CERN celebrates 50th birthday

I can remember when it was all gluons round here...

Celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of CERN officially begin on 8 March, marking five decades of European co-operation in the search for the nature of matter.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research is best known for its fundamental probings into the very small, but CERN can also hold its head high in tech circles.

Tim Berners-Lee was at CERN when he invented the World Wide Web; and the organisation is now trying to develop uses for grid computing.

Since its foundation in 1954, CERN's membership has grown from 12 to 20 European states. It has been host to Nobel Prize-winning research, scientists have discovered neutral currents, sorted the anti-matter from the matter and created an entirely new form of matter - quark-gluon plasma – last seen just after the big bang.

Its impact has also been political. When the CERN convention was ratified, the founding members decided that CERN's mission should include seeking to help re-unite a war-torn Europe.

European states are now on better terms, mostly, but CERN's political function remains. According to CERN director general Robert Aymar. "It is no accident that many of the countries about to join the European Union are already members of CERN. Scientific collaboration has proved to be a valuable step on the way to collaboration at the political level."

Using a particle accelerator to find out about the inner workings of atoms has been likened to smashing a watch with a hammer and using the bits left over to figure out what it did before you broke it. CERN’s latest project continues this grand tradition.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will be the world's largest and most complex scientific instrument when it is completed in 2007. Physicist hope that it will allow them to complete a journey that started with Newton's description of gravity. Gravity acts on mass, but so far science can’t explain why the fundamental particles have the masses they have. The LHC could provide some of the answers.

LHC experiments could also shed more light on dark matter and energy: visible matter seems to account for just five per cent of what must theoretically exist.

Jubilee celebrations start next Monday (8 March) with the launch of a Swiss postage stamp. (Those Swiss boys know how to party.) Other events to mark the birthday include an art exhibition inspired by science, a concert of classical music, and several public lectures and exhibitions.

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