LEP – The Lord of the Collider Rings at CERN, 1980–2000: The Making, Operation and Legacy of the World’s Largest Scientific Instrument

30 October 2009

By Herwig Schopper, Springer. Hardback ISBN 9783540893004 €39.95 (£36.99, $59.95). Online version ISBN 9783540893011.


Herwig Schopper’s energy and vitality remain undimmed, even though he turned 85 this year (CERN honours Schopper at 85). His book surveys the two decades of the Large Electron–Positron (LEP) collider, extending far beyond his own reign as CERN director-general in the years 1981–88.

From the outset, Schopper criticizes historians who have spurned his offer of first-hand but anecdotal input, preferring conventional archives and minutes. He contends that such lack of imagination can obscure the full picture. Thus the book is at its best when he relates how CERN’s history was moulded rather than recorded. Nobody was taking minutes when Schopper had working breakfasts with influential council delegates. Another example is his nomination as CERN’s director-general, where Italy was initially pushing for its own candidate. The sequel came later, when he carefully stage-managed an extension to his mandate to oversee the construction of LEP through to completion.

Fierce debate centred on the parameters of LEP: its circumference, tunnel diameter, precise footprint and the energy of its beams. Overseeing LEP called for a high level of scientific statesmanship. It was the largest civil-engineering project in Europe prior to the Channel Tunnel. As well as the technical challenge of building such a large underground ring at CERN, close to the Jura mountains, there was the diplomatic and demographic challenge of doing so beneath an international border, running close to and under suburbs and villages.

Closer to home was the thorny problem of catering for the physicists clamouring to use the new machine. How many detectors would be needed? Who would build and operate them? Who would lead the teams? With so much at stake, and so much enthusiasm, there was a lot of pushing and shoving to scramble aboard.

Schopper inherited the proton–antiproton collider in CERN’s Super Proton Synchrotron ring and while LEP was being planned and built he presided over the laboratory during the historic discovery of the W and Z particles – the carriers of the electroweak force. He recalls how this fast-moving research called for some skilful moves. In the middle of all this, the UK’s prime minister Margaret Thatcher dropped in, accompanied by her husband – “an elder (sic) gentleman whom she treated with astonishing kindness,” writes Schopper.

Experience had shown that LEP had to be presented from the outside as an integral part of CERN’s basic programme. However, this meant that no new money would be available. CERN’s research activities had to be pruned, a decision that did not go down well everywhere. Equally controversial were some deft moves on CERN’s balance sheets, transferring money between columns earmarked for operations and investments.

While planning and construction of the machine was hectic, it was usually predictable, but in the middle of it all, CERN was caught unawares when the UK, one of its major contributors, suddenly menaced to pull out completely. To counter the threat, CERN had to undergo painful invasive examination by an external committee. Its final recommendations were difficult to swallow but left CERN leaner and sharper. Schopper’s inside account of this period is most revealing.

Probably the biggest LEP controversy came right at the end. With its beam energy boosted to the limit in 2000, LEP was beginning to show tantalizing hints of the long-awaited Higgs particle. But the CERN juggernaut is irresistible. Before it had completed its act, LEP was kicked off the stage by the LHC proton collider for which the tunnel had been presciently designed right from the start. Schopper describes the resulting criticism and points out that it would indeed be ironic if the LHC found the Higgs inside the energy range that was still being explored by LEP.

Making decisions is not easy: long-term advantages can demand short-term sacrifices. Political popularity is another luxury, but highly visible VIP visits do seem to boost an organization’s self-esteem. Most titillating is when Schopper puts LEP aside and reveals what went on behind the scenes to get the Pope, the Dalai Lama and other VIPs to visit CERN. The initial machinations and detailed planning for the visits of French presidents and prime ministers had to be abandoned when their last-minute changes called for frantic improvisation.

The cumbersomely titled The Lord of the Collider Rings is a valuable addition to particle-physics literature but it is mainly written for insiders. The names of people, machines and physics measurements tumble onto the page with little introduction. Schopper acknowledges that some of the illustrations are not optimal. This makes the book look as though it were hastily assembled and gives the CERN reader a sense of déjà vu, which is underlined by a statutory presentation of the Standard Model.

There are a few minor errors. Schopper naturally prefers the Germanic Wilhelm von Ockham to William of Occam, of eponymous razor fame, who was English (but died in Bavaria). Physics World is published by the UK Institute of Physics, not the “British Physical Society”. Furthermore, there is little mention of the Stanford Linear Collider, which briefly trod on LEP’s toes in 1989.

Schopper’s anecdotes and insider views are certainly better entertainment – and possibly more incisive – than a dry formal history. After his LEP revelations, one now looks forward to what his successors at CERN will say about the groundwork for the LHC (historians, please take note).

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