Birthplace and date
When I was a child I wanted to be…
a bus driver, I think. And when I was a bit older,
Dan-Olof Riska has worked in physics for 40 years. In a distinguished international career which saw him hold an Assistant Professorship in the USA at the age of 27, he is now Director of the Helsinki Institute of Physics and vice-chairman of CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research based near Geneva.
SIX DEGREES met with Riska at the Physics Campus in Helsinki’s Kumpula district for a chat about the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
How did you first become interested in physics, and what impact has it had in your life?
It was a long time ago! I was interested in maths, but I also knew that mathematicians are not well paid, so I thought that maybe a technical education or engineering might be more practical. In those days it was difficult just to get admitted to study physics at the Helsinki University of Technology.
But as a result my career has become very international. I was lucky that my early research brought me to the US as an Assistant Professor at the age of 27, where I did a lot of teaching.
The great thing about the US really is that they give a lot of responsibility to young people, so although it was a heavy work load, it was also an opportunity not available in Europe for anyone that age. And after nine years in the US, I was able to get a professorship at the University of Helsinki, which was new to me then. So I have been here since 1980. In 2000, I became the Director of the Helsinki Institute of Physics.
And you also work in connection with CERN?
Yes. CERN is a big thing. 20 member states pay an annual subscription, which is a percentage of their GDP. For Finland that amounts to about 11 million euros, just for the pleasure of being a member! But if you want to do some real physics, training and research, you also then have to pay for something else, and that is why this institute exists. People have come from all over to work at CERN. Some facilities in the US have closed, because they just can’t compete. So it is a very big thing. The World Wide Web was created at CERN in Switzerland, as a tool for scientists all over the world to communicate with each other.
And are there also financial benefits for Finland?
There have been, for the past ten years now. And that is because CERN, when it builds equipment, procures that equipment from businesses in member states. And this has gone very well for us. We have Finnish companies that provided essential components to the Large Hadron Collider, including a lot of the superconducting wire, almost all of the electrical power converters and so forth.
Every year CERN produces some statistics on coefficient in returns, and we exceed the break even point quite clearly. Switzerland and France do as well, because the Collider is there, but as we can see in the figures not all countries benefit as much as Finland has done. And this has convinced our policy makers that this is a good thing.
CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is one of the world’s largest centres for scientific research. Its business is fundamental physics, finding out what the universe is made of and how it works. At CERN, the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, are used to study the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles. By studying what happens when these particles collide, physicists learn about the laws of nature.
The instruments used at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors. Accelerators boost beams of particles to high energies before they are made to collide with each other or with stationary targets. Detectors observe and record the results of these collisions.
Founded in 1954, the CERN Laboratory is located right on the Franco–Swiss border near Geneva. It has more than 10,000 registered users coming from all around the world – with more than 1,000 from the US alone. Finnish companies have supplied dosimeters, power converters, superconducting wire and a number of other products to CERN.
Does Finland involve itself enough in physics and international projects such as the Large Hadron Collider?
Oh yes. We have this institute, which does about 95 person years annually, and there are about 35 Finnish citizens employed at CERN. They are not all physicists; there are e.g. ambulance personnel and administrative personnel.
But we are also doing other things, such as organising CERN visits for high school students, and in particular stimulating Finnish businesses to participate in CERN procurement equipment bids. CERN member states have free run of any innovation that is cooked up there. We can just go down there, bring it home and commercialise it. But the idea as well as the people have to be first class. CERN is a very competitive and international place.
What are the most exciting research projects that CERN is working on at the moment?
At this time the most exciting project at CERN is the first high energy collision run with the Large Hadron Collider, which begins in mid February. With a bit of luck this run might lead to production of both the long sought Higgs boson, which could explain why particles have mass and superpartners to the known elementary particles, which form the “dark matter” in the universe.
There has been ongoing controversy concerning the role of nuclear energy in Finland – how do you feel about the current place of nuclear alongside wind, osmotic or tidal power?
For the foreseeable future, there is no way for Finland to avoid using nuclear power. We are totally reliant on electrical power, and at the moment the possible renewables which Finland could use are either not quite there yet or are way too expensive. So far, anyway. It’s wonderful if you have fjords like Norway that you can use for tidal power and so forth, but the wave power in the Baltic is miniscule. And wind power works very well in Denmark, which is hit by the winds off the North Sea, but it is oceans which produce the really heavy winds, and the mountains of Scandinavia protect Finland from the strongest winds.
How much has reactor technology improved since Chernobyl?
A lot. Chernobyl was a graphite-moderated reactor, and as graphite is a combustible substance you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that you are priming yourself for an accident with a substance like that. The reactors deployed in Finland are pressurised water plants which don’t have this problem because water does not burn. And the newer ones are even safer than the older ones in Finland because they have more safety features, although these also make the plants more expensive.
Is physics also engaged in tackling climate change?
Yes. Here in this building is a unit which studies aerosols, which can contribute to warming or cooling depending on what they are. It moves us very close to chemistry, but atmospheric physics is a big thing in Finland in its own right.
There is a group working on an experiment at CERN called Cloud, which uses particle beams to simulate ionisation caused in clouds by cosmic radiation. It looks at how ice particles and ice clouds form in the upper atmosphere, and the effects of particles on clouds and so forth. This is important because there is this political debate as to whether the observed climate change is anthropogenic or if the sun could be causing it.
And that debate is also going on in Finnish newspapers, but the so-called climate sceptics use very crude language. The facts are that the ocean levels are rising and the average world temperature is climbing. There really is incontestable evidence. It is a complex issue, but still, we know what is happening. And again that brings us back to the nuclear issue, that nuclear plants do not emit CO2 – or indeed anything else – but people are still afraid of them.
|The Helsinki Institute of Physics is a physics research institute that is operated jointly by the University of Helsinki, the Aalto University, the University of Jyväskylä, the Lappeenranta University of Technology and the Tampere University of Technology. The mandate of the institute is to conduct research in basic and applied physics as well as in physics research and technology development at international accelerator laboratories. The institute opened in 1997. Graduates from the institute have taken up professorships in Switzerland, the US, Sweden, Belgium, India and Lebanon as well as Finland.|
Is physics moving closer to philosophy, or further away from it?
There isn’t any change in that. Theoretical physics develops such complicated concepts that philosophers are inevitably interested. Physicists sometimes feel that philosophers haven’t contributed much to that debate, but maybe philosophers feel it is the other way around. But we do know that what philosopher-physicists write has not always been accepted in philosophical circles. But the concepts in theoretical physics really are mindboggling.
Physics, and even CERN, play a strange role in popular culture – being referenced in TV series such as ‘Flash Forward’ and in Dan Brown’s ‘Angels & Demons’ – how do you feel about the portrayals?
That movie was very popular with the staff at CERN who got to meet Tom Hanks. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, but I know the social aspect was very popular!