Echo calling: What were the factors that enabled CERN to become the world's top fundamental research laboratory ?

The question is both ambitious and complex, so that the answers will not be precise but will be based on reasonable assumptions. 
The starting point shall be the CERN Convention, drawn up by our founders just after the end of the second world war, a theatre of unspeakable atrocities between nations, peoples and political systems.
The founding fathers, having witnessed these atrocities, introduced several fundamental principles into the CERN Convention that laid the crucial foundations for the success of the fledgling Organization.

First principle:

“CERN must be open to scientists from all nations, irrespective of their system of government.”
 This principle embedded a spirit of tolerance and freedom of thought at CERN, which was the essential key to facilitating open global collaboration, free from partisan ideology.

Second principle:

“CERN must be financed by public money, independent of private interests.”
“Each Member State will contribute a percentage of its national budget.” This principle allowed us to work in the general interest of Europe.

Third principle:

“CERN's seat will be in Switzerland, a small and neutral country at the geographic heart of Europe.” Had the Organization been based in one of the formerly warring nations, sooner or later the spirit of national interest would have prevailed.

Fourth principle:

“CERN's research will only produce fundamental knowledge, which will be accessible to the whole world, without restriction.”

These four principles gave CERN its essential strength, the ability to surpass individual interests and thus to: work for the advancement of knowledge in a spirit of sharing.

As we shall see, this ultimately led CERN to build the LHC, and to become the world's most important fundamental physics research centre. But at the time, the great powers had a different ethos: work for prestige in the interest of power.

There is a world of difference between these two philosophies. The principle of working for knowledge and sharing meant that CERN could call on the help of the scientific community from all fundamental physics research centres, for the benefit of mankind. Coming back to the Convention, the four principles mentioned above were underpinned by several other key operating factors for the decision-making process, such as:

The CERN Council

The Council is made up of two delegates per Member State: a recognized scientist, and a government official.

The Scientific Policy Committee

The members of the SPC are selected from among the world's most eminent particle physicists. The objectives set by this committee have always been at the limit of what was considered possible with respect to current technology.

Setting highly ambitious technological objectives was the source of incredible motivation for the CERN personnel and spawned a generation of leaders inside the Organization, who were chosen for their proven ability to drive projects forward.

In addition, reaching ambitious objectives that took us beyond known technology meant producing new fundamental knowledge and numerous technical innovations of tremendous benefit to the economies of the Member States where the apparatus was built.

Why have visiting users?

This is the fundamental question, because CERN's mission was to place European universities at the forefront of knowledge without being at the mercy of the world's most advanced countries. CERN gave them access to state-of-the-art research and thus helped Europe to retain its sharpest minds.

Keeping our universities at the highest level was the best guarantee for Europe's political, economic and social independence.

The first ten years

From 1954 to 1964, CERN built and successfully operated its first two accelerators. The Laboratory had set up several workshops, covering a wide variety of trades, and was therefore capable of designing and constructing its own instrument prototypes, without having to call on industry when the latter lacked the necessary manufacturing capabilities. Against all odds, but freed from the shackles of national bureaucracy and age-old prejudices, the whole community pulled together as one and threw itself joyously into the work. Elitism was banished and manual workers, technicians, engineers and physicists rubbed shoulders in an efficient spirit of friendly collaboration. Each and every person felt empowered to contribute to the common aim, proud to be spokespersons for their countries and their civilizations.

After a decade of studies and collaboration, so much experience had been gained that CERN Management and governing bodies decided to undertake the construction of the world's first particle-smasher, the ISR.

CERN's great achievements

The achievements that made CERN great started with:

The ISR (Intersecting Storage Rings)

This project presented a number of challenges: an unprecedented, ultra-high vacuum in the vacuum chamber, exceeding the technological capabilities of the time, a perfect mastery of magnetic optics, the construction of high-performance radiofrequency cavities and the remote-control of the entire machine. Despite these enormous challenges, on 27 January 1971 the ISR switched on and worked to perfection. This success was also encouraging for building the European Economic Community (EEC) for which CERN had become a standard-bearer, a shining example for other European Organizations like the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).

Visiting physicists who came all the way from the Member States to work at CERN deserve much credit - they had a hard life, working often far from home while continuing to teach physics at their home universities, to train the next generations of scientists.

The SPSC (Super Proton Synchrotron Collider)

This magnificent instrument, brainchild of Carlo Rubbia, and which was obtained by transforming the SPS into a collider, was truly the flagship that propelled CERN ahead of other research centres and gave us our first two Nobel Prizes, awarded to Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer.

LEP (the Large Electron-Positron collider)

The construction of LEP ushered in the era of experiments with hundreds of physicists coming from every country that had a physics faculty capable of taking part. Since the universities were responsible for the experiments' instrumentation, every country in the world could theoretically participate. It was the beginning of CERN's collaboration beyond the boundaries of Europe. The SPS and LEP produced far more data than could be handled by the universities using conventional magnetic tapes. Enter the Worldwide Web, created by CERN and given to the world. Other innovations included superconducting magnets, the getter pump (NEG) system, all technologies made in CERN and transferred to the Member States.

The LHC (Large Hadron Collider)

The LHC took a long time to build. Obtaining the political green light for the project, and deciding where and when it should be built was the hardest job of all! The foreseeable technical challenges were simply mind-boggling. Every single component of the machine called for innovations that were unimaginable at the inception of the project. These seemingly impossible challenges included:

  • designing and building thousands of superconducting magnets to produce a magnetic field by circulating a current of 13,000 A. For this one had to cool the thousands of magnets down to 1.8 Kelvin all along the 27 km of tunnel ;
  • cooling the machine down to its operating temperature of 1.8 Kelvin by liquefying 100 tonnes of gaseous helium, while liquid helium can only be cooled to 4 Kelvin at atmospheric pressure; For this one had to go down to 1.8 Kelvin for helium to become superfluid and flow through the magnets;
  • designing particle detectors that could withstand high levels of radiation and be powerful enough to sort through the enormous flow of events expected;
  • analysing the unimaginable quantity of events produced in the collisions would be the main challenge facing the experimental physicists;
  • but of course, even the most powerful computer imaginable, established in a single laboratory, would not have been fit for the analysis job; so it was essential to devise a computation system distributed across several research centres interconnected by optical fibres. The “LHC Computing Grid“ was born, constituting a massive leap forward in the analysis of high quantities of data. (*)

Not only did particle colliders give rise to an impressive array of technological spin-offs but they also brought about a new paradigm for the execution and financing of particle physics research.

The equipment required for the detection and analysis of particles is complex and costly, and the numerous components making up the massive underground detectors are designed and built by the very same researchers who will ultimately take part in the future experiment.

Up to 4,000 specialists join forces in a single experimental collaboration: physicists, engineers, IT specialists, mathematicians, chemists, and technicians from all fields, from Europe and other continents, bound together by a common aim, collaborating for years on end to build the thousands of components in their universities that are eventually assembled at CERN. Every segment of human knowledge is represented, including communication sciences, languages, diplomacy, technology transfer, import/export and so many others.

It is hard to imagine a better learning ground where theory and practice come together in such harmony.

When CERN succeeds, the entire humanity applauds, knowledge makes progress, and peace and tolerance are the winners.

CERN is such a great example of collaboration, a fantastic school to train the best personnel from universities of all participating countries!


(*) see Graviton No 23. Link :

by Franco Francia