Adam's Weekly Blog
The most famous physics laboratory in the world – is not what I...
The most famous physics laboratory in the world – is not what I expected.
CERN is where they invented the world wide web. It is where they conducted the most expensive physics experiment in the history of mankind. It is where they have built a tunnel that crosses France and Switzerland and creates the conditions that existed just after the creation of the universe.
From that description you might expect a futuristic complex of buildings made from shiny steel and bristling with modern architecture and designs straight from a Sci-Fi Hollywood movie. Instead what you get is more like a 1970’s university campus collection of dowdy buildings and crowded car parks.
They may have spent billions here but it is not on the offices. The office in which they invented the world wide web is marked with a rather boring plaque and the most expensive and important experiment they have ever conducted take place in a tube which looks like it is part of a central heating system.
That tube is The Large Hadron Collider and cost six billion dollars to build. Inside the 27-kilometre collider particles are shot at each other which collide and create an explosion which mimics the beginnings of the universe and helps them understand how the universe is created.
They say this is the hottest place in the world, because of the point of collision it is a million times hotter than the sun. It is the coldest place, colder than outer space because of the magnets within the tunnel itself which keep the collider from over-heating and they say it is the coolest place in the world because re-creating the beginnings of the universe is, well, cool.
Standing by CERN’s logo I asked what CERN stood for since in English it is called the European Organization for Nuclear Research while in French it is called the Organisation européenne pour la recherche nucléaire.
Neither spell out CERN – but that was something no one could explain.
CERN was set up to research into fundamental science, not to produce a product. The irony is that in searching for some answers to the questions of the universe, it has in fact created science which can help solve some very practical problems.
Near the Large Hadron Collider is its less famous sibling, - LEIR – the Low Energy Ion Ring. It is being used to help develop new cancer treatments, something called Hadron therapy.
Manjit Dosanjh is one of the scientists applying particle physics technology to the medical field.
Traditional chemotherapy and radiation therapy floods the body with radiation to try and attack the cancer cells. In the process however it can damage healthy cells as well.
That is why cancer treatments can be so gruelling.
Proton therapy tries to be much more precise but to explain the difference the film crew made me go swimming.
I was told to jump into the pool, spraying water everywhere and getting everyone wet. That, I was told, is like many traditional cancer treatments – it is very imprecise.
Then I was told to dive in like an elegant kingfisher. Well, I tried and that, I was told, is more like proton therapy. The protons act at precisely the right point of the body where the tumour is without causing damage around it.
Proton therapy to treat cancer has been around since the 1950s but the sheer size of the accelerators and cost – around a hundred million euros each -- puts them out of the market for most medical facilities.
CERN’s science is trying to develop accelerators which are cheaper and smaller and can be used in real hospitals outside the world of huge research centres.
It may well be that fundamental physics is having more of an impact our lives than we ever could imagine.