Center for European Nuclear Research

In near absolute zero vacuum, particles are accelerated at the speed of light towards one another in a experiment to understand the very nature of the universe. This is not some piece of science fiction but a real life experiment that is being conducted at the European Union’s Large Hadron Collider housed at the Center for European Nuclear Research (or commonly, CERN). Like the NSF, and the DoE laboratories, CERN serves as the European Union’s epicenter for particle physics that pushes the very boundary of what is possible. Yet, how did CERN come to be formed? What are the various projects that were made possible because of CERN? Let us take a journey, you and I, into the very heart of the home to the world’s largest particle accelerator.

CERN’s history begins with the end of WWII when French scientist, Louis de Broglie, proposed to form a European Laboratory at the European Cultural Conference. This proposal, coupled with American Scientist’s, Isidor Rabi, proposal at the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) meeting to assist Europe in building a regional laboratory system. In 1951, at a conference for UNESCO, the European Council for Nuclear Research signed an agreement to formally create the CERN laboratory.


The CERN laboratory began construction in 1954 in Geneva, Switzerland. The facility was designed to be built undergroud; due to the immense facility needed to house the accelerators being built. In 1957, the first CERN synchrocyclotron was brought online and provided nuclear physicists the opportunity to beam particles of light in controlled experiments. In addition to the synchrocyclotron, CERN was also home to the world’s most powerful particle accelerator at the time, the Proton Synchrotron. To this day, the Proton Synchrotron provides particle physicists the opportunity to supply power, 28 Gigaelectronvolts (GeV), to study particle physics. To give a frame of reference, it takes 9.16 GeV to power the United States. That’s almost three times the power it takes to power the United States! Most of this goes towards the Large Hadron Collider to expand the energy capacity of the new accelerator.

Map showing the location of the Large Hadron Collider and Super Proton Synchrotron. Image credit: Zykure/CC-SA.

Large Hadron Collider

In 2008, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)  came online at CERN, and to this day, remains the most powerful accelerator in the world. To power this experiment, it will take 120 MegaWatts to power the LHC. Due to the immense power of the LHC, particles are smashed together at higher velocities; which could yield better results for understanding the data. One of the main questions the LHC tries to answer is the presence of the Higgs Boson, a particle that is part of the Higgs field, which gives particles mass. In 2012, scientists from the LHC reported detecting a particle at 126 GeV that correlated with the Higgs particle.

The Large Hadron Collider. Photo provided by CERN.

From its inception, CERN has helped to push the field of particle physics to frontiers that were unimaginable. Who knows what the future will hold in the coming decades as particle physicists continue to enhance CERN’s accelerators to uncover new discoveries.

For future efforts, CERN has several projects that are being implemented to build upon the successes at the laboratory. One key project is the High Luminosity Project, an upgrade of the LHC that will increase the capabilities to detect 15 million boson particles per year; compared to the 1.2 million currently being produced at the LHC’s current capacity. Another project at CERN is the Proton Driven Plasma Wakefield Acceleration Experiment (AWAKE) with the Super Proton Synchrotron. This experiment would utilize particles beamed through plasma sources to generate intense energy levels at shorter distances; thus increasing the energy capacity of the synchrotron. Finally, the Future Circular Collider Study (FCC) would provide more powerful collisions in the particle collisions of the LHC. The energy levels propoed would be around 100 TeV, or 100,000 GeV.

A schematic map showing where the Future Circular Collider tunnel is proposed to be located. (Image: CERN)

To conclude, the CERN laboratory is a magnificent example of the power of particle physics in unlocking the secrets of the universe. With increased potential, the LHC could provide new lines of research into physics that could not have been made possible up until now. I envy the work that these brave scientists do each and every day to unlock the secrets of particles and how understanding physics could be the key to unlocking new technologies of the future.

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