The year 1968 was critical in the history of post-war Europe and remains engraved in our collective memory. Global politics were marked by massive student unrest and continuing East–West confrontation.

Against this background, it seems a miracle that the European Physical Society (EPS) was established on 26 September. The EPS was probably the first learned society in Europe involving physicists from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Ever since, building scientific bridges across political divides has been core to the society’s mission.

Gilberto Bernardini enrolls as a member of the European Physical Society in 1968. Bernardini was CERN’s first director of research and first president of EPS. (Image: CERN)

The EPS was founded in Geneva not by accident. Whereas CERN did not play a formal role, the CERN model of European cooperation made a substantial impact on the genesis of the new society. CERN was at that time principally an organisation of Western European states, but it had started early to develop scientific collaboration with the Soviet Union and other Eastern countries, notably through the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna. Leading CERN physicists – including Director-General Bernard Gregory – were instrumental in setting up the new society; Gilberto Bernardini, who had been CERN’s first director of research in 1960–1961 and was a strong advocate of international collaboration in science, became the first EPS president. From the 20 national physical societies and similar organisations that participated in the 1968 foundation, this has now grown to 42, covering almost all of Europe plus Israel, and representing more than 130,000 members. In addition, there are about 42 associate members – mostly major research institutions including CERN – and, last but not least, around 3500 individual members.

Today, the EPS serves the European physics community in a twofold way: by promoting collaboration across borders and disciplines, through activities such as conferences, publications and prizes; and by reaching out to political decision makers, media and the public  to promote awareness of the importance of physics education and research.

Rüdiger Voss is the President of the European Physical Society. A former CERN Physicist, he was also Head of CERN’s International Relations from 2013 to 2016.

This extract is part of a longer viewpoint in the October issue of the CERN Courier.
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