Research, Innovation & COVID-19

For nearly seven decades, CERN—the European Organization for Nuclear Research, based in Geneva—has been at the forefront of world-changing innovations, from the birth of the World Wide Web to advances in cancer treatment and data processing.In normal times, the main focus at CERN is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator, where the ATLAS detector is one of four flagship experiments. The 5,500-plus scientists, engineers and technicians who work on ATLAS, including nearly three dozen from Carleton University, are addressing questions such as “What are the basic building blocks of matter?” and “What are the fundamental forces of nature?”

But even that vast scope expanded in 2020 when, in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, CERN brought part of its powerful computing resources to bear on the global challenge.

As scientists around the world raced to understand the biological and chemical challenges of SARS-CoV-2, the number-crunching capabilities of CERN were used to simulate protein dynamics within the virus and support other urgent pandemic-related research, aiding the successful effort to develop vaccines.

While the fight against COVID-19 continues, CERN is preparing to ramp up the LHC once again in spring 2022, searching for new particles and attempting to unravel the mysteries of dark matter.

“There are amazing opportunities here that you don’t find anywhere else,” says Carleton researcher Manuella Vincter, who serves as the deputy spokesperson for ATLAS, which records the high-energy particle collisions that take place in the LHC.

“CERN is a collaborative environment with no geographic boundaries. It helps launch important innovations and is producing the next generation of highly qualified personnel. We’re fostering a STEM culture—and these large experiments make you dream bigger.”

Fundamental Research Leads to Real-World Applications

The Higgs boson particle—described by some as the “God particle”—was first observed at CERN in 2012. It proved to be the final missing piece in the Standard Model of particle physics, a set of basic interactions that describes the fundamental structure of matter. Beyond that discovery, one of the biggest breakthroughs is arguably the World Wide Web.

It was conceived of and developed at CERN in 1989 to satisfy demand for automated information-sharing between scientists at universities and institutes around the world—a key stepping stone toward today’s digital infrastructure.

But other examples abound showing how the biggest science project on the planet has changed the world in important ways:

  • Particle accelerator technology has made the leap into health care, where much smaller but similar machines make radioactive isotopes for cancer detection.
  • Particle detector technology has helped improve cancer treatments, allowing doctors to pinpoint precisely where the tumors are and minimizing the impact on surrounding healthy tissue.
  • Advances in super-conducting magnets, which accelerate protons within the LHC, have led to higher-resolution X-rays.

One of the big differences between particle physics research and medical applications, explains Vincter, is that technology at CERN can be tweaked over time, while medical uses must be safe from the start, which means that concepts pioneered at CERN are adapted and commercialized by other parties.

Vincter’s colleague Alain Bellerive, another particle physicist at Carleton who works on ATLAS, says the experiment is also at the cutting edge of data science and fast computing because of the volume of data being processed, the sophisticated algorithms required and the astounding speed at which all this happens.

Moreover, grid computing solutions developed a dozen years ago at the LHC—leveraging multiple remote computers connected via networks—have spread to many other realms:

  • The artificial intelligence that underlies this computing can also be used to interpret CT scans and other types of medical imaging.
  • The electronic chips needed to operate at this ultra-fast pace have a long list of uses, such as autonomous vehicles that must brake instantaneously when it’s time to stop.

Putting on his science-fiction hat, Bellerive can only speculate about the futuristic applications of tech developed at CERN: particle beams that break down nuclear waste or methane molecules, or real-time imaging of a human heart that simultaneously gets treated by photons.

“We’re not there yet,” says Bellerive. “But remember: pure research led to things like video calls. This is what innovation does. The challenge is to find something that helps society.”

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