Seeking answers to questions about the universe
Curiosity is as old as humankind, and it is CERN’s raison d’être. When the Laboratory was founded, the structure of matter was a mystery. Today, we know that all visible matter in the Universe is composed of a remarkably small number of particles, whose behaviour is governed by four distinct forces. CERN has played a vital role in reaching this understanding.
Throughout the 1960s, theories were advanced to explain two forces – the weak force and the electromagnetic force – in the same framework. In the 1970s, a CERN experiment brought the first experimental evidence for these ideas, and in the 1980s the discovery of the W and Z particles – carriers of the weak force – brought confirmation of the theory. CERN researchers Simon van der Meer and Carlo Rubbia shared the 1984 Nobel Prize in physics for this discovery.
During the 1990s, CERN experiments designed in light of this discovery tested the so-called electroweak theory with extreme precision, putting it on solid experimental ground. In 2010, the LHC started to provide particle collisions in a new high-energy domain, leading to the discovery at CERN of a Higgs boson – long sought as the particle linked to the mechanism that gives mass to elementary particles.
Beyond CERN's flagship accelerator, the LHC, the Laboratory has a rich and diverse scientific programme. From the study of antimatter at the antiproton decelerator, to nuclear physics at CERN's longest-running experimental facility, ISOLDE. Experiments at other accelerators and facilities both on-site and off are an equally important part of the Laboratory’s activities. Supporting all the experiments is a very strong theory programme, which carries out cutting-edge research in theoretical particle physics.
Have we reached the end of the road in understanding nature? Far from it. There is still much to learn about the Higgs boson, and many other puzzles remain about how and why matter in the universe is the way it is.
Advancing the frontiers of technology
Fundamental research is CERN’s primary mission, but the Laboratory also plays a vital role in developing the technologies of tomorrow. From materials science to computing, particle physics demands the ultimate in performance, making CERN an important test-bed for industry.
The best-known CERN technology is the World Wide Web, invented to allow an ever increasing number of scientists to share information. For many of us today, life without the Web seems inconceivable. Equally revolutionary is the Grid, which harnesses the power of computers around the world. It has been developed at CERN to process the vast amounts of data collected by the LHC experiments.
CERN’s basic tools – particle accelerators and detectors – also have applications in everyday life. Invented as tools for research, there are thousands of particle accelerators in operation in the world today, of which only a small percentage are used in basic research. The vast majority find applications ranging from medical diagnosis and therapy to computer chip manufacture.
Electronic particle detection techniques have revolutionised medical diagnosis. Detectors invented by Georges Charpak in 1968 allow X-ray images to be made using a fraction of the dose required by photographic methods. Crystals developed for CERN experiments in the 1980s are now ubiquitous in PET scanners. And today, developments for a new generation of CERN detectors are allowing PET and MRI imaging techniques to be combined in a single device.
Without the know-how obtained in particle physics, progress in many fields would have been much slower. CERN, in partnership with industry, gives companies expertise that they can apply elsewhere, enabling CERN technology to reach society quickly for the benefit of everyone.