Q&A: Robert Cailliau

Cailliau’s career at CERN spanned almost four decades, during which time he helped build the World Wide Web.

Robert Cailliau
Robert Cailliau, along with Tim Berners-Lee, built the World Wide Web while working at CERN [credit: Julia de Boer]

Robert Cailliau credits his passion for building and the high level of curiosity he retained beyond childhood, unlike most people, for his many achievements. His great interest in human-machine interaction and engineering studies eventually led him to CERN – a shared laboratory, for Europe first and now the world, dedicated to advancing the study of physics. He began his career there in 1974, and over the next few decades was involved in many innovative projects there – including co-building the World Wide Web with Tim Berners-Lee and seeing the creation and evolution of new technology such as the touchscreen.

Having realised the power of communication and, more importantly, miscommunication through the evolution of the web; he spent the last 10 years of his career communicating the new ideas and findings of CERN to the general public. He retired in 2007.

Can you explain what are the aims of CERN?

CERN is a shared science laboratory; specifically for exploring physics. Its aim is to provide scientists with the instruments for their research. These instruments are particle accelerators, machines that have become very large, complex and especially, very difficult to make (the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] is 27-km long and took nearly 20 years to build).  

CERN is therefore a place where exceptional research is done using exceptional instruments, in a shared environment. Contrary to myth, it is not expensive: CERN’s budget is about the same as that of a large university – but it provides facilities for all the world’s high-energy physicists and in the process, gives the public a lot of return in the form of high technology.

The best known spin-off is the World Wide Web, but there have been many others such as the touchscreen and the PET scanner in your hospital. I submit that the value of these spin-offs largely outweighs the budget.

How have the objectives of CERN evolved?

The basic objectives have always been the same and are extremely simple: (1) do basic research in physics, (2) publish the results to the world. The first one also means: no commercial or military applications; the second one means that all scientific results are open for everyone to inspect.

CERN was founded by a number of European States in 1954 and entirely paid for by their contributions. Since then more countries have joined, and financial mechanisms have been put in place to let any state join in the research. CERN is now a world laboratory, but its basic mission is still the same: study physics and tell the results.

How is research carried out at CERN?

That most interesting aspect is that the work done at CERN is evidence based. In research, unlike in politics, there are no opinions, no respect for authority, no prejudices, no power influences and no religious tenets – only the result of the experiment is the basis of your conclusions.

Of course, the work is done by people and they start out with human opinions and so on. And obviously, teams of scientist will compete to discover unknown effects first and perhaps get a Nobel Prize. But in the end, it is always the reproducible evidence that counts, and nothing else.

The best example I can give about reproducible results and fact-based experiments is the current mystery surrounding the neutrino particles that CERN sends to the Gran Sasso laboratory and that seem to arrive there faster than the speed of light. According to our understanding of nature, nothing can go faster than the speed of light.  

Very probably, there is a calculation or measurement error in the neutrino speed, we do not know yet. But should it turn out that some particles indeed do go faster than the speed of light, nobody will call up the “authority” of Einstein, or the “power” of the Director General to deny such a result. Nobody would deny facts.  

What would happen is a very intense activity all over the world to produce a better theory of physics that would explain all the old evidence as well as the new faster-than-light observation. Because if there is no measurement error, then we have found a new fact and we have to change our minds in the face of that evidence. Our ideas of how nature operates would have to change.

If the experiment where neutrinos appeared to travel faster than the speed of light can be reproduced in another laboratory, what kind of reaction do you expect from the scientific community?

There will never be resistance to facts. That’s the way this works – since a long time, since Newton. Newton’s laws of gravity have worked extremely well. However, scientists look for places where these laws do not apply. If we simply accepted these theories, and went along with the rules we wouldn’t learn anything. Newton’s laws are good enough to put a rocket on the moon and send people to Mars and you will not make a mistake – as long as you do not travel too fast.

If you start travelling too fast – really fast – you will find Newton’s laws are not precise enough. You then have to add a correction which is Einstein’s relativity and the formula becomes more complicated. But, for the low speeds you would get the same results and formulas. The new theory didn’t say Newton was wrong, only that it was an approximation.
If the neutrinos indeed go faster than speed of light, then we will have to make another correction.

But I can also tell you that for the large number of applications of relativity, nothing would change. Just like relativity did not make it necessary to adapt all our calculations on planes and rockets, it will not be necessary to change the GPS system which takes relativity into account. Without doing so, it would be wrong – you would get an error of one kilometre per day, your positions would go off.

But if this neutrino speed turns out to be true, your GPS will not stop working – but you will say in the 20th decimal place we will have to make a correction. The underlying way of thinking, the paradigm will have to change, it’s true, but it won’t affect the daily life.

We could go back further back in time when people thought earth was flat. If you look around, for all intents and purposes within the travel distance you can go on a horse, the earth is flat. First of all, since relativity has been working well for 100 years, what do you do when somebody comes up and says it’s contradicted by this experiment?

The first thing you say is there’s probably an error somewhere. The US and Japan are independently working to try to see if they can reproduce the experiment. Something that happens once is a fluke – you need to consistently get the same result. There may be some lump of material in the earth’s crust that people haven’t thought about that causes this effect. We don’t know. It’s necessary to reproduce this fact many times and see if others can find it too. Then it becomes much more interesting.

What is the most interesting thing that has been discovered at CERN?

“Most interesting” is a matter of opinion. Several important discoveries have been made at CERN; others have been confirmed with great precision by CERN’s instruments. All of them are impossible to describe without going into mathematics. Personally, I would suggest that the discovery of the intermediate bosons was a great achievement, but why I think so needs a little story.  

Throughout all ages, humans have tried to understand the world they live in. At first, explanations took the form of supernatural influences, but as instruments became better, observations became reproducible and less influenced by the limitations of our human senses: anyone could set up a laboratory and register the same unmistakable evidence, each laboratory perhaps using instruments of a different kind. Gradually that led to the discovery of the properties of matter and of forces.  

Things are easier to understand when you can order your knowledge in a few rules, so as more and more facts were noted and measured, theories (sets of rules) were developed to explain the evidence. These rules are known as “laws of physics”, but as I pointed out earlier, they have to be adapted as new facts appear that do not follow the hitherto known rules.

But there were several different sets that seemed to work each in its own environment. The first important fusing of two such sets was achieved by Maxwell when he showed that electricity, magnetism and light were in fact different manifestations of a single phenomenon.  

One hundred and fifty years on, we still find new applications of Maxwell’s formulations. CERN’s discovery of the intermediate bosons confirmed that electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force are similarly a manifestation of one phenomenon.

The so-called “Standard Model” tries to fuse all known phenomena into one theory that can be used to predict the behaviour of nature, and it predicted the existence of the bosons even though they had not then been observed. Finding real bosons with CERN’s instruments was an important confirmation of the Standard Model. Note that I carefully avoid saying it “proved” the theory: theories cannot be proved to be true; they can only be proved to be false (viz. when some evidence is discovered that they do not explain).

The Standard Model is not complete however, because it does not include gravity. The current search for the Higgs boson, the experiment for which the LHC was designed, is one part in the search for a better unified formulation that would include gravity.

When you were developing the World Wide Web, what was the original intention for that system with respect to CERN?

The web is the first spin-off of the building of the LHC; it was intended to provide an automatic library of documents about the experiments using the LHC. Those experiments would be done at CERN, but by large groups of physicists who would come from all over the world and therefore need access to documents over the network when they were back at their universities.  

Both Tim and I independently put forward the idea to make that automatic electronic library by using hypertext over a network. Tim’s proposal was based on the internet as infrastructure and was therefore better, and I changed my mind in the face of evidence. The internet at the end of the 80s had been entirely built by academic institutes, often against the pressures of existing telecoms.

It was not the best possible infrastructure (and still is not), but it was the only thing that worked over the entire world. So that is why the web was called “world-wide” from the very start: the infrastructure on which it ran, the internet, was already world-wide among universities.

When did you realise it would become something much bigger?

Well, it did not become bigger; it just went into more layers of society than academia. With that spreading into other strata came also all the evils: spam e-mail, malware, identity theft and so on – none of which existed on the internet before 1994. It was this infiltration by evils that warned me that the web was going to be pervasive and also that the infrastructure (the internet) was not good enough to cope with the bad elements of society. But that is another book’s worth of stories.

When setting up the World Wide Web, very few restrictions were set up for how it would be used – or at least that’s how it seems today. Considering that, would you have done anything different now?

This is not Facebook, this is the web – it’s like paper or air. I mean anybody can do anything they like with it. We set up a standard; we did not provide the infrastructure which was put in place by individuals. We provided a standard way of setting up sites and there was no constraint there any way. We are not a commercial company; we do not have lawyers – it’s in the public domain.

The internet was already there, it was an infrastructure very similar to the telephone, meaning that there too, you may have restrictions set up by some government – but not by other governments in other countries. It’s the same in the internet: it’s a way of doing things, not a brand name. In fact, nobody can tell you how to speak or form your language grammar; it’s just an agreed way of doing it. If you make a spelling mistake they can laugh, but they can’t put you in prison. It’s similar with the internet, and with the web.

The web is not the same as such futile things as Facebook, which are controlled by one company where you have to sign up. The web is not like that, anyone can set up a website. It’s sort of like if I want my money to be handled by my bank, I make a contract and we are both bound. But the web is not like that, we couldn’t have made it constrained. It doesn’t even apply. It’s a concept which has no meaning because there is no contract between people, governments, etc.

All that we needed to have was to give people guidelines so they would use the same method of using the web. Again, we could not forbid people from introducing different html tags, and in fact, Microsoft and Netscape did – to this day, Microsoft doesn’t implement the standard. You can’t force people, but if there is no organisation like the web consortium to say this is the standard, then you have incompatibilities.

But these organisations are made up of the big players in the field, academics, commercial – they try to make the technology as compatible as possible. This is an engineering problem – not political or financial. You can make an electrical appliance that works on 60 volts, but if you do that you won’t sell it. So the electrical engineers come together and say that a standard is best.

How do you feel about how pervasive the web has become in everyday life, around the world?

It’s fine with me. I only use the parts I’m interested in. But never confuse the web with other services such as electricity. Unlike electric power nets, information networks grab you by the brain. To deal with the web you have to think, learn and know what you are doing. Manipulators are out there bombarding you with useless, wrong or subtly misleading information in a virtual world that has no real legal framework. A World Wide Web must be governed by a world-wide legal system.  

Unfortunately, we have not got one, so we are subjected to commercial empires that may or may not remain benevolent dictatorships, like Facebook, Google, Twitter and others. The manipulators behind them are not even directly connected to them: they are the advertisers. I feel that the triangle of user-service-advertiser is an unstable arrangement, and I don’t know what will become of it.

It seems like everyone’s private lives are accessible through the internet? Was this something you anticipated?

Privacy is a personal question, it’s your choice what you do on the internet. If you feel an enormous peer pressure that tells you that you must have Facebook and must post all of your photos, OK fine, great. That’s like whatever else you do in your life: you put your name on your door, or not. It’s more a matter of education and knowing what you put or don’t put out there.

Also important is, understanding the contract you sign when you sign up with companies like Skype or Facebook or Twitter or whatever. Because there, you’re not on the internet or even on the web – you’re now directly in contact with a commercial company (such as Google).

They are not the web. They live there – if you think of the web as a city and those as shops, then you walk along and can choose to go into the shop. You agree to the contract, agree to give away your privacy. If you shop on Amazon and it records all of your activity, it’s because you agreed that this would happen. It’s all in the small print that nobody reads, and the services provided are so convenient – so you pay with your privacy.

There is a problem on a higher level which is how do we control these services so that the companies behave decently. That’s the big question.

And there, the problem is that we have no way to pay for these services. Therefore, it’s paid for by ads. This was very well expressed by an incident on Facebook where a page was taken off because it contained bad language or something not very nice. They took it off because people complained. This is directly against free speech and against that person’s decision to publish. So why did they do it? They did it because if they left it there, advertisers would not like to advertise on those pages. So they’re censoring you by their own rules – over which you have no control because of the ad revenue.

This is very much like a communist regime, and some still around the world today. I’m sure that if I put the contents of my site on Facebook, some pages would be taken off.

What can you and what can you not say? By what rules do they decide? They’re a commercial company, it’s not your page, you don’t own it. It’s like if you park your car in a paid parking garage or valet parking, you hand not only the car over to them but also the keys. So that’s a bit like how your private information is for these companies. It’s not under your control – they do what they like, what’s in their interest.

Source: Al Jazeera