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A Brief History of CERN’s Achievements
Even if you aren’t a science geek, you’ve probably heard of CERN. For years now, CERN has been making headlines and raising eyebrows, thanks in large part to their Large Hadron Collider. But CERN has done so much more beyond their hunt for the “God particle.” From technology to scientific achievement, here are some of the main reasons you should care about what CERN does and a quick history of their major achievements.
Just the Facts
WHO? CERN, aka the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
Why isn’t it called EUNR, you might ask? First, because it’s really hard to say EUNR out loud and not sound like a complete moron. Secondly, the organization goes by CERN because the original council which approved the formation of the laboratory was the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire. Today, the French name for the organization is Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire. The acronym for that would be OERN, which is even harder to say out loud than EUNR, so the name CERN stuck.
WHAT? The world’s largest and most respected facility for exploring particle physics.
WHEN? Founded in 1954
WHERE? Geneva, Switzerland and its outlying suburbs. (Though over 20 countries are involved in running the labs)
WHY? To help the human race understand the basic building blocks of the universe and the laws of nature.
Timeline of Notable Achievements
1973: The Gargamelle Chamber - Don’t get too excited, Smurf fans…this CERN achievement doesn’t have anything to do with an evil wizard. The Gargamelle bubble chamber was used to detect neutrino interactions. In the simplest possible terms, Gargamelle allowed scientists to see how sub-atomic particles interacted with each other in a way that they could only theorize about before.
It was so advanced for its time that Gargamelle was able to detect weak neutral currents just months after scientists first theorized that neutral currents might exist. The work done with the Gargamelle paved the way for the discovery for two types of boson particles, and eventually, the Higgs boson.
1991: The World Wide Web Hey. Guess what? The fact that you’re able to read this article right now is all thanks to CERN. What eventually became the World Wide Web started life in 1980 as ENQUIRE, a project run by Tim Berners-Lee.
Berners-Lee worked at CERN, and saw a need for physicists to have an information network where they could share their data and findings seamlessly. Eventually, Berners-Lee teamed up with Robert Cailliau, another CERN employee, to transform ENQUIRE into the World Wide Web.
After more than a decade of work, ENQUIRE had morphed into something you’d recognize as the modern web. By 1991, the Web was public: Berners-Lee had developed HTML, the first web browser, server software, and the world’s first web page. Believe it or not, the clunky old computer pictured above is the first Web server Berners-Lee used.
1992: The First Image Ever Uploaded on the Web - Not only did CERN create the Web, but it also uploaded the very first photographic image. But surprisingly, the image had nothing to do with physics. It wasn’t even a LOL Cat!
The image above was uploaded to the Web in 1992 by Tim Berners-Lee, and edited using the very first edition of Photoshop. The women pictured are a singing quartet called Les Horribles Cernettes. Each women pictured was either an employee of CERN, or dating someone who worked there.
2011: Faster-Than-Light Travel (Well, Almost) - Faster-than-light travel is something out of science fiction: the ships in Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, and Star Trek wouldn’t be as impressive if they could only travel at a snail’s pace.
In September of 2011, CERN partnered with the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso on the OPERA Collaboration. OPERA was an underground laboratory where scientists observe neutrinos. In the fall of that year, the OPERA team announced that they had observed neutrinos traveling faster than light.
The results came under fire almost immediately. Sadly, in the end, CERN announced this past March that the OPERA findings were flawed due to a piece of equipment that had been improperly connected. But if anyone on Earth can find the secret to FTL travel, it’s the team at CERN. They might just need a few more years.
2012: The “God Particle” - In the simplest terms, the Higgs Boson (sometimes called the “God particle”) is of interest to scientists because it could explain the physics of how planets and stars clumped together after the Big Bang.
In July of 2012, CERN announced that they had observed a boson particle that matched estimates of the likely mass of a Higgs particle.
But why does all this theoretical physics matters? In an article for the New York Times, Steven Weinberg explained why regular people should care about CERN and the Higgs Boson.
Beyond just giving us a better understanding of our universe, Weinberg suggested that there was the potential for economic and industrial growth linked in to the Higgs search.
As he put it, “At the end of the 19th century, physicists in England were exploring the properties of electric currents passing through a near vacuum. [This led] to our knowledge of the electron, without which a large part of today’s technology would be impossible. If these physicists had limited themselves to work of obvious practical importance, they would have been studying the behavior of steam boilers.”
Bottom Line: Even if you can’t understand every advance that CERN has made, you have to admit that they’re doing some pretty cool things out there in Geneva.