At CERN, God Particles Don't Come Cheap

Source: CERN

After you discover one of the building blocks of the universe, what do you do for an encore? That’s the question facing the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN. Based in Geneva, the research center is home to the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. In 2012 physicists using the atom smasher discovered a particle that they later concluded was the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that helps explain the existence of mass. That discovery resulted in Nobel prizes for the first men who postulated the elementary particle’s existence two decades earlier.

The 17-mile-long collider, which fires beams of protons at close to light speed, cost 6 billion Swiss francs ($6.6 billion) to build over 10 years and began operations in 2008. The collider has sat idle for most of the past two years as it undergoes a $105 million upgrade; it’s slated to begin its second three-year run in March. The investment has pretty much doubled the power of the collider, allowing it to further advance the quest for other particles to prove other theories. Unraveling the mysteries of the universe is expensive: The upgrade has contributed to a $228 million hole in the research organization’s $1.3 billion annual budget, making some of its 21 member countries more concerned about what they’re getting for their money, says Fabiola Gianotti , the incoming director-general.

Fabiola Gianotti

Fabiola Gianotti

Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

A particle physicist who led one of the two experiments that resulted in the discovery of the Higgs boson, Gianotti will take over CERN on Jan. 1, 2016. To shrink the budget deficit, she plans to add more member countries; each contributes money based mostly on total national income. Gianotti says it will take several years to balance CERN’s ledgers but believes her organization is worth the money. “Every time we make a step forward in fundamental knowledge, this sooner or later entails progress,” she says, noting that British scientist Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web at CERN in 1989. The organization’s annual budget is the equivalent of the cost of a single cappuccino per year per citizen of Europe, she says.

The Large Hadron Collider is quite a few steps further removed from everyday life than the Web. It uses superconducting magnets, kept colder than outer space, to guide its two proton beams so they hit each other with the force of high-speed trains. Each time, the hope is that the collision will release inconceivably small particles that can then be measured by enormous magnetic detectors, one of which contains more iron than the Eiffel Tower.

The scientists running the collider are searching for the estimated 95 percent of universal building blocks that went missing after the Big Bang. At the top of their list is dark matter, the invisible energy that scientists hypothesize holds galaxies together. “With the discovery of the Higgs boson, one of the questions has been ticked off the list, but there are many others,” Gianotti says. “We hope that we can find answers or hints for answers to at least some of them. But of course, this is in the hands of nature.”

Gianotti, the first woman chosen to head 60-year-old CERN, began working there in 1994. A pianist who trained at the Milan Conservatory, she decided to pursue science at age 17, after reading a biography of Marie Curie. In addition to working on experiments, she helped design the software that analyzes data the organization collects. Gianotti has advised the secretary-general of the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. “She learns readily from others and is not afraid to have her opinions challenged,” says Chris Quigg, a theoretical physicist at Fermilab who’s known Gianotti for 15 years. “CERN and its member states have a wealth of management talent and business acumen, and Fabiola will surround herself with people whose talents complement her own.”

Gianotti’s strategy of spreading CERN’s costs to more countries began under the current director-general, Rolf-Dieter Heuer. Israel, the first full member from outside Europe, joined CERN last year. Gianotti says other countries are considering signing on but didn’t name them.

Depending on what CERN researchers glean from the next round of Large Hadron collisions, the organization may push forward on another jumbo particle accelerator that could cost as much as $8.9 billion. Early discussions include a 62-mile-circumference model that would lie partly under Lake Geneva. “Our science is long-term science. You have to have a long-term view,” Heuer says. “One of the most beloved discussions of people is, ‘What is the benefit?’ Of course, the less money lies around, the more often this question comes up.”

The bottom line: CERN is looking to expand its 21-nation roster as it works to address a $228 million deficit in its $1.3 billion budget.

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