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CERN turns 50 in style

The most boffin-heavy birthday bash, ever

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Some of Britain's most distinguished scientists gathered in the Treasury last night, along with various MPs, lords and the occasional journalist, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of CERN.

The scientists, almost uniformly and most uncharacteristically dressed in variations on a grey suit theme, milled around eating nibbles and drinking wine. As tends to happen at these sorts of gatherings, there was a lot of chest-gazing as the assembled boffins hunted for the name tags that would reveal who was who.

To give everyone a helping hand, the badges were colour-coded. PPARC people were labelled in white, VIPs in blue, Peers in green, while the press were tagged in yellow, one of nature's warning colours. We did notice that on spying a yellow tag, delegates often took a half-step away from the wearer.

Once the mingling was in full swing, the keynote speeches began. First we heard from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web. In the manner of proper celebrities, he couldn't be at the event in person, so sent a message via the web instead.

The web could only have been developed at CERN, he said, because the chaotic nature of the organisation made it a creative space. He argued that this lack of overt organisation is an important characteristic of the web, too. He thanked CERN's administration for making the web freely available: "If CERN had decided to charge royalties...the web as we know it today couldn't exist," he concluded.

CERN is understandably proud to have been home to the birth of the web, but there is a lot more to it than that. "CERN was founded on principles of openness and inclusion," said Dr. Robert Aymar, director general of CERN. "Scientists from all over the world are working together peacefully, regardless of race or religion."

The idea for a pan-European science venture was first mooted in 1949, not long after the end of the second world war. European science research was on at something of a low point because many facilities had been damaged or destroyed during the fighting and all the interesting research was happening in the US.

Five years later, twelve nations ratified the CERN convention and began building the laboratory, and the first machine, the synchrocyclotron, was switched on in 1957.

CERN now has 20 fully paid-up members (the UK contributes £70m a year to CERN, around a sixth of its total budget) and its next big project is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and, alongside that, the development of the world's largest operating computing grid, to process all the collision data.

"The LHC's mission is to elucidate the origin of mass," Aymar explains, referring to the search for the Higgs boson, the particle that would account for why matter has mass. If we could only find it.

Scientists will also use the LHC to investigate the universe's asymmetry - the fact that it has more matter than anti-matter, even though at the time of the Big Bang, there would have been equal amounts of both. The question is, where did all the anti-matter go?

Festivities were brought to a close by Lord Sainsbury, UK science minister. He said that the value of blue skies research was beyond question, but that the UK must also seek to capture the practical benefits of the research.

He pointed to the contributions CERN has made to medical research, cancer treatment and particularly PET (positron emission tomography) scans. "We must ensure that this flow out continues," he said.

And with that, the speeches were over, and the networking could begin in earnest. ®

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