Grand ideas first,  obstacles later

I’m vaguely disappointed to see Nature jumping on the “Changed the world” bandwagon—not least because their essay series is basically world-changing as reported by the (self-reported) world-changers. In my perfect (changed!) world we’d have counter-narratives by people who attended other, equally-important-seeming meetings at roughly the same time. I should note, though, that if CERN’s now-operational Large Hadron Collider defies the physicists’ consensus and does wind up spawning a black hole that sucks up the entire planet—well then I’ll tip my extremely dense, extremely small hat to CERN’s founders as world-changers indeed.

Creative ideas are not always solo strokes of genius, argues Ed Catmull, the computer-scientist president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. Frequently, he says, the best ideas emerge when talented people from different disciplines work together.

This week, Nature begins a series of six Essays that illustrate Catmull’s case. Each recalls a conference in which a creative outcome emerged from scientists pooling ideas, expertise and time with others — especially policy-makers, non-governmental organizations and the media. Each is written by someone who was there, usually an organizer or the meeting chair. Because the conferences were chosen for their societal consequences, we’ve called our series ‘Meetings that Changed the World’.

This week, François de Rose relives the drama of the December 1951 conference at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris that led to the creation of CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory based near Geneva (see page 174). De Rose, then France’s representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, chaired the meeting. He had got caught up in the process after becoming friends with Robert Oppenheimer, one of CERN’s earliest proponents. De Rose said in a separate interview with Nature that CERN was the result of the capacity of scientists such as Oppenheimer to propose grand ideas, and worry about obstacles later.

Although this approach does not always work, the next few weeks will show that it really has changed the world. In the ensuing half-century, CERN has revolutionized our understanding of the subatomic world; with the switching-on this week of the Large Hadron Collider (see page 156) it promises to scale new heights.


Originally published at culture-making.com.

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