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Union by science

CERN completes 50 years as a successful example of international cooperation

At the end of the 1940’s, anyone looking at Europe would see a desolate scenario. Hardly emerged from the Second World War, the European countries were in tatters, fighting for their own reconstruction, in the shadow of the crushing economic and military power of the Americans and the Soviets. In science, the situation was no better. The United States were attracting some of the main researchers in the world, seduced by the excellent working conditions and the prospects for carrying out important projects.

But, as dreaming has never been prohibited, a group of physicists that included Isidor Isaac Rabi, Ugo Amaldi, Pierre Auger and Denis de Rougemont realized – and started to preach – that cooperation amongst European nations was the only way to do cutting edge research under those precarious conditions. No country could manage, on its own, to fund a major program of nuclear research, an issue that was attracting attentions. Sensitive to this, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) recommended, in 1950, setting up a European laboratory, and, three years later, a convention was signed by 12 countries, creating the European Center for Nuclear Research (or CERN, in its French acronym).

Only one year afterwards, in 1954, they started the excavations in Geneva, in Switzerland, for the construction of the institution, a physics laboratory under the ground, with gigantic particle accelerators, those great circular machines that cause shocks between them – the largest of them, the Large Hadron Collider, has a circumference of 27 kilometers. Collisions between particles serves several objectives: understanding something as grandiose as the origin of the Universe, or as humdrum (nowadays) as developing better medical equipment, for research or for industry. It is the atomic particles that form atoms, which in turn make up all known matter.

Some of these particles are stable and known. Others live for fractions of seconds and are transformed. According to the most accepted theories, they all lived together for a few instants after the Big Bang, the great explosion said to have originated the Universe. Only an enormous concentration of energy, such as happened at that moment, could recreate them. An accelerator does that: it simulates conditions similar to those of the environment of about 13.5 billion years back, when everything is said to have started.

It is as if it were possible to go back in time and study at length which particles existed and how they were generated. Experiments like this gave the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physics to Carlo Rubbia, an Italian, and to Simon van der Meer, a Dutchman, for the discovery of the W and Z particles. The work confirmed the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces, which govern the behavior of the atom. It was also at CERN that Englishman Tim Berners-Lee created, in 1990, the World Wide Web, the www that made it possible for the Internet to turn into something very easy to use. CERN has grown, and today there are 20 countries participating of the institution on a permanent basis: Germany, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Spain, Slovakia, Finland, France, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic.

There are also other countries, like Brazil, that take part in the center’s programs. Brazilian Roberto Salmeron was one of the first experimental physicists hired by CERN, a few months after it had been founded, and he worked there for 37 and a half years, amidst comings and goings. “CERN is the most successful example of international collaboration, not only in sciences, but in any domain”, explains Salmeron. “It is an example of success, and it has been taken as a model for organizing other international and national vehicles.”