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James Doherty | Open University | United Kingdom

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Summer on the Higgs Farm

The Open University asked me to write an article on my time at CERN over the summer. I replicate the article below which was published by the OU on 5 November 2013 here. The article pulls together my experiences on the CERN Summer Programme and provides links to particular blog entries on this site should you wish to learn more. Enjoy!

I got lucky – very lucky. For I spent this summer at CERN in Switzerland at the world’s greatest laboratory and the birthplace of the Nobel-winning Higgs boson. I am studying physical sciences with the OU and in this article I recount an incredible, challenging and unforgettable summer. I also include links to my blog which you can click to learn more about life at CERN.

What is CERN?

CERN, or the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is an international organisation which operates the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. At CERN scientists use complex scientific instruments to probe the fundamental structure of the universe and basic constituents of matter – fundamental particles.

CERN is the home of the world’s largest machine, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC): a 27km circular particle accelerator that collides particles which are travelling at close to the speed of light. The LHC was used to observe the Higgs boson, a particle which is the by-product of a mechanism by which other fundamental particles acquire mass. This observation led to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert being announced as winners of a Nobel Prize for Physics in October 2013.

Learn more about the Higgs Nobel here, here and here.

The Student Summer Programme

Each year CERN invites around 300 physics, engineering and computer science students from across the globe to participate in its Summer Student Programme. The programme affords students the opportunity to attend a six week lecture series on particle physics and related topics, and also to carry out a research project.

Learn more about the CERN Summer Student Programme here.


This year’s crop of summer students pose outside CERN’s showcase visitor’s centre, Globe.

First impressions

CERN is plonked in the midst of beautiful agricultural estates which nestle between the Alps and Jura mountain ranges, with several sites on either side of the Swiss-French border. Smaller experiments are based on the main Meyrin site on the outskirts of Geneva, while larger accelerators, such as the LHC, extend into France.

On arrival one is rather taken aback by how plain, industrial and, dare I say, ugly CERN is. Buildings are haphazardly distributed and typical of 1960 university campus architecture. But there is more to CERN than first meets the eye.

More first impressions here.

CERN's Meyrin site.

CERN’s Meyrin site.

What are the people like?

There are approximately 10,000 people on the CERN site each day who hail from all corners of the Earth. One need only walk into the main restaurant at lunchtime to sense the excitement in the air at CERN. People know they’re involved with something special and they want to be there. The diverse, multicultural and enthusiastic workforce creates a fantastic atmosphere.

The lectures

The lecture series was intense, technical and extremely interesting. Topics ranged from theoretical and mathematical subjects, such as the Standard Model and Supersymmetry (theoretical models which explain how fundamental particles interact), to more applied and technical topics, such as the operation of particle accelerators and detectors. Lectures were delivered by leaders in the field and daily Q&A sessions provided an excellent opportunity to interrogate them.

More on the lecture series here.

My research

I worked in the Beam Instrumentation Group to develop a new type of beam position monitor (BPM) for the LHC. This is a gizmo which measures the position of the beams of particles which circulate around the LHC so that they can be kept on target. The project was very hands-on and involved playing with lasers and crystals. This new type of BPM might someday be installed in the LHC so it was exciting to be involved with its development.

Find our more about my research here and here.


My laboratory set-up incorporating lasers and birefringent crystals,

The social life

Bringing together 300 students inevitably leads to an active social scene. There was lots going on including parties on site, trekking in the mountains, trips to nearby Swiss towns, dance classes, and music festivals. Geneva also provided enough entertainment, cheese and wine to keep most amused, satiated and merry. My favourite activity was having a swim in Lake Geneva.

More on the social scene at CERN here and here.

What did I learn?

I learned a lot at CERN. One of the most striking features of modern physics is that we are still largely in the dark – literally. The matter which everything we can see, including ourselves, is composed of makes up a mere 4% of the universe. The rest is dark matter and dark energy. Supersymmetry holds some promise for a deeper understanding of dark matter but as far as dark energy – which accounts for 73% of the universe – is concerned, we haven’t got the foggiest. It is this kind of mystery which I think makes science so alluring.

I also learned that there are exciting times ahead for physics. CERN is mostly closed for business at the moment as its accelerators are being upgraded but when the LHC is switched back on in 2015, it is going to reach incredible collision energies approaching 7 TeV. Higher energies means different kinds of stuff might fly out of the particle collisions. So the observation of the Higgs boson may be just the tip of the iceberg of a whole new generation of fundamental particles and physics.

The gargantuan detector, CMS.

The gargantuan detector, CMS. This 12,500 tonne beast is located 80 metres underground at a point where particles collide in the LHC. It may be instrumental in discovering new physics.

Will I go back?

I had a fantastic time at CERN and would love to return one day… if they’ll have me.