Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi yesterday stood on a platform 100 metres underground, dwarfed by the most cutting edge technology in the world, at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva and put his arm around Nicholas Sammut.

"This Maltese scientist has shown what Malta is capable of," he said, against the background of a 14-metre-wide cylinder that runs through a 27-kilometre-long loop, known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), that costs €3 billion.

"We are really proud of him."

Dr Gonzi was at CERN to sign a five-year memorandum of understanding with the research institute because he believes there are many others in Malta like Dr Sammut who could benefit from collaboration with CERN - and who would return to Malta to create a research community there, paving the way for Malta to attract high-tech companies that would require such resources. And the fact that Dr Sammut saved CERN hundreds of millions of euros by working day and night to design a control system for the magnets that deflect the proton beams in the collider shows that there is something in this for CERN too.

The memorandum is just the first step of this collaboration with CERN, which already has 20 member countries and dozens of other partners ranging from India to Russia.

CERN director general Robert Aymar said that membership would come as a natural progression of collaboration. It would involve the payment of an annual fee related to the country's GDP, which would work out to somewhere around €300,000, a drop in the €610 million annual budget, but nonetheless one which could result in various projects being funnelled to Malta.

Of course, these projects would not need to be directly involved in particle physics: Projects of this complexity need input in mechanical and electrical engineering, software and computer modelling and numerous other sectors.

An important part of the collaboration will be the provision of hands-on training, for which there is a definite thirst. A total of 48 students applied for the three places on the CERN summer school.

"We want to encourage people to believe that a high-tech career is possible and that it would be successful, even in Malta," Dr Sammut said.

He has already identified 15 projects on which Malta could collaborate and has talks under way with corporate sponsors - as well as with other research institutes with which Malta could collaborate, such as the European Space Agency.

"The MOU is simply a handshake but it will trigger talks with other entities interested in high-energy physics," he said. "But there are many other aspects of it from engineering to IT where Malta could make a contribution - and get much in return. Since we do not have that much money available for research, it makes sense for us to build on existing infrastructure. And if you go for something big then there are many more spin-offs than if you go for something smaller."

There are various models of cooperation, with various levels of funding or training support from CERN. The next step will be for CERN officials to visit Malta. It will then be down to the government to put money on the table.

"Do we go for membership or do we go for alternative arrangements? That is what we now have to decide but I hope that a decision will be taken very soon," Dr Gonzi said.

University rector Juanito Camilleri said people should realise what an important step this memorandum was as it was a very strong sign that the government was willing to make a commitment to research.

"Many people are still sceptical about whether the University should move away from being a teaching institution but in the modern world it must get involved in research," he said.

"Nicholas is an example of the world-class standard graduates coming out of the University but we now have to build up a community of researchers. This cannot be done without direct communication with prestigious institutions like these."

What is a large hadron collider?

This is "Gee whizz!" science at its best.

The scientists at CERN will be taking protons, some of the particles that make up the heart - or nucleus - of an atom, and whizzing them round a 27-kilometre tunnel. The protons are whipped into a frenzy by magnets, accelerating to nearly the speed of light (the maximum speed attainable in physics). The protons are eventually concentrated into a beam measuring just 30 microns, a third the diameter of a human hair. Beams travelling in different directions are forced to cross at set points and data is gathered on the 40 million collisions that take place every second, in the hope of spotting something unexpected.

The scale is awe inspiring: The collisions will generate the same amount of energy as 350 cars travelling at 150 kilometres an hour crashing head on.

The amount of data emitted from the collisions is similarly phenomenal - the equivalent of everyone on the planet making 10 phone calls simultaneously - and to get it down to more feasible amounts, it is immediately scanned, with information on 100,000 collisions passed on to a bank of 4,000 PCs, which then analyse about 100 of them.

Even so, the information will be generated for years on end and the only way to deal with it is to parcel it out to other institutes located all around the world. Doing this required the creation of a new type of internet connection, called the Grid, which CERN is already putting into place (CERN invented the worldwide web).

"It would take 100,000 PCs to analyse the 15 million gigabytes of information and, as it is not feasible for us to do that here on our own, we will use PCs all over the world," CERN director general Robert Aymar explained.

The scientists are gleefully vague about what they hope to find; project coordinator David Barney explained that not finding anything would in many ways be just as remarkable as finding what theory has said should be there, such as the Higgs Boson, the hypotethical force that creates mass in nuclear particles for which no explanation has so far been found.

The LHC project started in 1992 and will be ready to go by May. It will run for at least 10 years, probably 15, and, in that time, the scientists have no doubt that crucial new understanding about our world will emerge.

"Every single snowflake has a different geometry but once we understood the geometry of the water molecule, we understood the snowflakes. If we understand the most basic building blocks that make up all matter, imagine how much more we will understand about the matter itself," technical coordinator Austin Ball explained.

No one can say what the practical applications of this knowledge will be. But as Nicholas Sammut said, when Michael Faraday discovered electricity in the 1850s, no one at the time could see what its use would be.

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