Go back to article: Curating the collider: using place to engage museum visitors with particle physics

CERN: a place to bring people together

But what kind of combination of created space and original objects would convey the essence of CERN in an engaging way to visitors? The following section explores the history, construction and daily working conditions of CERN that informed the creation of Collider.

This year, CERN celebrates its 60th anniversary, marking the ratification of its convention on 29 September 1954. It was a slow and sometimes painful birth. In the shadow of the Second World War and the atomic bomb, the widespread wish to concentrate on peaceful scientific research while re-building international relations (and, in Europe, stem further ‘brain drain’ to the US) provided the context for scientists’ and politicians’ many and varied discussions about possible collaborations and international facilities.[3]

Plans for a pan-European laboratory for nuclear research gained traction in the 1950s. They were supported by interested parties from the US, led by Isidor Rabi, who considered that such a scheme could act as a Marshall Plan for science, uniting and strengthening the European research base and isolating the Soviet Union (Krige, 2005). In particular, the United States hoped to benefit economically and militarily by applying fundamental scientific discoveries made in Europe, as it had done with great success before the war.

In February 1952, the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire was provisionally founded. Geneva, Paris, Copenhagen and Arnhem were all proposed as sites for the new lab, with Geneva emerging as the chosen host – Switzerland’s neutrality was an important selling point, confirming that the new laboratory would eschew military research. Construction work began in May 1954, and in September the convention of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research was signed by 12 member states. The Council was dissolved, but the acronym CERN stuck.

Figure 6

Telegram to Isidor Rabi with over 20 signatures on which is typed We have just signed the agreement which constitutes the official birth of the project you fathered at Florence. Mother and child are doing well, and the Doctors send you their greetings.

Telegram to Isidor Rabi regarding the founding of CERN, 1952 - Rabi had tabled the UNESCO resolution for the lab, with US support.

Throughout its history, CERN has extended its reach beyond Europe, with scientists from more far-flung institutions collaborating on experiments. Today, it is in the privileged position of hosting the world’s only facility for multi-purpose physics experiments at very high energies. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was originally designed as Europe’s competitor to the American Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) and Russian UNK. With the cancellation of the SSC in 1993 and suspension of work on UNK in 1998, CERN was left with a monopoly on the next generation of large accelerator technology (Nekhai, 2011; Riordan, 2000). The LHC’s only competitor, Fermilab’s Tevatron, ceased operations in 2011 as it could not reach the higher energies of its newer rival. The US and Russia are observer states of CERN, and the organisation continues to expand its international affiliations.[4] These days, CERN’s Director-General Rolf Heuer likes to say that the E in CERN now stands for ‘everyone’.[5] Conveying the international and collaborative nature of work at CERN would be a key element of the exhibition.

Everyone who goes to CERN needs to interact in a physical space. In developing campus plans for the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider, architect Moshe Safdie reviewed how scientists interacted in large-scale facilities. Consideration of interpersonal relations had been factored in to the planning of major campuses in the past: Chicago’s Fermilab physics laboratory (where construction began in 1967) was focused on a high-rise central building with offices and laboratories above the main parts of the accelerator ring, while at the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences in La Jolla, California (where construction began in 1962), a long courtyard connected a mix of spaces optimised for solitude or collaboration. CERN, by contrast, seemed to Safdie to have no such planning: although the first building works in the 1950s followed an architectural scheme, over the subsequent half century CERN has expanded ‘almost like a medieval town, having begun to grow outward from one end. In apparent disorder, its workshops, laboratories and central meeting spaces spread out over the landscape’ (Safdie, 1999, p 490). Disorganisation somehow worked: particle physicists told Safdie that when they travelled to collaborate on an experiment, the only place they casually met people was CERN. Safdie put this down to the network of horizontal passages and tunnels that connected buildings with different functions, and provided sheltered access to the central building with large group meeting places such as the main auditorium and café (he noted that the good coffee served there was also a contributing factor to CERN’s congenial environment).

Figure 7

An architectural pen and ink drawing of the CERN complex showing several buildings and a large circular below ground structure

Architectural drawings of the CERN site, made by Rudolf Steiger of the architectural firm Haefli Moser Steiger, 1953. The ring of the Proton Synchrotron is clearly visible.

Figure 8

Ariel photograph of a large area of several kilometres showing the ring of the Proton Synchrotron

An aerial view of CERN from 1991 showing the expansion of the site. Three rings are marked - the Proton Synchrotron (just visible at centre right), the 7km Super Proton Synchrotron and the 27-km Large Electron-Positron Collider (in the tunnel now occupied by the LHC).

CERN’s sociability is noticeable at a very personal level – during a study of its Theory Division in the 1990s, Martina Merz noted that along the theorists’ long office corridors the doors were usually left open (Merz, 1998). They were frequently adorned with posters for conferences, often long expired, a strong reminder of the travel culture of the professional physicist.

Today, many experimental physicists are based at distant universities or research institutes, but stay connected to the centre of activity via email and weekly online meetings. (For a discussion of CERN’s many different categories of ‘physicist’, concerned with theory, data analysis and detector construction, see Roy, 2012.) They are able to access the data and tools required for their work from any location with an internet connection thanks to the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid, a globally distributed cloud computing system developed specifically to process, analyse and store the LHC data (Bird, 2011).

Nevertheless, physical meetings in actual spaces seem to remain important. Members of CERN’s global ‘collaborating organism’ make regular visits to the campus, in particular during ‘collaboration weeks’ when members of an experimental collaboration gather at CERN for intensive meetings and discussions. While there, physicists can make use of satellite offices maintained by their home institutions. These spaces reflect the personalities and interests of successive generations of employees, with posters, whiteboard sketches and personal possessions often remaining in place long after an individual has departed, or even left the field entirely. One of the authors (Harry Cliff) has found that it is not uncommon to enquire after the owner of, say, a bicycle part, only to be told by an old hand that it’s been there since at least 1997 and probably belonged to A N Other, now based in Chicago, but nobody is quite sure. The community atmosphere of CERN, its connected physical structures, the daily human interactions and experiences of the staff seemed crucial to convey to audiences.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140207/005