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The history of particles

The 20th century witnessed incredible inventions and discoveries as physicists delved ever deeper inside the atom. From the apparatus used to identify the first subatomic particle to the photograph that confirmed the existence of antimatter, Collider showcases some of the most significant objects from the history of physics.

Videos | JJ Thomson and the first particle | CTR Wilson's cloud chamber | The foundations of CERN

The foundations of CERN

‘What each European nation is unable to do alone,’ declared CERN co-founder Raoul Dautry in 1949, ‘a united Europe can do and, I have no doubt, would do brilliantly’.

First foundations laid for CERN on the Meyrin countryside
First foundations laid for CERN on the Meyrin countryside, 1954. © CERN

Post-war plans and atomic anxiety

In the years following the war, European countries made plans to pool together resources for a collaborative nuclear physics laboratory in an attempt to close the gap with the US, who boasted the biggest and best particle accelerators. 

The politics of setting up such a facility in the Cold-war climate required incredible amounts of diplomacy and bureaucracy. ‘To speak of atomic research at that time,’ the Swiss writer and federalist Denis de Rougement reflected, ‘was immediately to evoke, if not the possibility of blowing up the whole world, then at least preparations for a third world war.’

De Rougement had been at one of the earliest conferences in which a ‘European Centre for Atomic Research’ had been discussed. He recalls that on the second day of the conference, the scientists present had to be locked in a chamber for protection as they had been pestered so severely by journalists on the previous day.

Telegram sent to Isidor Rabi marking the birth of CERN
J. Robert Oppenheimer, Isidor I. Rabi, an unknown companion and Wolfgang Pauli on Lake Zurich, 1927. © CERN

At a UNESCO meeting in Florence, 1950, Hungarian-American physicist Isidor Rabi stepped on the scene and made a fresh proposal. Rabi crucially dropped the original idea for the lab to host a nuclear reactor, helping to ensure that the proposed organisation’s facilities would be in keeping with US Cold War strategy, and so gaining their support.

CERN is born

On 14 February 1952, a provisional agreement to found the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (the CERN acronym stuck even after the ‘Conseil’ dissolved and became an ‘Organisation) was signed by ten of the eventual twelve member states.

The next day, the signed agreement was telegrammed to Rabi, informing him of the ‘birth of the project you fathered in Florence’. The convention was eventually signed on the 1st July, 1953 and CERN became an official organisation just over a year later.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Isidor I. Rabi and Wolfgang Pauli on Lake Zurich
Telegram sent to Isidor Rabi marking the birth of CERN, 1952. © CERN

One of the most pressing tasks for the initial Council of CERN was to pick a location for the laboratory. Geneva, Paris, Copenhagen and Arnhem were all proposed, but in October 1952 Geneva emerged as the chosen host.

Switzerland’s neutrality was an important selling point – from the beginning it was decided CERN would completely avoid military research. The beautiful alpine landscape could not have hurt either. Countryside near the small Swiss village of Meyrin, surrounded by France’s Jura Mountains, was selected as the precise site.

Constructing the European laboratory

‘In the atomic age,’ Rudolf Steiger told Time Magazine in 1955, ‘the architect should be Number One’.

Architectural plans for CERN
Architectural plans for CERN, 1953. © CERN

Steiger had been given in 1953 complete control of all aspects of CERN’s construction. He certainly stood up to the challenge, often uncompromising in his architectural vision – one CERN member of the Site and Buildings division referred to him as the ‘All Powerful Architect’.

On the 17th May 1954 the first excavation work began. The construction of CERN was now underway. This historic moment went almost completely unnoticed, absent of press coverage, speeches and official ceremony.

CERN’s first accelerator, the proton synchrotron (PS), began operating on 24 November 1959, breaking at the time the record for the highest energy. The PS is still in use, recycled as part of the initial acceleration stage in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, which is currently the world’s largest and most energetic accelerator.

CERN and the proton synchrotron accelerator under construction
CERN and the proton synchrotron accelerator under construction, 1957. © CERN