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RDT info logoMagazine on European research Special issue - February 2007   

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Title  Matter: the fundamental particles

The largest particle physics centre in the world is located in Europe. It straddles the Franco-Swiss border, near Geneva. At CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which is focused on the science of nuclear matter rather than on the exploitation of atomic energy – there are over 6 500 scientists. They are mainly physicists and come from all over the world. Young scientists rub shoulders with the most experienced researchers in this multilingual laboratory. CERN provides them with powerful particle accelerators with the aim of studying the ultimate constituents of matter and the forces that hold them together.

Aerial View of CERN with the path of the LEP tunnel and the future LHC.
Aerial View of CERN with the path of the LEP tunnel and the future LHC.
Founded in 1954, foreshadowing a European Research Area, this ambitious enterprise involves 20 Member States. It has fully accomplished its initial goal: to create a world-class organisation for research in fundamental physics, and to do it in the Old World.

CERN’s success can be measured by the ever more efficient performance of the ‘machines’ built over half a century. From the first 600MeV-proton Synchro-Cyclotron (SC) in 1957 to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the particle accelerator that will observe matter in unprecedented detail by the end of 2007 – this pan-European laboratory has equipped itself with tools that have helped broaden its research fields and make fundamental discoveries in physics.

Numerous Nobel Prize winners, such as Carlo Rubbia and Simon Van der Meer, Georges Charpak, Sam Ting and Burt Richter, and Jack Steinberger, have worked at CERN.

It is here that Charpak’s ‘multiwire proportional chambers’ revolutionised the electronic detection of particles, and here that it was discovered that neutrinos could interact with other particles while remaining neutrinos. The first proton-antiproton collider was used at CERN, and the historic discovery of W and Z bosons that confirmed the electroweak theory, unifying weak and electromagnetic forces, was made here too. Also, in a totally different field, it was at CERN that Tim Berners-Lee proposed a distributed information system based on hypertext, which everybody now knows as the World-Wide Web.

Educating the young and curious

CERN is a lab that is open to the world in every sense. Here, research is transparent, with researchers who are more than willing to communicate their passion. Educating the general public on advances in contemporary physics is a permanent part of the job developed by the institute. Guided tours in several languages are organised throughout the year (visits.service@cern.ch). Discovery Monday, once a month, at night, presents an aspect of research done in the labs. The Website (www.cern.ch) is meant for anybody who is curious about physics and/or is interested in knowing more about this great European research centre. A link (Ask.Expert.Service@cern.ch) allows everybody to ask questions.

CERN attaches great importance to educating the younger generations – the scientists of the future – and their teachers. A teaching strategy (seminars, online information, school visits, virtual educational tools, multimedia resources, etc.) has been developed, aimed at promoting innovative teaching techniques. All of this is geared towards showing that science is a great adventure and that physics can be learned while having fun.

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  Matter: the fundamental particles
  And then there were particles
  Help from the strings
  The promise of the large collider

  • www.cern.ch

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