CERN, located along the French-Swiss border near the Swiss capital Geneva, is the world's largest particle-physics laboratory. (The acronym stands for Conseil Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, French for CERN's original name, the European Council for Nuclear Research; since October 1954, despite retention of the old acronym, CERN's name has actually been Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire.) CERN was founded in 1954 and today is supported by a consortium of 20 European nations and by a number of "observer states," including Japan and the U.S. Besides being responsible for many fundamental discoveries in particle physics, primarily through the use of particle accelerators, CERN is the birthplace of the World Wide Web.

CERN is a non-military organization; Article II. 1 of the multinational convention establishing the laboratory states that it "shall have no concern with work for military requirements and the results of its experimental and theoretical work shall be published or otherwise made generally available." However, CERN is unavoidably relevant to

Mock-up of the CERN Large Hadron Collidor or LHC atom-smasher under construction in a 27-kilometer tunnel near Geneva. ©AFP/CORBIS.
Mock-up of the CERN Large Hadron Collidor or LHC atom-smasher under construction in a 27-kilometer tunnel near Geneva. ©

military affairs via the relevance of all physics to military affairs. The proposal in 1949 to form a regional European physics laboratory (i.e., CERN) was directly inspired by the explosion by the Soviet Union, in that year, of its first atomic bomb; furthermore, while CERN was being founded during the early 1950s, the building of particle accelerators in the United States was funded primarily by the military, which hoped to produce particle-beam weapons and to manufacture polonium for radiological warfare (i.e., the use of radioactive dust as a weapon). Both scientists and politicians involved in the founding of CERN were, therefore, aware that military applications of research in particle physics, though not predictable, might eventually occur. Furthermore, the advanced scientific equipment and techniques that would be developed at CERN and the large pool of expertise it would create and sustain were seen as basic military European assets. Likewise, the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research financed research in fundamental physics in U.S. universities in the postwar years on the ground that even "untargeted" research— science for science's sake—could, on average, ultimately be counted on to bear military fruit.

Nevertheless, CERN is as non-military, non-secretive, and international as an institution could well be. The construction of a nuclear reactor at CERN was ruled out from the beginning precisely because of the obviously military applications of such technology. CERN has therefore focused on the use of particle accelerators for research, avoiding the production or use of militarily significant amounts of fissionable materials and leaving the military implications (if any) of its discoveries to be worked out by national and commercial laboratories. To further distinguish it from a weapons-research laboratory, CERN does not classify any of its results, but, in accordance with its founding convention, makes them openly available to all inquirers.

Design work for CERN's first facilities proceeded in Geneva, Switzerland during 1953 and 1954 while the final international agreements were being worked out by CERN's original 11 member states. Construction contracts were awarded in October 1954, and CERN's first accelerator, a 600 MeV proton synchro-cyclotron, began operation in 1957. Confirmation of pion decay was one of the first experimental results, beginning a long line of important physics results made at CERN.

Not all of CERN's contributions have been in the realm of physics; in 1990, CERN computer scientists Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau proposed a network of "hypertexts"(texts, images, and other information objects linked by computer addresses routinely hidden from the user) that would run on computers connected through the Internet, which was already used for file transfers, e-mail, and other purposes. They proposed that this network be called the World-Wide Web, a name which has stuck.

Approximately 6500 physicists from 80 countries work at CERN, which operates a number of particle accelerators and detectors. CERN's largest tool is a circular particle accelerator 16.7 miles (27 km) in circumference, located some 320 feet (100 m) underground. CERN can achieve higher particle energies than any other facility in the world, making it a key facility for ongoing advances in particle physics.



Hermann, Armin, et al. History of CERN. Amsterdam: North-Holland Physics Publishing, 1987.


"The CERN Archive." February 12, 2002. < > (March 11, 2003).

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