7 things you didn’t know about CERN and the strange world of particle physics

what is CERN Rolf Heuer CERN Director General Fabiola Gianotti ATLAS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela spokesman CMS experiment Higgs boson European Organization for Nuclear Research

Searching for the truth: Scientists at CERN, including Fabiola Gianotti, the current Director General Image: REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

Ceri Parker
Previously Commissioning Editor, Agenda, World Economic Forum
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Four years after the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle, the world’s biggest science experiment is still seeking to unlock the mysteries of our universe.

On the outskirts of Geneva, CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) mimics the aftermath of the Big Bang by sending beams of protons hurtling into one another at close to the speed of light.

Despite jubilation in the physics community when the Higgs was detected in 2012 – and public relief that the experiment didn’t suck the whole world into a gaping wormhole – there remains a lot to discover.


“95% of the universe in still unknown,” Fabiola Gianotti, the Director General of CERN, explained in a presentation to staff at the World Economic Forum. “We are all driven by a shared passion for knowledge.”

In other words, however sophisticated we imagine our age of space exploration and self-driving cars to be, we are still staggeringly ignorant about almost everything in the universe.

CERN wants to change that. It is a grandiose undertaking that not only sheds light on the esoteric world of particle physics, but also on international collaboration, purpose and progress.

Surprising facts about CERN's ambitious projects

As the Romanian flag is raised for the first time this week to mark the arrival of CERN’s 22nd member state, here are some startling facts about Europe’s most ambitious scientific project.

Smashing: A simulation of protons colliding in the Large Hadron Collider
Smashing: A simulation of protons colliding in the Large Hadron Collider Image: CERN

1. The Large Hadron Collider is colder than outer space

To be precise, it’s 1.9 K (-271.3°C), almost absolute zero. A cryogenic cooling system keeps it this frigid for the sake of the superconductor electromagnets, which send proton beams hurtling towards one another in a loop 100 metres below the ground.

You too would need help keeping cool if you were propelling bursts of 200,000 billion protons around a 27km ring at a rate of 11,000 times a second. Beams of protons hurtle around the ring in opposite directions until they collide with such force that they generate myriad sub-atomic particles – including the Higgs Boson. A set of gargantuan detectors then crunch some of the data from 40 million collisions a second.

2. The Higgs Boson isn’t the God particle. It’s the God-damn particle

Before the discovery of the Higgs on July 4, 2012, physicists had a theory but no proof to explain how elementary particles like electrons and quarks got their mass. Such was the frustration that Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, wanted to title his 1993 book on the subject The Goddamn Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? Sensing this to be too controversial, his publishers switched it to the “God particle” – which in itself has irked those who believe that religion and science are separate spheres.


The Higgs Boson is unlikely to prove or disprove the existence of God, but it does help to cement the Standard Model: a physics theory developed in the 60s, which outlines the building blocks of matter and the forces that govern them. The Higgs Boson was one of the missing pieces holding the picture together. Fabiola Gianotti, who was in charge of the ATLAS collaboration at the time it glimpsed the Higgs, described seeing for the first time a bump in the data which revealed the elusive particle. “I still get goose bumps,” she said.

3. We are still at least 95% ignorant

Even after the discovery of the Higgs, the Standard Model is not complete, because it only explains how three out of four fundamental forces work, omitting gravity. While gravity is well covered by the Theory of Relativity, the trouble is that there is no framework linking these two theories together to give us a unified understanding of the universe.

CERN spiral galaxy NGC 4639 NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope constellation black hole
A galaxy glimpsed by the Hubble telescope - but we're still in the dark Image: REUTERS/ESA/Hubble

What’s more, the Standard Model doesn’t explain dark matter – a mysterious substance thought to give galaxies extra mass, accounting for 27% of the universe. Equally shady is the question of dark energy, which accounts for another 68% and is thought to be associated with vacuums.

In fact, the stuff that we know about – and that makes up all stars and galaxies – only accounts for 5% of the universe. Suffice to say there is a whole lot left for scientists to discover beyond the Higgs Boson, with potential practical applications likely to be beyond anything we can imagine today.

4. The World Wide Web was born at CERN

Nobody knows where fundamental research will lead. Famously, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989 at CERN, as a tool to allow scientists around the world to share data.

The complex instruments developed for particle physics, at CERN and other similar facilities, have spawned numerous other uses, including PET scans, the most common tool used to diagnose cancers.

CERN shares its knowledge openly. Gianotti used the analogy of the history of light to explain the role of fundamental, open-ended scientific research: if we had focused only on the business case for bigger and brighter candles, we would never have made the transformative leap to electrical lighting.


5. CERN costs the equivalent of a cappuccino a year per European

Science on this scale doesn’t come cheap: CERN’s annual budget for 2016 is 1.1 billion euros. However, as an Italian, Gianotti is keen to contextualise this in terms of frothy coffee. More importantly, she explains that the rationale goes beyond economics, citing an exchange from the 70s between Bob Wilson, the founder of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory – a similar organisation to CERN – and US Congress. When asked, “What will your lab contribute to the defence of the US?”, he replied: “Nothing, but it will make it worth defending.”

Small beer? CERN costs a cappuccino a year per European
Small beer? CERN costs a cappuccino a year per European Image: REUTERS/Daniel LeClair

6. As well as inspiring geeks, big science has intrigued big business

At CERN, over 12,500 scientists from over 110 nationalities collaborate, working in a culture where authority comes from intellectual contributions rather than hierarchy, and colleagues generally share a sense of purpose. Moreover, collaboration is needed on a gargantuan scale to build something like the CMS detector, which weighs more than the Eiffel Tower, is hooked up with 3,000 kilometres of cabling and includes components built by hundreds of firms on five continents. A Schumpeter management column in the Economist explained that this had attracted the interest of the corporate world, with mixed results:

In a Big Science project, teams with rival proposals spar publicly, forcing all the boffins to articulate their assumptions, justify their choices and learn enough about their rivals’ ideas to criticise them at length…. Hiring eggheads rather than dunderheads is generally wise, though it can backfire: just ask the banks that employed “quants” by the dozen to create financial instruments that no one understood.

Schumpeter, The Economist

7. But even the world’s biggest science experiment can be stopped by weasels

Yes, weasels. In April 2016, the Large Hadron Colider lost power after a nefarious rodent chewed through electrical wiring. This followed an unfortunate incident in 2009, when a bird dropped a bit of baguette onto electrical equipment and caused a power outage. The mightiest human accomplishments can face the most mundane challenges.

This weasel is in no way implicated in the power outage at CERN
This weasel is in no way implicated in the power outage at CERN Image: Snowmanradio/Flickr
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