Life at CERN: Beyond the LHC

A column by Hwong Yi Ling


The target of the CNGS facility at CERN

When it comes to research at CERN, much spotlight has been shone on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). And rightly so. The LHC is the culmination of a decade of meticulous design and hard work, from a big team of some of the brightest minds of our time. Inconspicuously lying 100 metres underneath the picturesque Rhone-Alpes region, and straddling the Franco- Swiss border near Geneva, the LHC is built to find answers to some of the biggest questions about our universe. Using the LHC, scientists try to recreate the condition right after the Big Bang by accelerating two beams of protons and ions in opposite directions to almost the speed of light and then smashing them together. Teams of physicists then analyse the energy and trace of the resulting product to look for tell-tale signs of how our universe was formed and how it developed.

The LHC is a dream beyond the paradigm. But that is not all that CERN does. CERN also designs, runs and support many other experiments, from the field of astrophysics to cosmology. These supporting actors inspire ingenuity and spark exuberant dialogues in this scientific spectacle, and deserve a stage of their own. So here goes.


The CNGS project aims to clear the mysterious air surrounding neutrinos. Neutrinos are very light, neutral particles that interact very little with matter, thus they are extremely hard to be detected. Often called ‘the chameleons of the particle world’, there are three ‘types’ (‘flavours’) of neutrinos (electron neutrino, muon neutrino and tau neutrino) but it seems that they can change from one ‘type’ to another. And this happens when neutrinos travel long distance through matter. To study this phenomenon, the CNGS project sends neutrinos from CERN’s facilities to the detector at another location 732 km away at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory located in the Gran Sasso mountains of Italy.

The CNGS project is the experiment at the heart of the ‘faster-than-light neutrinos’ episode that was unveiled in September 2011. Although later disproved, the speeding neutrinos chapter is a demonstration of how modern science is evolving. This is an era where science is sometimes a spectator sport, with extraordinary results being debated in public. A contentious point and maybe even a lesson learnt — many might say — but this self-correcting mechanism is at the heart and soul of all scientific endeavours.


ISOLDE produces low-energy beams of radioactive isotopes1 for applications in a wide range of fields, including atomic physics, astrophysics, solid-state physics and biomedical studies. To date, more than 600 isotopes of more than 60 elements (from helium to radium) have been produced.



ISOLDE extracts a beam of protons from the CERN’s accelerator complex and shoots it onto special targets, yielding a large variety of atomic fragments. This large variety of species allows the systematic study of atomic and nuclear properties of nuclei in different ways. Research is also underway to use ISOLDE’s ‘wasted’ proton beam to produce radioisotopes for medical research, in particular targeted alpha therapy (TAT) for certain types of cancer.


View of the CLOUD chamber


CLOUD is an experiment that uses cloud chamber to investigate whether cosmic rays influence cloud formation. Cosmic rays are charged particles originating in outer space that penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere. Studies suggest they may have an influence on the amount of cloud cover through the formation of aerosols2. Anything that affects cloud formation may affect climate, as clouds can reflect or trap the sun’s heat depending on conditions.

CLOUD is a pioneering effort to use high-energy physics accelerator to study atmospheric and climate science. To mimic atmospheric conditions, the team fire beams similar to cosmic rays through cloud chambers, and its effect on aerosol production are recorded and analysed. The results have the potential to greatly change our understanding of clouds and climate, and whether cosmic rays have effects on climate change including global warming.


The CERN Axion Solar Telescope


Why is there a subtle difference between matter and antimatter in processes involving the weak force3, but not the strong force4? Some theoretical physicists suggest that this could be explained by the hypothetical particle called Axions. If they exist, they are thought to come from the 15 million degree plasma in the sun’s core. Owing to their potential abundance in the universe, Axion are also the leading candidates for the invisible dark matter of the universe. CAST is built to search for these hypothetical particles.

Using special telescope for looking at the Sun, CAST make use of a hybrid equipment from particle physics and astronomy. The telescope observes the Sun for about 1.5 hours at sunrise and another 1.5 hours at sunset each day. Scientists use the remaining 21 hours, with the instrument pointing away from the Sun, to measure background Axion levels.

These are just four of the many other experiments and facilities at CERN. Beyond its oft-cited title as the world’s biggest physics laboratory, CERN is a fertile ground that cultivates a spirit of exchange among scientists from different backgrounds. This seemingly chaotic symphony actually paints a picture of creative exaltation that celebrates diversity and applauds intellectual exploration. In science, it seldom gets better than this.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way the official policy or position of CERN.

About the Author:
Yi Ling Hwong graduated from the University of Applied Sciences Karlsruhe, Germany with a Master in Power Engineering. She worked for 6 months in the Cryogenics group of CERN as a technical student and 3 years as a data acquisition engineer in the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment of the LHC. She is now a web editor for the Doctors without Borders organisation. Find out more about Yi Ling by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at:


  1. Atomic nuclei that has too many or too few neutrons to be stable.
  2. Tiny particles suspended in the air that form cloud droplets.
  3. One of the four fundamental forces and is responsible for the radioactive decay of subatomic particles and initiates the process known as hydrogen fusion in stars.
  4. The force that binds protons and neutrons together to form the nucleus of an atom.