University of Birmingham leads collision of science and philosophy at CERN

Professor Nicholas Adams (third from left) and colleagues prepare for discussions at CERN’s IdeaSquare innovation centre, in Geneva.

An international team of philosophy experts met with scientists at CERN, in Switzerland, to spot the next unlikely social movement that will generate ideas leading to radical scientific innovation.

Led by Nicholas Adams, Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Birmingham, the diverse team of philosophers travelled to the home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), in Geneva, to stage a two-day workshop on the philosophy of innovation.

Scientists and philosophers gathered at CERN's new centre for innovation, IdeaSquare, whose purpose is to bring together researchers with the next generation of students who want to address tomorrow's big societal challenges.

Professor Adams said: “CERN is a centre for cutting-edge scientific research, so we tried to complement that by assembling a team of experts in the humanities. We focussed on the relationship between specified rules and spontaneous ways of thinking that can generate new rules.

'There are well-developed debates in German philosophy from the late 1700s and early 1800s which centre on the role of language and freedoms associated with poetry, visual arts, and music. Philosophers like Schelling and Schleiermacher were very interested in how to articulate what cannot be grasped in concepts – saying the unsayable.”

Also taking part in the workshop were Markus Nordberg, Pablo Garcia Tello and Tuuli Maria Utriainen (IdeaSquare at CERN), Professor Andrew Bowie (Royal Holloway), Robert Gibbs (Toronto) and Timothy Jenkins (Cambridge), connected through consultant to CERN Professor John Wood.

The workshop group covered theoretical physics, technology transfer, materials science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of music, Jewish philosophy and philosophical dimensions of social anthropology.

“The ‘holy grail’ is for us to spot the next unlikely social movement that will generate the ideas that lead to radical scientific innovation,” said Professor Adams. “But as anyone who has attempted grail quests over the last two thousand years can attest, it's an uncertain business.”

The project’s next phase will be to identify the organising principles around discussions in the workshop and detect patterns of thinking in the stories of innovation that accompany scientific discovery over the last century.

Markus Nordberg, Head of Resources Development and Manager of IdeaSquare, commented: “Our focus is to create new ideas through cycles of prototyping, by bringing together leading researchers and cross-disciplinary student teams at the early stage of an idea - thinking the impossible, not the obvious.

“We are really asking ourselves what makes new ideas possible? What are the conditions for new ideas and what shapes does new thinking take? We invited Professor Adams to bring a team of philosophers to help us think through these issues.

“It was one of the most unusual teams we have hosted, bringing ideas that changed how we think about innovation. We didn't know if it would work - that's the whole point of experimentation - but it did.”

Researchers from the University of Birmingham designed and built detectors for the ATLAS experiment at CERN, where protons are smashed together at high speeds in the LHC to create and discover new particles, such as the Higgs Boson.

Scientists from Birmingham and the University of Lincoln are developing a medical imaging system based on ATLAS detectors. OPTIma (Optimising Proton Therapy through Imaging) will be used at the new NHS high energy proton beam therapy centre, based at the Christie Hospital Manchester, to create 3D images of the internal anatomy of cancer patients.

ENDS

For more information, please contact Tony Moran, International Communications Manager, University of Birmingham on +44 (0) 121 414 8254 or +44 (0)782 783 2312. For out-of-hours enquiries, please call +44 (0) 7789 921 165.

Notes for editors

  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.