What does CERN mean for the future of the universe?

A model of the Large Hadron Collider in the CERN visitor's center in Geneva

Johannes Simon/­Getty Images

­The name CERN, shorthand for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, might not ring any bells, but the name of its biggest pet project -- the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC -- probably does. Like all of us, CERN wants to know how the universe works -- how it began, what it's made of, all that good stuff. Only instead of, say, reading books, CERN scientists study the tiniest particles in the universe. And they built the most powerful particle accelerator, the LHC, to do it.

­Once the LHC starts smashing particles, potentially in 2009, scientists might uncover the hypothetical Higgs boson particle, which would explain why we have mass, or they might find evidence of strangelets, another hypothetical substance that disassembles any matter it encounters and repackages it into strange matter. That latter discovery probably isn't something most of us would celebrate. Nor would we celebrate if the LHC created a giant black hole that sucked in the Earth, but CERN scientists don't think that's likely. If that happened, maybe we'd go out with a big bang. Or, rather, a big crunch. Still curious about CERN? Read What does CERN mean for the future of the universe?