CERN helps us understand the universe and our interconnectedness.
By: D. Momanaee
Photos: CERN, iStockPhoto
Somewhere in the Swiss/French countryside, right now, there’s a proton, a particle of an atom, being propelled by superconducting magnets 100 meters underground through a tube in a loop that is 27 kilometers in circumference, and that proton is traveling at about 0.999999991 times the speed of light. Its mission? To smash into another particle or surface and break apart, so a global network of scientists can find certain resulting particles. These particles, they hope, will illuminate the mysteries of dark matter in the universe. This action, repeated over and over again, is at the heart of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the most powerful particle accelerator ever built, and the primary scientific project of Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN).
The scientific research facility, built just outside of Geneva, was created to ask the biggest questions of the smallest imaginable things. From its founding in 1954, its focus quickly shifted from studying atomic nuclei to examining sub-atomic particles. Since then, its mission has been to develop advances in particle physics and technologies that can help humanity better understand how the universe—and by extension the world—exists.
There are many ironies involved, not the least of which starts with the name. Although CERN’s French acronym includes “Nuclear Research,” it doesn’t have anything to do with nuclear power or nuclear weapons. Rather, it was created as a peace-driven project to stand in opposition to the weapons/power-based research of the Cold War. It refers to the nucleus and the component parts of the atom, which, in the 1950s, represented the vanguard of what humanity knew about physics.
Another irony is that the very precise, ultra-scientific world of particle physics played a lead role in the creation of shareable cat photos. The creation of the World Wide Web is credited to a CERN scientist who created a hyperlinked, interconnected global platform using dedicated URLs, HTTP protocol and HTML coding so scientists affiliated with the organization could use the web to share their findings with each other. While the Internet was created over time, with many different influences and programs, the specific way that we recognize the medium today began in 1989 as an offshoot of particle physics research.
Finally, it’s without question that CERN is committed to the largest possible scientific field of inquiry—discovering the composition of the universe and providing insight into the fundamental laws of nature—but it finds clues and answers to these cosmic riddles in the smallest possible particles. This juxtaposition of the finite with the infinite is best understood by some of the findings on matter found in what’s called the “Large Hadron Collider beauty” experiment. At its most simplistic, scientists theorize that the universe is made of both matter and antimatter in nearly equal quantities, but the catch is that when they come into contact with each other both vanish and leave behind a flash of pure energy. This is an explosive relationship and rather antithetical to physical being. To prevent universal annihilation, scientists think there has to be an unknown agent that prevents the matter/antimatter reaction. The beauty experiment may have found the agent’s identity—and it decays in a signature shape that looks like a penguin. Called a beauty quark, this potentially stabilizing universal force exists only for a millionth of a millionth of a second in the collider, but not before giving researchers a tantalizing clue that it favors matter over antimatter, which could point the way to the composition of the dark matter that both gives form to the universe, and also explains some of its quantum irregularities.
After thinking about invisible penguins and beauty quarks, to say nothing of the famed Higgs boson particle—which CERN found in 2012, confirming predictions made in the Standard Model of physics that it exists, and that existence, at the most basic level, allows objects to have mass—it’s easy to go down into the rabbit hole of deep thoughts and unfathomable premises. Which is why it came as a bit of a relief to simply gawk at the size and scope of the organization itself.
At its metaphorical “Higgs boson” level, CERN is a laboratory where scientists unite to study the building blocks of matter and the forces that hold them together. There are four forces that exist at the particle level and help explain matter and the Standard Model of physics: gravitational, weak, electromagnetic and strong.
The reaction and interaction of these forces are what more than 11,000 scientists from more than 21 full-member countries and several affiliate countries (the United States is part of this group and is considered an ‘observer’) are here to study. It is funded by its member states that are entirely European, except for Israel, and its main research program revolves around six accelerators, each of them conducting several active experiments. All of the data produced by these experiments is then gathered and analyzed by research scientists on campus while simultaneously being sent out for study around the world.
The Large Hadron Collider is the centerpiece of all of the experimental quantum action these days and represents a massive leap forward in form and function from previous accelerators. To give a sense of just how much of a leap forward, the first CERN accelerator, the Synchrocyclotron, began operation in 1957. It fit into a room about the size of a medium-sized loft apartment. The LHC exists in a tunnel that goes in a circle underneath the towns and farms near the campus in both France and Switzerland. It uses 1,232 superconducting dipole magnets to send the particle beams in an ever-faster loop around the accelerator.
There was a buzz around campus when I went in March as they were nearing the end of a long shutdown. In early 2013, after three years of running, the LHC was shut down to enhance the magnets and prep for another cycle, this time at a higher energy level. When I was there, they had been conducting simulations to ensure that the accelerator would be ready for what they were calling “LHC Season 2.”
For Season 2, they have increased the power level from 8 TeV (a tera electron Volt) to 13 TeV, which they hope will further push the boundaries of what was previously understood about matter and physics. It’s a sequel they believe will more than live up to its illustrious predecessor, and they have high hopes to find not only more exotic particles (which some theories predict were undetectable because they don’t interact with the electromagnetic force) but also dark matter, and possibly even confirm the theory of supersymmetry or the proof of extra-dimensional particles.
These are all heady things, new frontiers in human knowledge and understanding. The CERN-led innovations in everything from computing and cryogenics to vacuum technology and particle detectors that have come from building and maintaining devices like accelerators have already helped us do everything from FaceTime to medical diagnostics. But the questions that remain and the ability we are developing to answer them is truly a testament to human curiosity and the lengths we’ll go to better understand our universe.