September 30, 2020

a 27 kilometer ring

Imagine a small city with 12000 inhabitants, more or less the number of people living in Astorga. In a normal city, each one of these people has their life and most will never cross paths, but the city that I ask you to imagine is different. As unlikely as it may seem, its thousands of inhabitants work together for the same purpose: to do science. Maybe it’s too much to imagine, almost a utopia, but we won’t settle for it. Now imagine that, although these facilities cost almost 1,000 million euros a year, they manage to produce three euros for each one they consume.

You can now download your imagination. You don’t need to keep holding this scientific fantasy in your mind, because, believe it or not, it already exists and its name is CERN. But before talking about what it is, let’s talk about how it became possible.

The myth of the lone wolf

World War II was a period of revelations. The way states and people viewed the world changed forever. The atrocities of war gave way to new fears and we learned from our mistakes and our successes. Germany was a leading country, some of the greatest minds in history lived in it, and yet the Allies won the technological battle. Although controversial, according to some experts this unpredictable victory is not due to the budgets or the intelligence of the scientists on either side of the board. It was something simpler and almost Paulocoelhiano: teamwork.

Taking a look at many books on the history of science we will see that a pattern repeats itself. If we let ourselves be carried away by them we will see that, from Aristotle to Einstein, the most revolutionary figures have shone alone, apparently working on the margins of the rest of the community. However, the more we know about them the more we demystify the idea of ​​the solo genius, but there is something that does seem evident. There was a radical change between scientific research before and after World War II. Before it, the greatest discoveries came from individuals, but when it was over, the protagonists were no longer them, but huge teams working in groups. What happened during the war to bring about this change?

The brains of Germany were good, but, apparently they were more anchored in tradition, they worked more for free. Meanwhile, the allies organized themselves into teams such as the one who deciphered the enigma code with which the Nazis encrypted all their messages or the Manhattan project, which managed to design the first nuclear bombs. The most decisive scientific-technical advances during the war had come from close collaboration between many people, not from a handful of hermit heroes. Megascience was born.

Bigger, more expensive

As we have come to understand the world, our theories have become more complex and precise. Rarely can we test them with the ease of yesteryear. Throwing cannonballs from the Leaning Tower is frowned upon, and our study objects have become more and more abstract. In other words, to check the validity of scientific knowledge we need to create true engineering works. Sophisticated machines capable of exploring the extremes, observing what is very far or what is very small. In short: the subtle.

The problem, as you may have suspected, is that building these instruments is anything but cheap. The budget that any country spends on science is always insufficient wherever we go, so we have a problem: how to get the funds? This is where megascience comes into play, because even if the budget of a research team is not enough to build the contraption they need, what they can do is organize. Other experts may need to build something similar and may be able to reach an agreement. Suddenly each project has virtually doubled their funds and they can afford to build something better if they share it.

With this philosophy, the European Council for Nuclear Research was born in 1954. Today we know it as the European Organization for Nuclear Research, although it has retained its original acronym in French: CERN. It was the result of collaboration between 12 countries to which, year after year, others have been added to complete the 21 member states that constitute it. It is now one of the world’s most scientific media institutions, for better and for worse. And I say badly because, for example, there will be a person who screams in the sky thinking about the annual budget that CERN consumes.

A billion euros is a real fortune, however much it has been raised from around twenty countries. Unless, of course, we compare it with the military budget of Spain, which in the last twenty years has not dropped below 7,000 million annually, or the more than 200 million euros annually that the Catholic Church receives in Spain through the Personal income tax Suddenly, the 80 million that we contribute each year to one of the most relevant scientific projects of humanity seems like small change. In any case, whether it is insufficient or too much, what is studied at CERN?

From megascience to the study of the tiny

When founded, CERN’s intention was to study the atomic nucleus, that small part inside each atom formed by neutrons and protons. Along with electrons, neutrons, and protons, they were the most basic constituents of matter, at least according to what was thought at the time. It was a few years later when physicists began to suspect that protons and neutrons had to be made up of something even smaller than what they initially called “partons”.

It was not easy to accept, but soon other particles were added to these partons, now called “quarks”. In the early 1970s, that zoo of subatomic particles was organized into a model trying to explain them all: the standard model of particle physics. Some compare it to the periodic table, allowing us to sort the most basic known particles into “families”: quarks, leptons, or bosons based on their properties. However, the standard model goes much further and with it we can make extremely fine predictions of the world around us. However, it is far from perfect, despite its worth it seems to have some holes to be explored and for this very, very large instruments are needed.

Under this premise, CERN evolved to focus on high-energy physics to study subatomic particles. To study the subatomic world we can make two particles collide at speeds close to the speed of light. Normally it is said that, in this way, the particles “break” releasing those things of which they are composed, but the reality is much more complex. When two protons collide they don’t release just quarks. To simplify it in an uncomfortable midpoint we could say that the way in which the energy released by those protons in the shock is transmitted to the “environment”, thus allowing the manifestation of other subparticles. The reality is not like that either, but in the worst case it helps us to get an idea of ​​how counterintuitive these concepts are and how easy it is to misinterpret them.

The Large Hadron Collider

To test the model, some research teams around the world began building particle accelerators. Tubes into which particles were fired that were accelerated as much as possible before colliding. The bigger the throttle, the faster they could travel and so the race began. Little by little they were improving until in 1998 the large hadron collider, better known as the LHC, began to be built at CERN.

The LHC is an engineering feat, but before the protons reach it they have a long journey to go. It all starts with a linear accelerator, a straight tube where protons start to move. To pass through it, the particles have to go through sections with their own electric fields that change their polarity as the proton advances. The sections in front of the particle are negative and attract it, but as it leaves them behind they become positive, pushing it. By the time they reach the end of the linear throttle, they are fast enough to be injected into another tube, this time ring-shaped. Huge magnets bend the path of the protons and keep them well grouped in the center of the tube. The protons continue to accelerate thanks to electric fields, and although the magnets allow them to rotate, the faster they go the more “difficult” they take such tight curves so it is time to open the curve and inject them into a larger ring.

As if it were the whiting biting its tail, this second ring speeds them up again as much as it can, injecting them into another larger circuit that will repeat the strategy one last time, before the protons finally move to the LHC. It is a 27-kilometer perimeter ring and in it, for the first time in the entire journey, part of the protons will travel in the opposite direction. With the last acceleration given, the scientists’ job is to make these two proton beams collide with each other, but not anywhere in the ring. The collision has to happen in certain specific places where the detectors are located, huge machines capable of measuring the result of the impact.

In any case, the theory emanating from the standard model predicted that if everything was correct and for the model to be consistent, certain things would have to happen in the real world. One of them would be, for example, that it was fulfilled was the existence of the most famous bosonic particle in quantum physics: the Higgs boson.

Higgs particle

In quantum field theory, forces are understood as fields. To get an idea, let’s imagine that we measure the temperature at each point in our room, with this we can make a “map” with the value that a property of matter takes in each place in space. A field is something like this and sometimes when these fields are “excited”, particles called bosons can arise from them. For example, in the case of the electromagnetic field its excitation manifests a photon. Well, for the standard model of quantum physics, the mass of a particle would depend, in part, on how it interacts with a specific field, the Higgs field. Based on this, physicists’ predictions assumed that, by colliding two particles with enough energy, part of this energy could excite the Higgs field by manifesting its particle, the Higgs boson.

On July 4, 2012, the ATLAS and CMS detectors simultaneously measured data from a collision compatible with the elusive boson, providing new evidence of the validity of the standard model and solidifying our knowledge about what the world around us shapes. However, CERN is much more than its star discovery.

Antimatter, irrigation systems and safer aircraft

Contrary to what many critical voices seem to believe, CERN is carrying out a huge number of projects that go far beyond the Higgs Boson. The LHC is still useful and can accumulate relevant information on the standard model, but there is life beyond the huge ring. All of this seemingly useless basic science helps build the foundation on which to build state-of-the-art technologies that have changed the world and society to the point of being unrecognizable.

For example, it was at CERN that the web was invented, the way in which we send information to ourselves through the Internet (which is not the same, and it was an independent and prior invention). What is not talked about so much is that CERN is the only place in the world where large enough quantities of antimatter are produced to be studied. It is a totally controlled and deliberate production, but, in case “Angels and demons” has scared someone, it is important to say that in most hospitals antimatter is also produced with total normality and without causing any problem. This exotic substance is the foundation of some of the most famous imaging tests, such as positron emission tomography (PET) that allows diagnosing everything from tumors to studying neurodegenerative diseases. Without CERN, sanitary applications of the antimaterial would not be where they are today.

In case there are doubts about CERN’s social impact, its contributions to healthcare do not stop here. Among his projects, some contribute to the development of a technology called hadrontherapy. A treatment against certain cancers that works in a similar way to radiotherapy, but with the advantage of hardly damaging healthy tissues, greatly reducing its side effects. Only with this is it quite clear how it can be that for every euro given to CERN three are obtained, and that is that investment in basic science, sooner or later, returns in society. However, there are many more projects, ranging from developing irrigation systems that help save water in drought countries, to ways to reduce the number of plane crashes.

It is true that CERN is not perfect, but for what they have achieved so far, what they are and what they represent seem like a fictional institution derived from a utopian science fiction novel. Against all odds, we are lucky that CERN is real. There is CERN beyond the Higgs Boson, its projects and objectives are still alive, but for how long? The answer is: as much as your tight budget allows.


  • Neither the Higgs boson nor its field give mass to the particles. The Higgs field contributes to the mass, but it is not the only thing that determines it.
  • The Internet was not born at CERN, the web did as a system for sharing information over the Internet.
  • CERN is not dangerous, nor will it produce a black hole that will devour the planet.
  • CERN exists, it is not a conspiracy or run by a satanic sect, do not believe everything you read on the networks. In fact, CERN is a particularly transparent institution, receiving 250,000 visitors annually, none of whom have witnessed anything that supports conspiracy theories.



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