In the quest to improve the quality of life in developing countries, people focus on key barometers of affluence: literacy rates, affordable food supplies, poverty rates, and long life spans. Few people think about science, particularly the esoteric branch of high-energy particle physics, as a grassroots growth engine.
But it can be. A good example is the Pierre Auger Observatory in Malargüe, Argentina, a rural area of isolated ranches nestled in pampas at the base of the Andes Mountains.
There are many notable qualities of the Pierre Auger collaboration and its impact on the community of Malargüe, a town where physicists are rock stars. Politicians take pride in the observatory and have used it to promote Malargüe as a destination for science tourism. A modern conference center, a planetarium and improved schools are all a result of the adoption of physics by political representatives and the local population. The then-mayor of Malargüe, who supported Pierre Auger, is now the governor of Mendoza province after being a senator for Mendoza in Buenos Aires--a meteoric career propelled by cosmic air showers.
As we left Malargüe Sunday morning to return to the U.S., the physicists and staff of Pierre Auger were getting ready to take part in the annual parade celebrating the founding of Malargüe as an independent town. Traditionally, the loudest cheers along the parade are for the Pierre Auger team.
The experiments presence has found its way into everyday life in other small ways. The 1600 cosmic ray detectors spread across 3000 square kilometers of pampas require power. Stringing power lines would cost millions of dollars so instead the collaboration devised a system of solar panels to power the detectors and as backup power supplies at the four communication system locations, which use a somewhat unreliable local power grid.
Local ranchers have noticed the solar panels and their effectiveness.
"Those who can afford it now have solar panels on their buildings," said Peter Mazur, a physicist on the project. "They supply enough power for small appliances and radios. We see more and more of that. We weren't see that when we first came there."
Helping Latin American countries participate in large-scale physics experiments has been a decades-long goal of Fermilab, which has been a big player in managing the Pierre Auger experiment. Members of the laboratory have been recognized numerous times by Latin American groups for their contributions to growing Latin American research.
Former Fermilab director Leon Lederman reached out to Latin American countries 25 years ago to create a broader base for particle physics, which had traditionally been cost-prohibitive for many nations. He launched programs to train theorists and experimentalists at Fermilab as members of large collaborations, through graduate student programs and partnership with Latin American universities. Latin American experimenters now play roles in many of the world's primary particle physics experiments, including at Fermilab and CERN, bringing knowledge and diversity to the scientific field as well as to their home countries.
More on the Pierre Auger Observatory from symmetry:
Numbers - the observatory in numbers
Let it rain - general feature about the observatory
On the trail of cosmic bullets - some recent scientific results from Pierre Auger