Science for peace: Oxford at CERN

Science for peace; discovering the origins of the Universe. The aims are as lofty and high as the human mind can reach.

Oxford University
Feb 19 · 12 min read

Straddling borders on an unassuming patch of Europe, it is humbling to find these aims being pursued in CERN’s modest surface buildings, which belie the magic that lies underground.

CERN was envisioned in the aftermath of World War 2. At this time, the need for a European nuclear physics laboratory was sharply felt. A place was necessary where the best minds could come together to harness and develop knowledge for the advancement of human understanding. After just a few years of planning, the European Council for Nuclear Research — CERN — was born.

The CERN Convention, signed by 12 Member States in 1953, established a new hub that quickly began to exert its own compelling force to match the gravitational pull of the US. The laboratory has grown to have 23 Member States, 2500 employees and 20,000 users.

Aerial view of CERN.

The Convention states: ‘The Organization shall have no concern with work for military requirements and the results of its experimental and theoretical work shall be published or otherwise made generally available.’ These principles are upheld to this day.

Throughout CERN’s existence, Oxford has made major contributions and its involvement continues to be key.

Dr Peggie Rimmer was one of the earliest Oxford scientists to work at CERN in the mid-1960s. She says about the early days: ‘It was fantastic being at CERN at that time. After the war, America was where it was all happening. Their labs had government money and many scientists who had had to leave Europe during the war went to the US; some came to Oxford. CERN was set up to provide equivalent facilities in Europe, without military research. Funded by taxpayers’ money, everything had to be open source, which is why CERN gave the world the World Wide Web for free.’

Dr Rimmer was in a collaboration that started as the Oxford group, led by the late Neil Tanner, and grew to include half a dozen or so participants from several other universities. She remembers: ‘We were the first small group on the beam lines to have a mini-computer — it was very expensive! We were scattering pion beams and I wrote the software to record the data, taken from a set of small electronic detectors. As soon as we had a computer we could also analyse the data ourselves.’

Oxford graduate Tim Berners-Lee, now Oxford Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, invented the World Wide Web while working there in 1989. His initial motivation was to link scientists around the world who were researching at CERN. Its rapid spread and development can hardly be exaggerated.

Dr Rimmer was Tim Berners-Lee’s supervisor from 1984 to 1990. She recalls: ‘My first impression of Tim was that he was another smart guy; we were all smart guys! There were about 15 of us in my section, dealing with data acquisition, and we all had jobs to do. But Tim also had a side-line: simplifying how computers talk to each other and I was sympathetic to the idea. We had to keep quiet about it, so my role as his supervisor was as an enabler. I gave him space and encouragement to work on his dream. The web grew out of CERN principles of sharing data and in the spirit of openness; we had no idea how it would evolve. Particle physics and computer science have developed in tandem. It has been a successful marriage.’

Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, the Head of Oxford Physics in 1987–92, became the Director-General of CERN in 1994 and led the laboratory through the delicate approval processes for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). He negotiated major contributions from Canada, India, Japan, the Russian Federation and the USA that were essential for the completion of this incredible machine that can smash particles together at 99.999999% the speed of light.

100m underground inside the LHC.

A now-famous moment came on 4 July, 2012, when two LHC experiments announced they had each observed a new particle, consistent with the Higgs boson predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded jointly to François Englert and Peter Higgs in 2013, but hundreds and even thousands of people contributed to this discovery.

Ilustration of a Higgs boson collision.

Two of those key contributing scientists were the husband and wife team Professor Ian Shipsey and Professor Daniela Bortoletto, now Head of Physics and Head of Particle Physics at Oxford, respectively. They helped to build one of the cameras that captured the Higgs boson.

Professor Bortoletto remembers the time vividly: ‘We made the cameras and found exactly what we were expecting to find. This is not abstract. If it didn’t exist we wouldn’t be here. This invisible thing is making electrons heavier than photons, and so there would be no atoms if there was no Higgs particle. It was a very, very exciting experience.’

She adds: ‘The Higgs boson is a very special particle in the Standard Model: it has zero spin, no electric charge and no strong force interaction. Without it all particles would be massless and would not form atoms.’

Fast forward to 2020. What are the discoveries that Oxford’s current generation is pursuing at CERN and what technologies are they developing to advance human understanding?

Oxford Particle Physics DPhil candidates are able to spend a year at the world’s best experimental facility in their field. For most it is a dream come true. The opportunity gives them the chance to work alongside colleagues with a shared passion from across the world and the enthusiasm is palpable.

Aaron O’Neill, who left school early and joined the Marines, before returning to education and discovering physics later in life, says: ‘One of my favourite goals is science for science’s sake. That’s why we’re all here. One of the most incredible things is that human beings are capable of doing any of this: we’re capable of building the theories to predict some of these things and then we’re also capable of building the machines.

‘In my opinion, it’s one of the modern wonders of the world. One thing I want people to know is the effort that we go through; the amount of work we’ve put in and the goal of science for peace with no military applications, for the point of understanding.’

Machinery detail from inside the LHC.

This goal provides a clear focus for the myriad components and people involved. It offers a clarity that, quite tangibly, seems to unite and inspire. It is striking that even at breakfast time in the central canteen, researchers, scientists and engineers sit down together, gossip and exchange ideas over coffee. There’s an energised hum of voices in multiple languages: Italian, French, German and English in a spectrum of accents.

After chatting over breakfast, many of the world’s brightest minds decamp to fading prefabs that have outlived expectation.

Entrance to LHCb before going through security.

DPhil student Maria Giovanna Foti talks about what kind of personal qualities help with the work that goes on at CERN: ‘To do this kind of work you need a lot of patience. You have to learn to deal with the frustrating moments. But the most important feature you need to have is creative thinking to be able to find a solution when you seem to be stuck. This is what we do: we solve problems. You have to be able to do it one way or another.’

Her fellow DPhil student Martina Pili adds: ‘Every day we have a new problem, so your mind has to be trained to reset in a very short amount of time. Every day is a new challenge — that’s the most exciting part.’

Table tennis in the CERN common space at night.

CERN’s common space is a place to regroup again after a hard day’s work. At night-time it glows with electric light and friends meet to clebrate a birthday, to play table tennis — relieving some of the tension of being hunched over computers or down underground all day.

DPhil student Luke Dyks says: ‘We have this experience of disappointment on a nearly weekly basis. You try new ideas out for months and then you realise that it doesn’t actually work at all. The thing that I use to ward against this is that, in the back of my mind, I know that when I do solve it, it will feel amazing.

‘Some of the best days you spend as a scientific researcher are when you’ve been working on something for months and months, and then something just clicks, and you’re able to see the whole thing in a different light. You’re able to see where the problems were exactly.’

There is a boundary point on the ground at CERN: step one side and you’re in France, stretching away to the west; step the other and you’re in Switzerland, leading off to the east. Beneath it all, in a 27km tunnel crossing this border 100m underground, the secrets of the Universe are being uncovered.

As DPhil student Philipp Windischhofer puts it: ‘Part of the wonderful absurdity of this place is that we have this big machine — the LHC — which is 27km in circumference and it is able to process distances that are a millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a metre. To make that work you need many different people. You need the people who build the magnets, who care about the cooling, the ventilation and so on. Everybody is working towards this one common goal, which is the purpose of CERN.’

The spirit of collaboration and the co-operation required to envisage the questions, create the theories, design the experiments, engineer the facilities and write the code to shape the experiments and decipher what the results might mean is astonishing, and the urge to understand keeps pushing the science on.

Maria Giovanna Foti says: ‘We use this amazing machine that’s at our disposal to accelerate protons and collide them, and what we do is try to take a picture of these collisions with the ATLAS detector. ATLAS is really huge; it’s longer than three school buses, taller than five giraffes and almost as heavy as the Eiffel Tower. We take a picture of the collisions and we reconstruct what happens, and this could be really important since we do not have any evidence yet of new physics.

Compact Muon Solenoid detector.

‘Our detector is like an onion. It’s composed of several different sub-detectors and every sub-detector has their roles. And then we can put all our information together we can reconstruct the “full event” of each particle, and by reconstructing that we can get to the fundamental physics that took place.’

While the theories being tested are at the furthest edge of what the human mind can conceive, the means to test them are very real, physical and tangible.

Infinite complexity inside the LHC.

There are thousands of kilometres of wiring and cooling pipes, thousands of huge superconducting electromagnets that have to be cooled to nearly absolute zero — not to mention whole sections of experiments wrapped in tinfoil to regulate heat distribution. Huge shafts have been burrowed to lower parts in and out of one of the detectors, the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), with a series of winches and pulleys. Yet, 100m underground in the LHC, bicycles casually lean against the side of the tunnel, ready to pedal around to the next section. Once you pass through the secure entrance gates to each experiment, warnings about radiation are everywhere.

Bicycles for CERN staff to pedal around the 27km tunnel.

The patience and dedication to shared and personal goals is unwavering.

Rebecca Ramjiawan, one of Oxford’s post-doctoral researchers who works on beam guidance, says: ‘People are very driven to see the final outcome. You can work on a project for years or decades, but people never lose the drive to get to the final outcome. People are working hard to make it happen.

‘Yesterday I spent until 10pm in the control room trying to get something to work and in the end it did work and that was possibly my best day so far.’

A fragment of engineering design taped to the side of the collider.

Professor Philip Burrows, who has been connected with CERN since 1986 and is now spokesperson of the Compact Linear Collider Collaboration, says: ‘At the end of the day, you can break all of these problems down into small teams of people who work very closely together. We work on problems at a human level that we can solve, and then we put that into the jigsaw puzzle which allows us to make the beautiful picture. Each team has got its little piece in the puzzle and then you end up with something which is much grander and addresses really hard and fundamental problems in physics. You have to have the long view — it’s big science and we’re delivering over timescales of 10 or 20 years.’

Inside the LHC; national flags bedeck the tunnel showing its internationalism.

What are the next big challenges in fundamental physics that CERN might help solve? Professor Burrows says: ‘One of the important things that we’ve got to do now is study the Higgs Boson in incredible detail. Going beyond that, we don’t understand where dark matter comes from. There’s five times more dark matter out there in the Universe than there is normal matter. So if we were very lucky, we might hope to make a discovery of a dark matter particle at CERN.

‘And then of course, we don’t know where half the Universe went, because in the Big Bang there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter created; we live in Universe that seems to be matter-dominated. What happened to all the antimatter?’

Rhodri Jones (Beam Instrumentation group leader, CERN) and Jake Gilmore (Science and Technology Facilities Council).

There are enough questions to take CERN into the next generation and beyond. But the hugeness of the task does not daunt the scientists and engineers from around the world coming together to find answers. Professor Burrows paraphrases Winston Churchill to explain the significance of the discovery of the Higgs boson for particle physics: ‘It’s not the end, it’s not the beginning of the end, but perhaps it’s the end of the beginning in this journey to understand the Universe.’

Professor Bortoletto says: ‘My dream is to work at a future collider that will allow the detailed study of the Higgs boson properties. CERN is planning a project called the Future Circular Collider (FCC) that envisions a 100km collider to provide precision studies of the Higgs boson.

‘CERN has spearheaded the growing open-science movement. The spirit of openness and peaceful collaboration has also grown and now extends far beyond Europe. CERN is a world laboratory and its amazing facilities allow scientists from all over the globe to make fundamental advances in the exploration of the energy frontier opened by the Large Hadron Collider.’

The collective endeavour is an act of imagination and scientific rigour. It is an inspirational reminder of what humans are capable of when they come together behind a common goal and apply the best of all they have.

Oxford University will keep contributing to that unceasing pursuit of knowledge and fundamental science by recruiting and nurturing its talent and maintaining its close and historic links with CERN. The next Higgs boson discovery and the next World Wide Web could be just around the corner. And Oxford will be at the heart of those discoveries.

Words and images: Ruth Abrahams

Videos: Tom Fuller

Sound design (CERN soundscape): Richard Watts

Further information:


Physics at Oxford:

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