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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

View Blog | Read Bio

What’s in a name?

Twitter has been good to CERN, but there’s a limit to how much particle physics you can convey in 140 characters. We’ve struggled to explain luminosity in such a small nutshell, and to convey the excitement of jet quenching in a line. That’s partly why we’ve decided to launch a CERN blog today on the Quantum Diaries platform. There’ll be several contributors as time goes on, including our Director General Rolf Heuer, but as head of CERN’s communication group, I have the honour to be the first to post. I’ll be using this blog to expand on news about CERN that you might find in our press releases, our internal newsletter – The Bulletin – and anywhere else that particle physics appears.

Since this is CERN’s first post, it’s probably worthwhile saying what CERN is – and what CERN isn’t. The best place to start is our Convention, a document remarkable for its foresight and optimism that emerged from the ashes of the Second World War. The story begins in 1949 when the French Nobel Prize winner Louis de Broglie first suggested that Europe could pool its resources, using the universal language of science to create a centre of excellence for basic research in physics and a place where the countries of Europe could work together to peaceable ends. In 1952, the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucleaire, CERN, was founded with the single objective of establishing such a place. Two years later, CERN had done its job and gave way to the European Organization for Nuclear Research, but by then the acronym had stuck. Why nuclear? Because in the 1950s, the nucleus was the limit of our understanding of nature at the smallest scales. CERN’s research has always concentrated on curiosity-driven research, which in the 1950s meant trying to understand the structure and behaviour of nuclei. Applied research is very rare here, and military research is absolutely forbidden by the Convention.

Today, we do very little nuclear research and our main field of endeavour is particle physics: studying the tiniest constituents of nature in a bid to understand some of the biggest questions around, like how the universe evolved, what gives particles mass, and what the unseen 95% of the universe is made of. We still do some nuclear physics: although the nucleus is much better understood than it was in the 1950s, there are still things to be learned about the behaviour of nuclei. Nuclear physics experiments at CERN also address subjects as varied as finding new isotopes for medical use and understanding what happens in supernovae.

Today, you’re just as likely to see CERN referred to as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics. That’s a better description of what we do these days, and it’s much in keeping with the spirit of the Convention, which mandates CERN to coordinate fundamental research in Europe through the operation of one or more laboratories. The way things have turned out, there’s just one CERN laboratory, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, and CERN Council is its governing body.

Welcome to our blog, and look out for posts on luminosity and jet quenching before too long!

–James Gillies

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