Question: What do the Higgs boson and the World Wide Web have in common? Answer: Not much, except that both trace their origins to the world’s leading particle physics organization: the European Laboratory for Nuclear Research (CERN), located near Geneva, Switzerland. Today, at a brief ceremony led by OSTP Associate Director for Science Jo Handelsman, the United States signed an agreement for renewed cooperation with this prominent institution.
From left: Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, OSTP Associate Director for Science Jo Handelsman, CERN Director-General Rolf-Dieter Heuer, and National Science Foundation Director France Córdova. (Photo credit: Ken Shipp/DOE)
CERN was founded in 1954 in part to rebuild the scientific infrastructure in Europe after World War II and to use science as a tool to bridge cultural and political divides. Now some 10,000 scientists, engineers, and students from over 100 countries pursue research using CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the 17-mile long accelerator that produced the Higgs boson in 2012. More than 1,500 of those working on the LHC come from universities and national laboratories in the United States.
In 1997, the United States and CERN signed their first agreement to cooperate on the LHC. Under that accord, the United States helped build the accelerator and the two cathedral-size particle detectors that straddle it. While the LHC smashes protons against each other, the detectors record the traces of the particles produced in the collisions. Physicists then carefully sift through the data looking for new particles or unexpected particle behavior. It was through this process that the Higgs boson was discovered by a large international team. The discovery was enabled by a worldwide computing infrastructure that the United States helped build.
Today, almost 20 years after signing the first agreement, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, National Science Foundation Director France Córdova, and CERN Director-General Rolf-Dieter Heuer met at the White House to formalize the next phase of the successful U.S.-CERN partnership.
From left: Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, CERN Director-General Rolf-Dieter Heuer, and National Science Foundation Director France Córdova. (Photo credit: Ken Shipp/DOE)
The timing is just right for this agreement. After a two-year hiatus for repairs and a “tune-up,” the LHC will soon be back in business smashing protons into each other at a higher intensity and almost twice the energy than before. LHC scientists are also busy planning major upgrades to the LHC accelerator and particle detectors so that they can operate at even higher intensities and process more data in years to come. Why? Because that’s what it takes to push the frontier and discover new forces and particles that can complete the puzzle of how the Universe works. Many examples of great science like the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 await us all at CERN. The Higgs -- a big leap forward for science – is emblematic of what is possible in the human effort to solve the great mysteries of the Universe. We know, for example, that most of the matter in the Universe is dark matter and yet we don’t know what dark matter is. One hope is that the improved LHC will help us answer that question and many others. Today’s agreement ensures that U.S. scientists can contribute to future work at CERN.
The United States’ agreement with CERN also paves the way for CERN to participate in the U.S. science program, by providing a pathway for CERN to contribute to future particle physics facilities built here. This partnership could benefit U.S.-based efforts in other areas of particle physics, including addressing the mysteries of the ubiquitous, yet elusive, neutrinos.
Answering big questions in particle physics sometimes requires big facilities. The new U.S.-CERN agreement expands the global community of physicists with access to cutting-edge research facilities in Europe and in the United States. After all, the laws and mysteries of physics are global. Research into them should be too.
Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Saul Gonzalez is Assistant Director for Physical Sciences at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.