CERN, Switzerland / by Alastair Wiper

CERN is a wonderful place. Human beings do magnificent things there. It is the birthplace of the internet, and it is the home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the worlds largest particle accelerator.The laboratories of CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) are located in a suburb of Geneva, straddling the border between Switzerland and France. CERN was established in 1954, and since then thousands of scientists from all over the world have been working there at any one point. As I was walking around the corridors, I had a peep into the offices that have been home to some of those scientists over the years; there was a desk, a blackboard with some complicated equations on it, and usually a scientist looking contemplatively out of the window. Scientists throughout history have spent their careers working on minute details of incredibly complicated theories and experiments and few of them ever have a world-changing breakthrough, or become the next Einstein. But knowing that they are contributing towards something bigger, and the thirst for knowledge and truth, is enough to keep them going. It's just human instinct, like sex, and war.


Part of the Large Hadron Collider being maintained.A lot of different experiments are carried out at CERN, but the best known of these are the ones that involve the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC sits in a circular tunnel 100m under the ground, stretching from Geneva airport to the Jura mountains in a big 27km loop. The main task of the LHC is to smash protons together with a lot of energy and analyse the results. I'm going to use my limited and flaky knowledge, picked up while I was there, to try to explain very simply how this works. Hold on to your hats. Basically, protons are fed through a series of particle accelerators (circular tubes that use magnets to speed up the protons, thus creating more energy - the oldest one at CERN, still in use, was built in 1957) until they are going extremely quickly. When they are going fast enough, two of them are shot out into the LHC in opposite directions to travel the full 27km, picking up more speed along the way, and then they smash head on into each other at just the right point. This is like "firing two needles across the Atlantic and getting them to hit each other", according to the LHC's main engineer Steve Myers, director for accelerators and technology at the laboratory. One of the things they have been looking for is the "Higgs boson" particle, and they think they found it this year, confirming one of the most important theories in modern physics. For more on this, you could do a lot better than getting me to try to explain it - but what a great name.


The AD Hall, where antiprotons are slowed down to 10% of the speed of light, in order to carry out research into antimatter.

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