CERN: The road to answering the big questions

6 November 2015

Inspiring your students to pursue physics in higher education can be tricky. There’s no denying it can be particularly difficult subject to get your head around, but the prospect of being able to answer questions such as, ‘what is the universe made of?’ and ‘how did the universe begin?’ may encourage students to think about studying physics at A-Level and beyond.

Just like any other subject, getting your pupils out of the classroom and taking them to the heart of the action will always help to spark an interest in physics. CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, is home to the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments and has had a significant role in shaping our knowledge of the universe today. To highlight importance of CERN’s ground-breaking discoveries, we’re looking back at their most significant milestones on the road to answering the big questions. 


To provide you with a little extra information about CERN’s extensive contribution to science, our embellished timeline below will signify how their discoveries have moved us one step closer to solving a few more of the universe’s mysteries.


1951 – By the end of WWII, European science was no longer highly regarded. Therefore in 1951, 11 countries agree to establish a world-class fundamental physics research organization in Europe and CERN is born.


1959 – The Proton Synchrotron (PS) accelerates protons for the first time, briefly becoming the world’s highest energy particle accelerator. This enables scientists to study the structure of the atomic nucleus.


1965 – All three particles; proton, neutron and election, are discovered to have antiparticles. This posed pivotal questions about the basic units of matter, antimatter and whether there was any symmetry between the two.


1968 – Georges Charpak revolutionises particle detection by developing the ‘multiwire proportional chamber’, a device that increased detection by a thousand particle detections every second.


1971 – The world’s first interactions from colliding protons are recorded via Intersecting Storage Rings, paving the way for future colliding beam projects and providing a view of the miniscule world of particle physics.


1976 – The Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) is switched on for the first time, allowing CERN to probe the inner structure of protons and investigate nature’s preference for matter over antimatter.


1979 – CERN converts the SPS into a proton-antiproton collider using a technique called stochastic cooling.


1981 – The world’s first proton-antiproton collisions are produced using the Intersection Storage Rings.


1983 – CERN announces the discovery of W and Z particles, resulting in Simon van der Meer and Carlo Rubbia winning the Nobel Prize.


1986 – CERN starts to accelerate heavy ions to examine the possibility that the existence of quark gluon-plasma, particle constituents that were believed to exist after the big bang, was more than just a theory.


1989 – The first beam circulates the Large Electron-Positron (LEP) which is the largest electron-positron accelerator to have ever been built. It has a circumference of 27km.


1989 – British scientist, Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web and then a year later launches the world’s first ever website hosted on a NeXT computer at CERN.


2006 – The largest super-conducting magnet ever built is switched on at CERN.


2008 – A beam of protons is successfully steered around the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) for the first time. The LHC experiments address questions such as ‘what gives matter its mass?’ and ‘what is the invisible 96% of the universe made of?’


2011 – Antimatter atoms are trapped for longer than 16 minutes; enough time to start studying their properties in detail. This was the ALPHA experiment.


2012 – CERN announce they have observed a particle which is consistent with the Higgs boson predicted by the Standard Model. The discovery, which could be the bridge to understanding the 96% of the universe which remains obscure, won Peter Higgs and François Englert the Nobel Prize in Physics a year later.


2015 – Pentaquarks are discovered; a breakthrough that could lead to greater understanding of the make-up of ordinary matter.


If you’d like to make the most of the limitless learning opportunities at CERN, take a look at one of our online brochures for science and technology school trips to Geneva, or get in touch with one of the WST team to find out how we can create a tour tailored for your students.