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How CERN Works

Inside CERN

CERN has been around since the 1950s. Recall that at the end of World War II, Europe was a mess and its scientific community a shambles. Scientists in the United States, which included many plucked from Europe, had taken the lead in physics. In 1949, French quantum physicist Louis de Broglie proposed that Europe try to recapture its scientific glory by creating a multinational atomic physics laboratory.

A few years later, CERN was born and built just outside Geneva. The 12 founding states included Belgium, Denmark, France, West Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Yugoslavia. As of January 2014, 21 countries, including Israel, Poland and Finland, are CERN members, and each one gets two spots on the CERN council, the decision-making body, but a single vote on such decisions. CERN's Director-General, Rolf Heuer in 2014, essentially functions as the leader.

The United States is not a member but an observer state, that is, one that can attend meetings and get info but not vote on CERN matters [source: CERN]. (Speaking of the U.S., it contributed $531 million for the construction of several LHC components.)

CERN's job was to find out how the universe worked. No big deal, right? Scientists decided the best way to accomplish this monumental task was to build giant machines that slammed subatomic particles into one another. The hope was that these so-called atom smashers would give researchers a glimpse back to the time just after the universe came into being. Accordingly, CERN started building its very first accelerator in 1957, the Synchrocyclotron, which crashed and smashed its way toward 33 years of service. CERN now operates several accelerators and one decelerator in a building complex that straddles the Swiss and French border. The cost of the experiments is spread over the member states [sources: Exploratorium, CERN].

By 2014, 2,400 full-time employees and 1,500 part-timers, were working at CERN, while more than 600 institutes and universities were allowed to use its facilities to start unraveling a variety of mysteries, such as antimatter, black holes, and the events that occurred a split second after the Big Bang. Moreover, 10,000 scientists from 113 countries — half of all the particle physicists on planet — stop by CERN for research each year. And it's not just scientists either. People work at a variety of jobs including engineers, experimental physicists and even accountants. Scientists from member states get first crack at a position, although senior scientists from other countries are always considered [sources: Exploratorium, CERN].