Someone once described the work that goes on at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research that straddles the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, as a massive exercise in “organized curiosity”. CERN is the world’s largest particle accelerator laboratory, where international researchers have been collaborating to investigate the fundamental nature of the physical universe since the early 1950’s.
It’s where some of the largest scientific equipment ever built is used to peel back the layers on the smallest elements of what makes the cosmos.
Last night, we went to a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider. Thousands of people, an orchestra with a hundred-strong choir, and the Alan Parsons Live Project accompanied by the full orchestra and choir, took up residence out behind the CERN facility on the French side, in the middle of a large field.
The two official languages at CERN are French and English, but standing in the crowd, there was the likelihood of hearing Korean, Greek, Russian, Japanese and some I didn’t recognize, all spoken within arm’s length. At one point I was standing next to one of the senior scientists, and he said that one of the things he values most about his decades at CERN is the sense of collaboration and working towards a common goal on a global scale. Twenty member states support CERN, with numerous non-members participating in a variety of ways.
We often hear the question: Collaboration is nice, but what good does fundamental research do on a practical level? With all the money spent by various countries – tax money, public funds – what good does this kind of investigation really serve?
There is an objective and true response to this question. The exploration undertaken at CERN often requires equipment that doesn’t yet exist, leading to innovations in everything from computing to medical technologies to materials science and electronics.
But there is also another, more subjective and true response: This demonstrates us, as humans, at our most cooperative and inquisitive.