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CERN: glorious past, exciting future

Today, 60 years ago, the visionary convention establishing the European Organization for Nuclear Research – better known with its French acronym, CERN – entered into force, marking the beginning of an extraordinary scientific adventure that has profoundly changed science, technology, and society, and that is still far from over.

With other pan-European institutions established in the late 1940s and early 1950s — like the Council of Europe and the European Coal and Steel Community — CERN shared the same founding goal: to coordinate the efforts of European countries after the devastating losses and large-scale destruction of World War II. Europe had in particular lost its scientific and intellectual leadership, and many scientists had fled to other countries. Time had come for European researchers to join forces towards creating of a world-leading laboratory for fundamental science.

Sixty years after its foundation, CERN is today the largest scientific laboratory in the world, with more than 2000 staff members and many more temporary visitors and fellows. It hosts the most powerful particle accelerator ever built. It also hosts exhibitions, lectures, shows, meetings, and debates, providing a forum of discussion where science meets industry and society.

What has happened in these six decades of scientific research? As a physicist, I should probably first mention the many ground-breaking discoveries in Particle Physics, such as the discovery of some of the most fundamental building block of matter, like the W and Z bosons in 1983; the measurement of the number of neutrino families at LEP in 1989; and of course the recent discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, which prompted the Nobel Prize in Physics to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert in 2013.

But looking back at the glorious history of this laboratory, much more comes to mind: the development of technologies that found medical applications such as PET scans; computer science applications such as globally distributed computing, that finds application in many fields ranging from genetic mapping to economic modeling; and the World Wide Web, that was developed at CERN as a network to connect universities and research laboratories.

CERN Control Center (2).jpg
“CERN Control Center (2)” by Martin Dougiamas – Flickr: CERN control center. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve ever asked yourself what such a laboratory may look like, especially if you plan to visit it in the future and expect to see building with a distinctive sleek, high-tech look, let me warn you that the first impression may be slightly disappointing. When I first visited CERN, I couldn’t help noticing the old buildings, dusty corridors, and the overall rather grimy look of the section hosting the theory institute. But it was when an elevator brought me down to visit the accelerator that I realized what was actually happening there, as I witnessed the colossal size of the detectors, and the incredible degree of sophistication of the technology used. ATLAS, for instance, is a 25 meters high, 25 meters wide and 45 meters long detector, and it weighs about 7,000 tons!

The 27-km long Large Hadron Collider is currently shut down for planned upgrades. When new beams of protons will be circulated in it at the end of 2014, it will be at almost twice the energy reached in the previous run. There will be about 2800 bunches of protons in its orbit, each containing several hundred billion protons, separated by – as in a car race, the distance between bunches can be expressed in units of time – 250 billionths of a second. The energy of each proton will be compared to that of a flying mosquito, but concentrated in a single elementary particle. And the energy of an entire bunch of protons will be comparable to that of a medium-sized car launched at highway speed.

Why these high energies? Einstein’s E=mc2 tells us that energy can be converted to mass, so by colliding two protons with very high energy, we can in principle produce very heavy particles, possibly new particles that we have never before observed. You may wonder why we would expect that such new particles exist. After all we have already successfully created Higgs bosons through very high-energy collisions, what can we expect to find beyond that? Well, that’s where the story becomes exciting.

Some of the best motivated theories currently under scrutiny in the scientific community – such as Supersymmetry – predict that not only should new particles exist, but they could explain one of the greatest mysteries in Cosmology: the presence of large amounts of unseen matter in the Universe, which seem to dominate the dynamics of all structures in the Universe, including our own Milky Way galaxy — Dark Matter.

Identifying in our accelerators the substance that permeates the Universe and shapes its structure would represent an important step forward in our quest to understand the Cosmos, and our place in it. CERN, 60 years and still going strong, is rising up to challenge.

Headline image credit: An example of simulated data modeled for the CMS particle detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Image by Lucas Taylor, CERN. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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