The history of CERN

Super Proton Synchrotron tunnel completed

31 July 1974

A few months after the signature of the agreement giving the go-ahead for the expansion of CERN into French territory, work began on the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS). Two years later, on 31 July 1974, the Robbins tunnel-boring machine excavating the SPS tunnel returned to its starting point (see photograph). It had excavated a tunnel with a circumference of 7 kilometres, at an average depth of 40 metres below the surface. The tunnel straddled the Franco-Swiss border, making the SPS the first cross-border accelerator. More than a thousand magnets were needed to equip the ring. The civil engineering and installation work was completed in record time after only four years.

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The Super Proton Synchrotron starts up

3 May 1976

The Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) became the workhorse of CERN’s particle physics programme when it switched on in 1976. The first beam of protons circulated the full 7 kilometres of the accelerator on 3 May 1976. The picture above shows the SPS control room on 17 June 1976, when the machine accelerated protons to 400 GeV for the first time. 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. A major highlight came in 1983 with the Nobel-prize-winning discovery of W and Z particles, with the SPS running as a proton-antiproton collider.

The SPS operates at up to 450 GeV. It has 1317 conventional (room-temperature) electromagnets, including 744 dipoles to bend the beams round the ring. The accelerator has handled many different kinds of particles: sulphur and oxygen nuclei, electrons, positrons, protons and antiprotons.

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First proton-antiproton collisions

4 April 1981

The Intersecting Storage Rings produced the world’s first proton-antiproton collisions on 4 April 1981, paving the way for proton-antiproton collisions in the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS), and the Nobel prize for Simon van der Meer and Carlo Rubbia.

The ISR proved to be an excellent instrument for particle physics. By the time the machine closed down in 1984, it had produced many important results, including indications that protons contain smaller constituents, ultimately identified as quarks and gluons.

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W and Z particles discovered

20 January 1983

In 1979, CERN decided to convert the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) into a proton–antiproton collider. A technique called stochastic cooling was vital to the project's success as it allowed enough antiprotons to be collected to make a beam.

The first proton–antiproton collisions were achieved just two years after the project was approved, and two experiments, UA1 and UA2, started to search the collision debris for signs of W and Z particles, carriers of the weak interaction between particles.

In 1983, CERN announced the discovery of the W and Z particles.The image above shows the the first detection of a Z0 particle, as seen by the UA1 experiment on 30 April 1983. The Z0 itself decays very quickly so cannot be seen, but an electron-proton pair produced in the decay appear in blue. UA1 observed proton-antiproton collisions on the SPS between 1981 and 1993 to look for the Z and W bosons, which mediate the weak fundamental force.

Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer, key scientists behind the work, received the Nobel Prize in physics only a year after the discovery. Rubbia instigated conversion of the SPS accelerator into a proton-antiproton collider and was spokesperson of the UA1 experiment while Van der Meer invented the stochastic cooling technique vital to the collider’s operation.

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Heavy-ion collisions begin

11 June 1986

Just after the big bang the universe was too hot and dense for the existence of familiar particles such as protons and neutrons. Instead, their constituents – the quarks and gluons – roamed freely in a "particle soup" called quark-gluon plasma.

In 1986 CERN began to accelerate heavy ions – nuclei containing many neutrons and protons – in the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) to study the possibility that quark gluon-plasma was more than just a theory. The aim was to "deconfine" quarks – set them free from their confinement within atoms - by smashing the heavy ions into appropriate targets.

The first experiments used relatively light nuclei such as oxygen and sulphur, and produced results consistent with the quark-gluon plasma theory, but no real proof. In 1994 a second generation of experiments began with lead ions, and by 2000 there was compelling evidence that a new state of matter had been seen.

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LEP tunnel completed

8 February 1988

The excavation of the tunnel for the Large Electron-Positron Collider – Europe’s largest civil-engineering project prior to the Channel Tunnel – is completed on 8 February 1988. The two ends of the 27-kilometre ring come together with just one centimetre of error. The picture above shows a tunneling crew after completing a section of the tunnel between points 2 and 3 on the LEP ring. 

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Large Electron-Positron collider: First injection

14 July 1989

With its 27-kilometre circumference, the Large Electron-Positron (LEP) collider was – and still is – the largest electron-positron accelerator ever built. LEP consisted of 5176 magnets and 128 accelerating cavities. CERN’s accelerator complex provided the particles and four enormous detectors, ALEPH, DELPHI, L3 and OPAL, observed the collisions.

LEP was commissioned in July 1989 and the first beam circulated in the collider on 14 July. The picture above shows physicists grouped around a screen in the LEP control room at the moment of start-up. Carlo Rubbia, Director-General of CERN at the time, is in the centre and former Director-General Herwig Schopper is on his left. For seven years, the accelerator operated at 100 GeV, producing 17 million Z particles, uncharged carriers of the weak force. It was then upgraded for a second operation phase, with as many as 288 superconducting accelerating cavities added to double the energy and produce W bosons, also carriers of the weak force. LEP collider energy eventually topped 209 GeV in the year 2000.

During 11 years of research, LEP and its experiments provided a detailed study of the electroweak interaction based on solid experimental foundations. Measurements performed at LEP also proved that there are three – and only three – generations of particles of matter. LEP was closed down on 2 November 2000 to make way for the construction of the LHC in the same tunnel.

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The world's first website and server go live at CERN

20 December 1990

By Christmas 1990, Berners-Lee had defined the Web’s basic concepts, the URL, http and html, and he had written the first browser and server software. Info.cern.ch was the address of the world's first website and web server, running on a NeXT computer at CERN. The world's first web page address was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html, which centred on information regarding the WWW project. Visitors could learn more about hypertext, technical details for creating their own webpage, and even an explanation on how to search the Web for information. There are no screenshots of this original page and, in any case, changes were made daily to the information available on the page as the WWW project developed. You may find a later copy (1992) on the World Wide Web Consortium website.

You can see the orginal NeXT computer at the Microcosm exhibit at CERN, still bearing the label, hand-written in red ink: "This machine is a server. DO NOT POWER DOWN!!"

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First antiatoms produced: antihydrogen, at CERN

15 September 1995

A team led by Walter Oelert created atoms of antihydrogen for the first time at CERN’s Low Energy Antiproton Ring (LEAR) facility. Nine of these atoms were produced in collisions between antiprotons and xenon atoms over a period of 3 weeks. Each one remained in existence for about 40 billionths of a second, travelled at nearly the speed of light over a path of 10 metres and then annihilated with ordinary matter. The annihilation produced the signal that showed that the anti-atoms had been created.

This was the first time that antimatter particles had been brought together to make complete atoms, and the first step in a programme to make detailed measurements of antihydrogen.

The hydrogen atom is the simplest atom of all, made of a single proton orbited by an electron. Some three quarters of all the ordinary matter in the universe is hydrogen, and the hydrogen atom is one of the best understood systems in physics. Comparison with antihydrogen offers a route to understanding the matter–antimatter asymmetry in the universe.

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CMS and ATLAS experiments approved

31 January 1997

Four years after the first technical proposals, the experiments CMS and ATLAS are officially approved. Both are general-purpose experiments designed to explore the fundamental nature of matter and the basic forces that shape our universe, including the Higgs boson.

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