CERN: 60 years of not destroying the world

Ahead of November’s opening of the Collider exhibition, Content Developer Rupert Cole celebrates six decades of research at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. 

Just before the Large Hadron Collider first turned on in September 2008, there was (in some quarters) a panic that it would destroy the world.

Doomsday was all over the media. “Are we all going to die next Wednesday?” asked one headline. Even when CERN submitted a peer-reviewed safety report in an attempt to allay fears, it didn’t altogether quash the dark mutterings and comic hysteria: “Collider will not turn world to goo, promise scientists.” 

This cartoon is pinned on the wall of the theory common room at CERN. Image credit: Mike Moreau

This cartoon is pinned on the wall of the theory common room at CERN. Image credit: Mike Moreu

In case you were wondering, the LHC has subsequently proved to be completely safe, and has even found the Higgs Boson to boot.

In fact, this isn’t the first time CERN has provoked fears of world destruction. In the lead-up to the signing of CERN’s founding Convention – 60 years ago this month – the proposed organisation was greatly hindered and influenced by apocalypse anxiety.

Only, back then, it had nothing to do with micro black holes swallowing the earth or strangelet particles messing with matter. No such exotic phenomena were needed. Just the mention of the words nuclear and atomic was enough to provoke serious paranoia in the Cold-War climate.

In 1949 Denis de Rougement, a Swiss writer and influential advocate for a federal Europe, attended the European Cultural Conference — one of the early conferences in which a “European Centre for Atomic Research” was discussed. “To speak of atomic research at that time,” de Rougement reflected, “was immediately to evoke, if not the possibility of blowing up the whole world, then at least preparations for a third world war.”

The press undoubtedly subscribed to the more extreme school of thought. On the second day of the conference, all the scientists present had to be locked in a chamber for protection as they had been pestered so severely by journalists on the previous day.

In some of the initial discussions, a nuclear reactor as well as an accelerator was proposed for the European research centre. It was carefully stressed that no commercial applications would be developed and all military work scrupulously excluded.

The French, who led these early proposals, removed the director of the French Atomic Energy Commission, the communist-leaning Frederic Joliot-Curie, after J. Robert Oppenheimer (of Manhattan Project fame) stated the Americans wouldn’t support a project that included a senior figure with Soviet sympathies.

Left to right: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Isidor I. Rabi, Morton C. Mott-Smith, and Wolfgang Pauli in a boat on Lake Zurich in August 1927. Image credit: CERN

Left to right: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Isidor I. Rabi, Morton C. Mott-Smith, and Wolfgang Pauli in a boat on Lake Zurich in August 1927. Image credit: CERN

The nuclear reactor was dropped when Hungarian-American physicist Isidor I. Rabi, the so-called “father” of CERN,  stepped on the scene. Rabi, who co-founded the American research centre Brookhaven National Laboratory, put a resolution to the annual conference of UNESCO in Florence, June 1950 for a (“western”) European physics laboratory.

The fact Rabi omitted to mention a nuclear reactor was likely a political move on the part of the US, who were not keen on Soviet bits of Europe developing nuclear weapons. After much to-ing and fro-ing in the next two years, a provisional agreement was signed on 14 February 1952 by ten European states.

The next day, the signed agreement was telegrammed to Rabi, informing him of the “birth of the project you fathered in Florence”. The convention was signed on the 1st July, 1953 and CERN became an official organisation just over a year later.

Telegram sent to Isidor Rabi on 15 February, 1952 – marking the birth of CERN. Image credit: CERN.

Telegram sent to Isidor Rabi on 15 February, 1952 – marking the birth of CERN. Image credit: CERN.

For sixty years, CERN has been successfully exploring the unknown regions of the quantum world, while leaving the world we live in very much intact.

See a copy of the telegram and more in Collider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment, opening this November. Click here for further reading on the history of CERN

One thought on “CERN: 60 years of not destroying the world

  1. Pingback: CERN News – LHC Celebrates Five Years | Head Space

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