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Biggest atom smasher in the world reveals 'strangeness' - archive, February 1960 | Science

The biggest synchrotron in the world

by our own correspondent
6 February 1960

The largest proton synchrotron in the world yesterday started to function at the Meyrin, just outside Geneva – a symbol that Western Europe is still able to surpass both the super Powers through a co-operative effort. It was formally set in operation at the co-operative laboratory of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research by Professor Niels Bohr, the veteran Dutch nuclear physicist. Lord Hailsham represented Britain at the ceremony.

The 28,000 million electron volt (28 GeV.) “atom smasher” (constructed under the direction of Mr John Adams, formerly from the Atomic Establishment at Harwell, with Britain covering about a quarter of the cost) is a unique research tool for penetrating deeper into the knowledge of matter.

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M Francois de Rose (France), president of CERN’s council, emphasised that the presence of the American representatives (including Dr Oppenheimer) and the messages of goodwill from the Soviet Union seemed a “proof of the importance which these two nations attach to no longer being alone in fundamental physics research… who knows whether one day the idea of (European) co-operation will not impose itself on a wider scale and whether CERN will not then discover a new field of activity.”

His triumph
Of Mr John Adams, he said: “The triumph you have come here to-day to applaud is above all his, that of a man who combines in the highest degree the qualities of a mathematician, of an engineer, and of a leader of men.”

The proton synchrotron cost £10 million to construct. Although CERN is a co-operative venture of thirteen European Governments this side of the Iron Curtain, nationals from all other countries can come and carry out their research at the European laboratory where none of the work is secret.

Although the Americans are s expected to complete this year an accelerator with a slightly higher capacity (30 GeV.) than the European one, and the Russians are to have in a 1962 a machine twice the capacity of CERN’s, the conviction in Geneva is that, with the research tools now available in Europe, only human intelligence can, for practical purposes be a limiting factor, as far as the capacity for grasping the substance of matter is concerned.

A temple for atom smashers

by John Davy
The Observer, 7 February 1960

The principal centres of the remarkable nuclear religion which originated during the twentieth century were a number of striking circular temples. Excellent examples have recently been excavated at Harwell, Brookhaven and near Moscow. But the crown of the nuclear temple-builders’ achievement was undoubtedly at Meyrin, near Geneva, referred to in contemporary manuscripts as “the biggest atom smasher in the world.” This astonishing temple was dedicated, the manuscripts reveal, on February 5, 1960, by one of the most revered high priests of twentieth-century physics, Professor Niels Bohr…

That, in the year AD 3,000, is how somebody may begin his PhD thesis. Such a fantasy came easily to mind during yesterday’s inauguration ceremonies in the echoing concrete research hall adjoining the 28 GeV proton synchrotron – for these gigantic machines, which are springing up in many parts of the world, are remarkable phenomena.

They are expensive both in money and manpower. This particular machine is the centrepiece of CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. It cost £10 million and 750 “man-years” of effort by highly skilled scientists.

Yet they serve no practical purpose whatever. They are dedicated, so to to speak, to an invisible mystery. This mystery is the ultimate structure of matter, and its nature is being pursued in the name of pure knowledge for its own sake. But while this pursuit may seem baffling at first, even the layman can catch a whiff of the intense excitement of the chase – excitement which is enhanced by a tour of the CERN machine.

The synchrotron room, Cern, 11 February 1960.

The synchrotron room, Cern, 11 February 1960. Photograph: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Bunch of protons squirted in
A hollow, concrete wheel, 656 ft in diameter, is buried in the ground. Grass is already green on the mounds covering it. Inside a concrete tunnel, forming the rim of the wheel, runs the great magnet made up of 100 separate sections.

The magnet clasps a circular steel tube 2,060 ft. long. Clicking pumps maintain an almost perfect vacuum inside this tube, which is the cavity within which atomic particles – protons – are accelerated.

Protons are the nuclei of hydrogen atoms, and originate in an ordinary gas cylinder. They are given an initial push by an electric field, and then squirted in a bunch down a linear accelerator, a sort of electrical hypodermic, which injects them into the vacuum tube of the synchrotron at one-third of the speed of light. There they start to fly round their race track, being given successive kicks by a series of electric fields, while the magnetic field gradually rises to keep them on course as they accelerate.

The protons’ breakneck journey continues for one second in which time they circle the 2,000-ft. long tube 480.000 times. They are then travelling at over 99 per cent of the speed of light and are slammed into a target – usually a thin metal foil. It is not surprising that such nuclear missiles wreak havoc among the atoms of the metal foil.

Taking Matter to Pieces
It is a fairly brutal way of taking matter to pieces – but it produces results. Instead of three or four fundamental particles of matter – comparatively familiar objects like electrons and protons – the physicists are now talking about 25 or 30. Some of them have most peculiar properties and only exist for minute fractions of a second before turning into something else. There is a group called, for this reason, the “strange particles” and “strangeness” itself is now being spoken of as a property, like an electric charge, which can be added or subtracted, and can “leak away.”

The CERN machine is the largest door into this new domain yet built. It is nearly three times as powerful as the next largest, the Russian machine near Moscow. An equally large one is nearing completion in the United States.

These more powerful tools may reveal some still odder phenomena. Or they may help physicists see all the particles in some new perspective. At present, Professor Robert Oppenheimer told me: “We have no legitimate glimpse of how to put this house in order.”

The purpose of the synchrotron

by our Scientific Correspondent
9 February 1960

The Russian feat in sending a rocket to the moon and landing it within 100 miles of the centre of the visible disc has been widely hailed as an achievement of accurate guidance. Obviously to have sent an object to the moon with an error of merely a centimetre would have been an immensely more difficult task. Yet this is in a sense what the new accelerating machine at Geneva does for millions of the atomic particles called protons several times every minute. In fact each proton has to travel a distance comparable with that between the earth and the moon at a steadily increasing speed until at the end it is travelling with a velocity insignificantly different from that of light. At no time must it depart by as much as a centimetre from its pre-determined path. And the whole process must be completed in about a second.

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The Guardian, 9 February 1960.

The Guardian, 9 February 1960.

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