN withdrew from organising trainings in 2010.

W.C.: What exactly stood in the way of finalising such an interesting and promising initiative?

J.J.: The reason was quite mundane. CERN was responsible for funding the stay of invited lecturers and organising the training programme. The groups attending the course had to cover the costs of travel, accommodation in CERN hotels and meals (in the famous CERN canteen). CODN funded the trips from the funds allocated for in-service teacher training; unfortunately, the University of Silesia did not have such funds at its disposal. So, we had to look for funds elsewhere. Teachers could receive support from the school’s funds, they could apply for a grant from the town hall, municipality, or the board of education, and as a last resort, they could also use their own financial resources. This was often the case. These additional difficulties meant that only the most motivated teachers were able to go. As a result, the groups worked extremely well and the atmosphere during classes was always excellent.

The Institute of Physics organised and sent groups on trips to CERN until 2014. There were plenty of teachers who wanted to take part in future training courses, but the sharp spike in the Swiss franc exchange rate in January 2015 made further trips impossible and virtually brought an end to the participation of Polish teachers in this programme.

In total, more than 600 physics teachers from Poland benefited from the programme.

W.C.: How did this experience at CERN affect teachers’ competencies and has it actually, in practice, improved the way they teach their students?

J.J.: At first glance, the benefits of such training seem not so obvious. After all, the subject of elementary particles does not constitute an essential part of the core curriculum taught at school. Nor does it require such extensive and structured knowledge as can be obtained during the training, let alone in-depth knowledge of the equipment used in this type of research. It also does not offer a clear path to a further scientific career, which remains closed for most teachers.

However, there are many other benefits. During the training, you can acquire knowledge that perfectly organizes and complements the knowledge you acquire during your studies, which is usually incomplete and comes from various different sources. This definitely clarifies the information and puts in order the structure of the knowledge we possess. And to put it simply, it changes our perspective on understanding the issues of particle physics and science in general, and the foundations of the structure and development of the Universe in particular. Mick Storr, who was mentioned earlier, has a useful analogy illustrating this point: we can stand helplessly under the enormous pyramidal peak that is the Matterhorn, overwhelmed by its size, with the feeling of absolute impossibility of climbing to the top (after all, we would have to have the right equipment, be armed with formalisms and a deep, detailed knowledge of many theories, which we obviously do not have…), or someone can fly us in a helicopter and show us the beauty of the entire panorama of Alps from above, without the strenuous task of climbing and analysing all the difficulties and dangers of the climb. This, of course, will not make us scientists who actively and efficiently climb up higher and higher, but it will surely allow us to see the whole picture and to be fascinated by the beauty of the landscape. The training at CERN was precisely this kind of a helicopter.

It was popular not only among physics teachers but also among academics, scientists, and physicists who do not deal with elementary particles or the Standard Model on a daily basis. This, in a way, was our discovery and modification of the CERN programme. We invited not only school teachers but also scientists, physicists, philosophers, and natural scientists working at universities and institutes of the Polish Academy of Sciences, to participate in subsequent trainings and trips to the centre.

W.C.: How did those interdisciplinary meetings turn out?

J.J.: Such mixed groups worked very well. Evening discussions after the lectures would last forever, while visits to other places and lectures were highly anticipated and immediately discussed and commented on by the group. As a result, our groups were set as examples and were highly praised by the training organisers from CERN.

The enthusiasm and fascination with science that everyone experienced during their time at CERN lasted much longer and was shared with the pupils and students when participants returned to their daily activities.

K.B.: A significant part of society is very much interested in the development of science and the results of research, which form the basis of our present and future prosperity. It is obvious that the success of a scientist depends largely on how effectively they present their work to the scientific community, but presenting their research to those from outside the community is equally as important. Do you see a discrepancy between the scientific practice and how the public perceives science? Do you think that it is the researchers themselves who should communicate their findings to a wider audience? Science communication seems to be a necessary element of education.

J.J.: Yes, it’s true that properly informing the public about the ongoing research and making them aware of its importance in the context of the common good of society is extremely important. By “properly” I obviously do not mean manipulating information or presenting its significance in specific, incomplete contexts, ensuring societal approval and further financing of our research. The information communicated should be proper in the sense of objectivity and completeness of the picture presented, but also in terms of being sufficiently general and friendly so that it can be understood without the need for in-depth knowledge. Undoubtedly, even the most significant recent scientific developments will not be of interest to anyone but a narrow group of specialists unless they relate to some more general social context.

In general, scientists are not the best at turning scientific information into information on scientific achievements easily digestible for the rest of society, although there are some excellent exceptions to this rule. As researchers are passionate about their field, they are also often not impartial and may sometimes fail to properly assess the impact of their own work on the public.

Nowadays, basically all fields of scientific activity are highly developed and require at least preparation, and often even specialisation in order to successfully achieve their goals and effectively communicate them to the public. Communicating the significance of scientific achievements should be handled by those who specialise in it. We immediately think of journalists and the media, but this also turns out not to be a very good option. There is a problem of overabundance of easily accessible, unverifiable information and an increasingly widespread state of social perception in which facts and objective information are disputed, although their validity cannot be questioned. It’s a very complex problem.

K.B.: So how could you most effectively reach your audience with a clear, simple, yet informed message?

J.J.: An institutional solution is to employ your own specialists and spokespersons for this purpose. CERN’s information and promotion policy can be presented as an example. It is handled by people employed for this very purpose. These people are well acquainted with scientific research and the nuances of social contexts, but they themselves are not active scientists and are not professionally involved in mass media.

As a result of a well-executed information policy, the world’s media and publications continue to report on important events at CERN and maintain public interest in its research. The significance of the research and its results, such as the discovery of the Higgs boson, is of little importance to people who are not interested in science but the technologies used in the research and their “side effects”, such as the use of accelerators to control goods in transport and to scan trucks, to fight terrorism, to preserve food, or the invention of the Internet at CERN, are enough to justify to the public the expenses involved in the development of the centre and in conducting further research.

K.B.: In your opinion, what is the future of science communication? The conditions of the pandemic have changed the way science is taught or promoted quite a lot. What role do you think will be played by alternative, i.e. remote, ways of science communication?

J.J.: The pandemic and the need for isolation really changed the communication methods a lot. We generally complain about having to teach students and doctoral students online, we are tired of conferences held remotely and having to sit in front of monitors all the time. However, I believe that the pandemic hasn’t necessarily introduced this option. It just accelerated it dramatically.

It’s true that certain channels of non-verbal communication have closed down, causing communication to be no longer rich in feedback messages that can’t make it through the tiles (often black) on our monitors. However, communication platforms continue to improve, and their weakness (not allowing us to meet at a common point in space-time) is also their strength – taking only time coordinates when arranging meetings eliminates the eternal need for physical mobility, saving us huge amounts of energy and time. Most importantly, we can communicate virtually at any time with anybody on the globe, and even beyond. New habits are also slowly forming, building a new culture of communication more widely embedded in cultural evolution and rapidly becoming a normal part of everyday life.

Change is necessary and inevitable. Even if it does not seem to lead us in the right direction, violates the comfortable status quo, and is difficult to accept. As a consolation, we might just point out that we are not quite ready to move completely into the digital world. Fortunately, certain activities, such as physical experiments, still have to take place in the physical reality.

K.B., W.C.: Thank you for the interview.

Grupa osób podczas warsztatów
Jerzy Jarosz, PhD, Associate Professor with the participants of workshops at CERN | photo from the archive of J. Jarosz

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