The history of CERN

Origins

9 December 1949

At the end of the Second World War, European science was no longer world-class. Following the example of international organizations, a handful of visionary scientists imagined creating a European atomic physics laboratory. Raoul Dautry, Pierre Auger and Lew Kowarski in France, Edoardo Amaldi in Italy and Niels Bohr in Denmark were among these pioneers. Such a laboratory would not only unite European scientists but also allow them to share the increasing costs of nuclear physics facilities.

French physicist Louis de Broglie put forward the first official proposal for the creation of a European laboratory at the European Cultural Conference, which opened in Lausanne on 9 December 1949. A further push came at the fifth UNESCO General Conference, held in Florence in June 1950, where American physicist and Nobel laureate Isidor Rabi tabled a resolution authorizing UNESCO to "assist and encourage the formation of regional research laboratories in order to increase international scientific collaboration…"

At an intergovernmental meeting of UNESCO in Paris in December 1951, the first resolution concerning the establishment of a European Council for Nuclear Research was adopted. Two months later, 11 countries signed an agreement establishing the provisional council – the acronym CERN was born.

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Where to build?

1 October 1952

Geneva was selected as the site for the CERN Laboratory at the third session of the provisional council in 1952. This selection successfully passed a referendum in the canton of Geneva in June 1953 by 16,539 votes to 7332.

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Breaking ground

17 March 1954

On 17 May 1954, the first shovel of earth was dug on the Meyrin site in Switzerland under the eyes of Geneva officials and members of CERN staff.

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The European Organization for Nuclear Research is born

29 September 1954

At the sixth session of the CERN Council, which took place in Paris from 29 June - 1 July 1953, the convention establishing the organization was signed, subject to ratification, by 12 states. The convention was gradually ratified by the 12 founding Member States: Belgium, Denmark, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Yugoslavia. On 29 September 1954, following ratification by France and Germany, the European Organization for Nuclear Research officially came into being. The provisional CERN was dissolved but the acronym remained.

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CERN's first accelerator - the Synchrocyclotron - starts up

11 May 1957

The 600 MeV Synchrocyclotron (SC), built in 1957, was CERN’s first accelerator. It provided beams for CERN’s first experiments in particle and nuclear physics. In 1964, this machine started to concentrate on nuclear physics alone, leaving particle physics to the newer and much more powerful Proton Synchrotron (PS).

The SC became a remarkably long-lived machine. In 1967, it started supplying beams for a dedicated unstable-ion facility called ISOLDE, which carries out research ranging from pure nuclear physics to astrophysics and medical physics. In 1990, ISOLDE was transferred to a different accelerator, and the SC closed down after 33 years of service.

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The Proton Synchrotron starts up

24 November 1959

The Proton Synchrotron (PS) accelerated protons for the first time on 24 November 1959, becoming for a brief period the world’s highest energy particle accelerator. With a beam energy of 28 GeV, the PS became host to CERN’s particle physics programme, and provides beams for experiments to this day.

During the night of 24 November 1959 the PS reached its full energy. The next morning John Adams (pictured) announced the achievement in the main auditorium. In his hand is an empty vodka bottle, which he had received from Dubna with the message that it was to be drunk when CERN passed the Russian Synchrophasotron’s world-record energy of 10 GeV. The bottle contains a polaroid photograph of the 24 GeV pulse ready to be sent back to Dubna.

When CERN built new accelerators in the 1970s, the PS’s principle role became to supply particles to the new machines. Since the PS started up in 1959, the intensity of its proton beam has increased a thousandfold, and the machine has become the world’s most versatile particle juggler.

In the course of its history the PS has accelerated many different kinds of particles, feeding them to more powerful accelerators or directly to experiments.

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First observations of antinuclei

1 September 1965

By 1965, all three particles that make up atoms (electrons, protons and neutrons) were known to each have an antiparticle. So if particles, bound together in atoms, are the basic units of matter, it is natural to think that antiparticles, bound together in antiatoms, are the basic units of antimatter.

But are matter and antimatter exactly equal and opposite, or symmetric, as Dirac had implied? The next important step was to test this symmetry. Physicists wanted to know how subatomic antiparticles behave when they come together. Would an antiproton and an antineutron stick together to form an antinucleus, just as protons and neutrons stick together to form the nucleus of an atom?

The answer to the antinuclei question was found in 1965 with the observation of the antideuteron, a nucleus of antimatter made out of an antiproton plus an antineutron (while a deuteron – the nucleus of the deuterium atom – is made of a proton plus a neutron). The goal was simultaneously achieved by two teams of physicists, one led by Antonino Zichichi using the Proton Synchrotron at CERN, and the other led by Leon Lederman, using the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS) accelerator at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, New York.

The CERN paper, Experimental Observation of Antideuteron Production was published in the Italian particle-physics journal Il nuovo cimento on 1 September 1965 (the journal ended when it was merged into the European Physical Journal in 1999.

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Georges Charpak revolutionizes detection

17 January 1968

In the 1960s, detection in particle physics mainly involved examining millions of photographs from bubble chambers or spark chambers. This was slow, labour-intensive and unsuitable for studies into rare phenomena.

Then came a revolution in transistor amplifiers. While a camera can detect a spark, a detector wire connected to an amplifier can detect a much smaller effect. In 1968, Georges Charpak developed the “multiwire proportional chamber”, a gas-filled box with a large number of parallel detector wires, each connected to individual amplifiers. Linked to a computer, it could achieve a counting rate a thousand times better than existing detectors. The invention revolutionized particle detection, which passed from the manual to the electronic era.

Charpak, who joined CERN in 1959, was awarded the 1992 Nobel prize in physics "for his invention and development of particle detectors, in particular the multiwire proportional chamber".

Today practically every experiment in particle physics uses some track detector based on the principle of the multiwire proportional chamber. Charpak has also actively contributed to the use of this technology in other fields that use ionizing radiation such as biology, radiology and nuclear medicine.

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First proton collisions: The Intersecting Storage Rings

27 January 1971

By the late 1950s, physicists knew that a huge gain in collision energy would come from colliding particle beams head on, rather than by using a single beam and a stationary target. At CERN, accelerator experts conceived the idea to use the Proton Synchrotron (PS) to feed two interconnected rings where two intense proton beams could be built up and then made to collide. The project for the Intersecting Storage Rings (ISR) was formally approved in 1965.

On 27 January 1971 Kjell Johnsen (pictured), who led the construction team for the Intersecting Storage Rings (ISR), announced that the world's first interactions from colliding protons had been recorded. Pictured on the left are Franco Bonaudi, who was responsible for the civil engineering and Dirk Neet, who later took charge of ISR operations.

For the next 13 years the machine provided a unique view of the minuscule world of particle physics. It also allowed CERN to gain valuable knowledge and expertise for subsequent colliding-beam projects, and ultimately the Large Hadron Collider. For example, it was here that Simon van der Meer’s ideas to produce intense beams by a process called "stochastic cooling" were first demonstrated.

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Council commissions the Super Proton Synchrotron

10 February 1971

Seven kilometres in circumference, the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) was the first of CERN’s giant underground rings. It was also the first accelerator to cross the Franco–Swiss border.

Eleven of CERN's member states approved the construction of the SPS in February 1971, and it was switched on for the first time on 17 June 1976, two years ahead of schedule. The SPS quickly became the workhorse of CERN’s particle physics programme, providing beams to two large experimental areas. Advances in technology during the building period meant that not only was construction finished early, it was able to operate with a beam energy of 400 GeV - 100 GeV higher than the original design energy.

The SPS operates today at up to 450 GeV, and has handled many different kinds of particles. Research using SPS beams has probed the inner structure of protons, investigated nature’s preference for matter over antimatter, looked for matter as it might have been in the first instants of the universe and searched for exotic forms of matter.

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