Searching for answers

IF you’re interested in science, you may have heard of a place in Europe called CERN.

CERN is the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, called CERN because it’s also known, in French, as the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or European Council for Nuclear Research. I suppose CERN trips better off the tongue, French or otherwise.

Taking up a large part of the French/Swiss border, near Geneva, the CERN organisation was actually set up in 1952, hence the ‘nuclear’ bit in the name (we now know more about particles than just nuclei), and involves an impressive 21 European countries as members.

The aim of CERN is to seek answers to the fundamental questions of life itself, such as what is the universe made of, how did it begin, and why do so many people worship Kim Kardashian (OK, I made that last bit up, but I think they should look into it).

The 2,250 or so people who work at CERN, plus up to 13,000 people on-site at any one time (including scientists) are conducting research and experiments into things which could change the whole way we look at the world around us.

Using the world’s largest and most complicated scientific instruments, including particle accelerators, they delve into the very building blocks of life and matter itself, attempting to discover what makes us, and everything in the universe, tick.

The world’s biggest machine, and most powerful particle accelerator, is known as the Large Hadron Collider or LHC, and is a ring 27 kilometres long. It’s so big it’s in two different countries! Inside it, two high-energy particle beams are made to travel at close to the speed of light in opposite directions before they collide.

Forcing particles to collide like this can tell us a whole number of things, and already the LHC and other experiments at CERN have discovered new particles (including one called the Higgs boson, once called ‘the God particle’), and shone light onto some of physics’ most important questions.

At full speed, the LHC generates nearly a billion collisions per second. Above ground, 3,000 computers instantly reduce the number recorded down to the most interesting 100 or so.

Scientists at CERN are working together at the cutting edge of what is currently known, trying to answer questions such as why is gravity so weak, and why is there more matter than antimatter in the universe?

What do you mean why is gravity so weak, I hear you ask. Gravity pulls planets towards each other, doesn’t it? It’s the force which actually holds whole galaxies together. Yeah… but you overcome gravity every time you move your foot off the ground. Odd, isn’t it?

Odd… that just about sums up physics in the modern world. But the people at CERN are working hard to try and explain it all. What they discover could well change the way we look at the whole universe.

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