This week I am in Pisa, where I have spent three days to discuss the status and the funding of accelerator-based experiments within the “first national scientific committee” of INFN. Yesterday all coordinators also met for dinner in a good fish restaurant. The discussion never departed much from physics, but it was certainly more relaxed and casual.
One thing that I heard reported by a colleague who has the pulse of public engagement in INFN was that the last “N” in my institute’s acronym causes sometimes a preconceived negative attitude in laypersons who hear about it – “nuclear” physics seems to evoke nuclear plants and in some European countries there is a distinct adversion to the concept. Nuclear plants are conceived as polluting ticking bombs, and those who work for and in them are enemies of the environment.
I found the notion interesting and an important one to pay attention to. Public engagement also has the aim to explain the positive aspects of research and create a positive attitude in the civil society, so negative vibes need to be avoided.
INFN was funded almost seventy years ago to pursue research in fundamental physics, at a time where the frontier was still around the atomic nucleus and not deep within it. Quarks would be hypothesized only over a decade later, for instance. So the “N” in the acronym (INFN as Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare) was fully justified despite the fact that the founders were really aiming at understanding Nature at its most intimate levels.
In hindsight, INFN could well have been called “INFF” where one could have a second F for “fundamental”. Yet “nuclear” did not have back then the ominous connotation it has now – even the bad vibes from the recent Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were rather associated with the word “atomic” rather than “nuclear”. Nor was there any idea that the public perception of basic research, social media amplifications and distortions, and communication issues would become so important seventy years later.
And of course INFN indeed also does research in nuclear physics, no less fundamental than that which has more distinctly characterized its activities even in the recent past – large HEP experiments at the major physics labs, such as ATLAS and CMS today. Nuclear matter at the highest temperatures and pressures is studied both at the LHC (with the ALICE experiment) and in other laboratories around the world, and INFN is deeply involved in these endeavours.
Since we cannot change the name of the institute (or can we?), maybe at least we can try and be more proactive in explaining that the real mission of INFN is the deepening of our understanding of fundamental physics and the investigation of applications of the resulting knowledge and technology. We do not build nuclear plants.
Finally I should mention that the word “Physics” comes from Greek “φύσις” which means “nature” -ultimately coming itself from an ancient word (φύω) meaning “growth”. There is nothing innatural in investigating fundamental physics – we study Nature! Maybe this concept should be more publicized through the social-media-dominated communication avenues with the general public. Don’t be hostile to fundamental research in physics: many good things have come from an increased understanding of nuclear and subnuclear physics, and more are yet to come.