Since the dawn of time, mankind has remade the world in its image. Between building and creating, humans have gone from simple wooden tools to massive machines capable of doing incredibly complex feats. Though the Industrial Revolution occurred nearly two centuries ago, the biggest machine was built only recently — and it’s massive. This is the Large Hadron Collider, which is run by the organization CERN. It is also the largest particle physics facility in the world.
CERN and the Large Hadron Collider
The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, is an intergovernmental organization that conducts physics experiments in its many shared locations throughout Europe. Situated in a suburb of Geneva, Switzerland, CERN is a labyrinth of scientific work. The facility employs close to three thousand administrators, scientists, and technicians. Together, these people operate a monument to scientific achievement.
The primary function of CERN is to facilitate high-energy physics research. It does this through its series of particle accelerators, including the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
The biggest particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider consists of an underground circular track with a circumference of sixteen and a half miles. This machine lets scientists test different physics theories, such as detecting new particles. Theories have been proven here, too, including the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.
CERN started with a convention of twelve Western European countries and was ratified on September 29, 1954. The organization operated at the University of Copenhagen under the direction of famed physicist Neils Bohr before moving to Geneva. While CERN’s facility was originally designed for the study of atomic nuclei, it quickly evolved to include high-energy particle physics, specifically the interaction of subatomic particles.
Over the years, CERN built a number of different machines for physics experiments. Currently, there are over a dozen different particle accelerators and decelerators, including the Large Hadron Collider. Though it looks unassuming, CERN’s headquarters in Geneva occupies a massive amount of space both above and below ground. The various countries involved donate a part of its estimated 1.2 billion dollar budget.
Some of these machines include:
- The LINAC 3, which generates low-energy particles
- The Low Energy Ion Ring (LEIR), which accelerates ions from the LINAC 3
- The Proton Synchrotron Booster: the machine energizes particles that come from the accelerator
- The Super Proton Synchrotron: this circular, two-kilometer-long accelerator operates as both a proton-antiproton collider and an accelerator for electrons and positrons
- The On-Line Isotop Mass Separator (ISOLDE): this facility researches unstable nuclei
- The Antiproton Decelerator (AD), which researches antimatter by reducing the velocity of antiprotons
These combined facilities generate an unbelievable amount of data, particularly the Large Hadron Collider. To bear this load, CERN uses its in-house designed LHC Computing Grid. This grid-based computer network streams its data to over one hundred and seventy computing centers in forty-two countries.
The Large Hadron Collider
While CERN has many moving parts, scientists conduct most of the research at its Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Located one hundred meters below ground, it operates in a twenty-seven-kilometer-long tunnel with most of the track on the French side of the Swiss Border. The machine studies the collision of protons and heavy lead ions.
Nine stops along the track serve as outposts for the nine main experiments that happen at the LHC. The machine also has four crossing points where the particles collide. Each of these stops uses specific technology to research different aspects of the collision of subatomic particles.
The Large Hadron Collider has achieved a lot in its brief history. An upgrade to the original Large Electron-Positron Collider, the LHC was constructed between 1998 and 2008. This collider created its first collision in 2010 at four times the speed of the previous world record. Only two years later, the LHC scientists discovered the Higgs boson, a long-theorized but ever-elusive subatomic particle.
During the years 2013-15, the Collider was shut down and upgraded to reach breathtaking speeds of 6.8 teraelectronvolts (TeVs). Three years later, it was shut down again for further fixes. The Large Hadron Collider became operational again on April 22, 2022.
CERN is a simple acronym for a complex and layered scientific organization. Besides the giant machines, CERN operates a variety of programs, sub-organizations, and initiatives. These include the Open Science Movement, the Globe of Science and Innovation, and Arts at CERN.
The Open Science Movement is a CERN program that promotes the accessibility of scientific research. Due to its commitment to open-source research, the Open Science Movement has helped make all particle physics research open access all over the world.
The Globe of Science and Innovation is a giant wooden sphere and functions as a visitor center for CERN. Designed to show visitors the latest advancements in CERN research, the Globe of Science and Innovation hosts a series of scientific exhibits.
The program Arts at CERN builds a relationship between the arts and science. Employing a variety of techniques to foster that dialogue, Arts at CERN has hosted over two hundred artists from eighty countries since its creation in 2011.
How Does a Particle Accelerator Work?
In a nutshell, linear accelerators and decelerators function by colliding subatomic particles at incredible speeds. This occurs in vacuum metal pipes that run the length of tracks. These machines project beams of particles in either a loop for successively higher speeds or along a straight line. At CERN, multiple accelerators join together to create the highest speeds currently possible.
It’s important that the particles do not collide with gas molecules on their journey through the accelerator, so the beam sits in an ultrahigh vacuum inside a metal pipe. CERN calls this the beam pipe.
At the beginning of an accelerator, an electric field strips hydrogen atoms of their electrons. As the proton travels down the track, different electric fields switch between positive and negative frequencies. This pulls the particles forward in the accelerator. The frequency changes depending on the location so the particles travel in tight bunches instead of one long stream.
Stationed at various points along the line are radio frequency cavities. These metal chambers and their particular shape resonate radiowaves with the particles at different frequencies. This intermingling transfers energy from the radiowaves to the particles, which pushes them farther down the accelerator.
Incredibly powerful magnets sit along the track for different functions. Some are quadrupole magnets, which focus particles closer together like a lens. Others are dipole magnets, which generate a strong magnetic field to bend particles traveling in a straight line.
Lastly, particle detectors sit at places around the track to measure the collision points of the different particles. Put all together, these different elements allow scientists to investigate breathtakingly small particles interacting at rates near the speed of light.
Discoveries at CERN
Several discoveries have occurred at CERN over the years. While the most well-known is the discovery of the Higgs boson particle in 2012, there have been a number of equally important contributions to particle physics and other technologies at CERN. A few of these even netted its researchers Nobel Prizes.
- The discovery of W and Z boson particles in 1983: for this, scientists Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer were awarded the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physics
- The creation of antihydrogen atoms in 1995
- The discovery of a new state of matter with the quark-gluon plasma in 2000
- The maintaining of antihydrogen, a notoriously unstable compound, for over 15 minutes
What most people don’t know is that the World Wide Web started as a CERN project called ENQUIRE. Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau originally designed it to share information between scientific researchers. That, and to help with the pure information overload of data created by the particle experiments. The project was a success and was released to the public in 1993.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Yurchanka Siarhei/Shutterstock.com.