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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 September, 2004, 14:03 GMT 15:03 UK
Cern: The big in search of the small
Cern lights up at night (AP)
Floodlights mark Cern's 50th birthday this week
Our science correspondent David Shukman visits the huge underground complex of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva which is 50 years old this week.

Cern is a lab like no other. The sheer internationalism of the place is striking: corridors and hallways are filled with a profusion of different backgrounds.

The scale of the enterprise - the quest to probe deeper and deeper into the workings of the atom - lures scientists from around the world.

Yet they are not foreigners to each other because between them a new language has developed, one involving strange names like neutrinos and quarks, and stranger concepts like the weak force and dark energy.

But what really marks out Cern becomes clear as a giant lift descends beneath the Geneva suburbs.

Pit of 'snakes'

This is the largest underground lab in the world. Its main circular tunnel runs for 27km.

It is so vast that the human eye cannot really see the tunnel bending, as it stretches into the distance, a long string of lights fading into darkness. In fact, everything about the place baffles the senses.

Atlas cavern, Cern
The work underground on the LHC is an immense task
We climbed a narrow metal staircase to a vantage point. I stood at an opening of the tunnel just where it enters the gargantuan chamber that will harness the new CMS detector.

It was on the scale of a cathedral and down in its depths, gangs of builders and engineers were at work on the latest phase of construction. The hiss of welding torches echoed off the walls.

There was a chill in the air, and the dust of a hundred drills. On the floor was a snakepit of cables. Scientists have resorted to size in their bid to understand the miniscule building blocks of the Universe.

Not only is the job of assembling this lab massive, running it will be too.

We crossed the fields that straddle the French-Swiss border to reach the opposite side of the tunnel.

The farmland remains unchanged despite the physics underway down below. The herds of cows are untroubled by the presence of so many high IQs.

Levels of understanding

In a building the size of a hangar stood something that was on the scale of a giant submarine. This was Alice, one of the new detectors, and Lewis Carroll would have been impressed.

The technicians putting the machine together were dwarfed by the vast rings of its sensors. Soon it will be lowered underground and then be ready to absorb the unimaginable forces unleashed when particles are fired around the tunnel and forced to collide.

The scientists were patient with my puzzled questions. Their conversation required new forms of understanding: antimatter, super-symmetry and multi-universes are not easily grasped.

When the new machines, collectively known as the Large Hadron Collider, are fired up in 2007, the research will no doubt throw up new discoveries and new thinking.

It may revolutionise science, but at ground level the farmers may scratch their heads and the cows will continue grazing.

The BBC's David Shukman
The BBC goes inside the world's largest particle physics laboratory

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