By Matin Durrani in Trieste, Italy
It was a small touch, but certainly quite surprising.
To kick off the opening session of the 50th-anniversary meeting of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), no-one spoke. Instead, the lights were dimmed until the audience was sitting in total darkness. Then emerged the voice of the ICTP’s founding father – the Pakistani theorist Abdus Salam, who died in 1996 – as a film started rolling on the screen at the front of the lecture hall. This was followed by a series of short video messages from selected physicists from around the world who benefited from the support of the ICTP early in their careers. As one physicist put it, the ICTP was “the launching pad” for their career. “It is a rare opportunity that so many people dream about,” added another.
After the lights were turned back up, Fernando Quevedo, the current director of the ICTP, began proceedings more formally, calling the centre “a unique institution that brings scientific excellence to all corners of the world” that has also helped to raise the profile of science around the planet. “Our path over the past 50 years has not been easy though,” Quevedo cautioned, praising the financial support given to the ICTP over the years from the Italian government, the International Atomic Energy Agency and UNESCO, along with other individuals who have supported it. Quevedo also talked about the ICTP’s initiatives in new areas such as energy, its opening of satellite centres in countries like Brazil, and its launch of Master’s programmes, saying that the next few years would see the “consolidation” of those new efforts. Helping to get more women into science was another key area for the ICTP, Quevedo added.
Luciano Maiani, who was director-general of CERN from 1998 to 2002, then read out a letter of support from the Italian president. He was followed by Mario Giro, under-secretary of state at the Italian foreign ministry, who claimed that more than 120,000 people have worked at the ICTP over the years. “There is no future without science,” he added.
Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, was up next, calling Trieste a “world city for science” and saying Salam had been “a humanist and true genius”. She praised the ICTP for being the first global scientific organization ever created and called for even closer ties between it and UNESCO. Further messages of congratulation followed from IAEA boss Yukiya Amano and the secretary-generals of both the World Meteorological Organization and the International Telecommunications Union.
I’m glad it was Monday morning as there’s only so much of these opening addresses that one can take, but current CERN director-general Rolf-Dieter Heuer, who has a knack of engaging well with audiences, gave proceedings a lighter touch. “50 years ago Abdus Salam had a dream – scientific and technological education for everybody but particularly those from developing countries – and today we see that this dream has become reality,” he said. “It’s a fantastic centre and I’m delighted Salam’s family are here to join that success. Science bridges cultures and nations, and the ICTP is a prime example of that.” Heuer then joked that CERN had just finished celebrating its 60th birthday, but said that an older sibling can always learn from a younger member of the family. He also talked about the importance of promoting science to young people and had to restrain himself from launching into an off-script rant about how people don’t realize that science is so much around us, not least in the now ubiqutous smartphones and tablet devices.
Wrapping up proceedings of the first morning session was the award of the 2013 ICTP prize to two early-career researchers: Yasaman Farzan from the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences in Tehran, Iran, for her work on neutrinos and CP violation, and to Patchanita Thamyongkit of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok for her studies of organic and semiconductor materials for solar cells. Finally, the ICTP’s main lecture hall was dedicated to ICTP co-founder Paolo Budinich, who I mentioned in yesterday’s post.