Succession race begins to lead Cern ‘god particle’ research project

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The race has begun to lead Cern, the international probe into the universe’s mysteries, with the UK backing a top physicist who supports plans to build a €16bn particle accelerator.

London is expected on Tuesday to announce Professor Mark Thomson’s nomination to lead the 70-year-old Cern project near Geneva, as member states decide on a historic expansion proposal.

The 23 countries in Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, are weighing whether to build a factory to produce and study the Higgs boson — the so-called god particle discovered at the facility in 2012 that gives mass to planets, stars and life.

“There’s a huge consensus, I would say, scientifically within Europe that a Higgs factory is the right thing to do next,” Thomson said in an interview. “The question is going to ultimately all come down to cost and affordability — and the willingness of the member states to actually construct that machine.”

The UK government is formally submitting Thomson’s nomination to succeed Italy’s Fabiola Gianotti as Cern’s director-general when her second five-year term ends next year. He is the first high-profile name to officially enter a succession race that is likely to be decided later this year.

Cern said it would not provide information on candidates during the process. No public announcement is expected before October.

Thomson is a professor of experimental particle physics at the University of Cambridge and executive chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, a UK research organisation. He previously worked at Cern for six years.

Cern executives have proposed building a facility known as the Future Circular Collider (FCC), which would be more than three times the circumference of the existing Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

The LHC is a 27km ring of superconducting magnets where beams of subatomic particles travelling at almost the speed of light smash together.

Some critics have questioned whether the FCC’s investigation into the universe’s past and possible future would be value for money, since its benefits are uncertain.

Thomson countered by pointing to how past theoretical discoveries had led to unexpected practical boons. The role of Einstein’s general theory of relativity in the development of the Global Positioning System that had revolutionised navigation was a “great example”, he said.

“There is clearly scientific and, I would also say, cultural value in exploring the universe,” he said. “But actually, I don’t think you know what you’re going to discover, what technology you will develop or where that is actually going to lead to when you do it.”

Cern’s other member states are 18 EU countries, Israel, Norway, Serbia and Switzerland. The UK is the second-largest funder of the organisation after Germany, accounting for more than 15 per cent of member state contributions in 2024. The last UK national to be director-general was the physicist Professor Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith, who stepped down in 1998.

Cern’s global reach includes associate members such as India, Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey, while the US and Japan have observer status on the LHC. Cern has international co-operation agreements with dozens more nations, including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

“Cern . . . is the world’s particle physics laboratory at the moment,” Thomson said. “It’s got capability that’s not available elsewhere, built on almost 70 years of heritage.”

The next Cern chief’s other important tasks would include completing a planned upgrade to the existing LHC to enable it to gather more data, said Tara Shears, vice-president for science and innovation at the UK’s Institute of Physics.

Beyond that lay the question of whether Cern could help develop the new understanding of physics long promised by the Higgs boson discovery.

“The next five years will be critical in setting out the future direction of the subject and whether Cern remains at the heart of it,” Shears said.

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