ATLAS experiment picture

A CERN worker cruises past a painted representation of the LHC’s ATLAS experiment on Dec. 13, 2011, in Geneva, Switzerland.

Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

If Albert Einstein were alive on July 4, 2012, I'd like to think that he would have grinned when researchers ecstatically announced that they had found what they believed was the Higgs boson.

More than 40 years before, British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs and his colleagues had proposed that this particular elementary particle and its associated field were the reasons why matter has mass. When scientists confirmed Higgs' theory in the 21st century, it opened a window as to how the universe works, which Einstein and many others have devoted their lives to studying.

The discovery represented a triumph of science. Yet, researchers made the find not by looking through a telescope, analyzing data collected from a spacecraft or even performing one of Einstein's famous thought experiments. They found Higgs through decades of painstaking research at colliders around the world, notably CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. CERN stands for the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (or the European Center for Nuclear Research).

Their research was painstaking because the life of the Higgs boson is infinitesimally short. It breaks into smaller particles in much less time than it takes to blink. Scientists had to be on their toes to detect Higgs. Through trial and error, euphoria and despair, scientists at CERN spent $10 billion over the decades chasing the elusive particle [source: Overbye].

The discovery put CERN on the front page. Yet, most people still have no idea what the scientists at CERN actually do. We can help with that.