Big secrets

Big secrets

In search of the big secrets

Science is shaped by researchers working in many different disciplines. One of the most important components is humans’ natural curiosity – the desire to learn and to understand.

Particle physics deals with the smallest building blocks of matter and how they influence each other. A common view of the physics behind this microcosm is necessary in order to understand all natural processes.

To learn about these smallest of building blocks, we need large particle accelerators. These use particles which we know about to create new ones which were previously unknown to us. Huge detectors are used to identify and measure these particles with great accuracy. Every second, billions of particles have to be detected and measured, even though they are often present for only fractions of a second. This requires state-of-the-art technology which in many cases does not yet exist and therefore needs to be developed. Such research enables us to expand our knowledge about the smallest building blocks of the universe. This knowledge can also be used in other areas, for example in the field of medicine to develop new ways of treating patients.

Big Data

At the LHC, packets of 100 billion protons collide every 25 nanoseconds – that is 40 million times per second. Of these, about 200 collisions are recorded per second. In one year, this results in a data volume of 25 petabytes, or 25 million gigabytes. This corresponds to more than one million DVDs per year.

This flood of data is analyzed by thousands of scientists around the world – an enormous challenge in terms of data storage and computing power. The Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG) involves more than 170 computing centers in over 40 countries. It executes more than 2 million computing jobs daily, and global transfer rates have regularly exceeded 60 GB/s at last count. These numbers will increase over time as computing resources and new technologies become more available worldwide.

DESY operates a so-called Tier 2 center across sites in Hamburg and Zeuthen, which provides large computing and storage systems for the LHC experiments.

Collage of three images, a text block and a white heading on a gray background: in the upper left corner there is a map of Europe with colored lines connecting places. To the right is a size comparison of how high a stack of CDs containing all the LHC data from one year would be (about 20 km). This is compared to Mt. Blanc (4.8 km), a Concorde (15 km), and a balloon (30 km). At the bottom center is a photo of the Tokyo University computer center. To the left of that is a text block in black, green and red.
Christian Schwanenberger

Particle accelerator

As Einstein's famous formula E = mc2 shows, there is a direct relationship between energy and mass. This principle is used in particle accelerators, where particles collide at very high energies to produce new, heavy particles. The largest and most powerful particle accelerator in the world is currently the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.

The LHC is a circular accelerator. Protons are accelerated around in a circle in order to gain energy, almost reaching the speed of light. Magnets are used to keep them on the right trajectory. Particles are accelerated in the opposite direction and made to collide at certain points. These four points are the four major experiments. Because of the high energy levels, the particles do not simply bounce off each other. Instead, they are transformed. The energy that is saved in the movement can be released and turned into mass by the collision. This makes it possible for new particles with an even higher mass than the original particles to be created.

Circumference of the accelerator ring: 27 kilometres

Location: 50 – 175 metres underground

Magnet operating temperature: –271.25 °C

Particle collisions: 40 million per second

Particle speed: 11,245 laps per second (almost the speed of light)

Schematic representation against a black background: a section of a map of the area around Geneva is shown with part of the Alps in the background. Below the map, the LHC particle accelerator is shown in the form of a red ring and the pre-accelerator in the form of a smaller blue ring. The proton source, in the form of a yellow box, is connected to the blue ring.
The Large Hadron Collider with the four major experiments CMS, LHCb, ATLAS, and ALICE


Electrons conduct current transport through electrical conductors. However, this does not occur without losses. The heat generated corresponds to the friction of the electrons in the metallic conductor. At very low temperatures, however (approx. below -260°C ), such metals abruptly change to a superconducting state and the electrons move through the conductor without friction or loss. This effect was already discovered in 1911. It was not until 1957 that the theory for describing it was found, based on quantum theory: from a certain transition temperature, pairs of electrons (so-called Cooper pairs) form in the conductor, which can now move together through the conductor with the lowest possible energy (i.e. in the ground state). The electron pairs guide each other through the conductor, so to speak, and thus prevent any friction with the other electrons and ions.


Superfluidity is a phenomenon that occurs in liquid helium: at about 2 degrees above absolute zero, i.e. at about -271°C, liquid helium can flow virtually frictionless through the tiniest capillaries. When a glass vessel is immersed in a container with superfluid helium then the helium does everything to bring the liquid level in both containers to the same height and even flows up the walls!

With this property, liquid helium stands out as an ideal coolant that quickly and uniformly conforms to the materials being cooled.

To explain this surprising property, one starts from a two-fluid model, where helium consists of two parts at the same time, one normal and one superfluid. On the quantum mechanical level, this property is explained by Bose-Einstein condensation, according to which, above a certain temperature, the helium atoms can all go to the same lowest ground state and, so to speak, no longer feel any friction.

CERN – research bringing people and nations together

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, CERN) is the world’s largest and most important centere for fundamental research in the field of particle physics.

It is located on the border between France and Switzerland, near the city of Geneva, and is an international organization like the United Nations.

Its task is to carry out research into the fundamental laws of the universe. CERN develops and builds complex research infrastructure such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and makes it available for scientific experiments. CERN gives researchers of all nationalities the chance to work on scientific projects aimed at generating new insights as well as the opportunity to exchange their ideas and knowledge on these topics.

Founded: 1954

Germany is a founding member and today the largest contributor.
Number of member states: 23

Number of employees: around 3,400

More than 17,000 scientists from universities and research institutions in over 100 countries carry out research at CERN.

Illustration of a gray map of the European area and Israel against a black background. To the right is a list of the countries marked on the map. Below the gray map is a black one showing southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland. CERN is marked with a red and white star.
grafische kooperative
As one of the first major projects launched by a united Europe, CERN also serves as a place of understanding between people from different countries and cultures.

Sensitive giants

A particle detector is a device used to measure particles.

Huge particle detectors are constructed at the accelerator in the area around where the collisions occur. These measure the properties of the newly created particles. Every second around one billion particles created by almost 40 million collisions have to be measured. This requires a range of detector systems, with each system designed to measure certain properties of the particles. The detector systems are organized like the layers of an onion and record the collisions between particles as events. Most of the newly created particles are already well known to the researchers. Only rarely do less well-known or even previously unknown particles occur. That is why experiments like the CMS experiment run 24 hours a day for around 300 days a year.

Schematic image against a black background: different areas of the CMS detector are shown in the colors blue, red, white, yellow and green. The individual parts are pulled apart for an interior view. A human is shown in front of the detector for size comparison.
3D depiction of the CMS experiment
Schematic image against a black background: a narrow part of the cross-section of the CMS detector is shown. The different layers are shown from left (inside) to right (outside) in green, yellow, blue and then alternately in red and white. Several colored lines run from the left, of which the blue one runs in a curved line through the entire detector. Below the figure a scale of length is shown, as well as the explanation, which color of the lines represents which particle.
Traces of different particles identified by the CMS detector
In a display case there is a red and silver model of the CMS detector, which has the shape of a cut open cylinder. There is a row of buttons in front of the display case.
Leihgabe / Loan from: weltmaschine.de
Model of the CMS detector, scale 1:20

A view of the CMS detector at the Large Hadron Collider

Photo from the exhibition: the right half of the image is occupied by a large screen showing the cross-section of the CMS detector in blue, silver and red. The rest of the photo shows other exhibits on the left and gray columns supporting the ceiling in the center. The image of the CMS detector looks huge in comparison.
Gedrucktes Foto / Printed photo: Michael Hoch, fotografiert von / photographed by C. Helge Mundt
This is what a particle detector looks like – in real size! Unfortunately, we couldn't display the entire detector here – with its 15 metres in height and 21 metres in length that would have been quite a challenge. But this to-scale section, together with the mirror on the floor, hopefully give you an idea of how huge it is and how much high technology it contains.
Photo from the exhibition: a huge canvas can be seen, which together with its own reflection in mirrors on the floor shows the cross-section of the CMS detector in original size. On the left, the ceiling and other exhibits are visible.
Gedrucktes Foto / Printed photo: Michael Hoch, fotografiert von / photographed by C. Helge Mundt

Size of CMS

A collage of two images and two pieces of text in black on a white background: there is a photo of the Brandenburg gate at the top left of the image. A cross section of each of the detectors ATLAS (left of the gate) and CMS (to the right of the gate) are edited into the photo for size comparison. At the bottom right there is a schematic image of a scale that tips to the left, showing CMS (12,500 t) is much heavier than the Eiffel tower (7,300 t)!
Christian Schwanenberger

Proton soccer

A blueishly glowing screen is shown against a black background, displaying an image of an exemplary collision in a particle detector (a lot of lines in white, yellow and red, leading away from one point like an explosion). In front of the screen, the
Leihgabe / Loan from: CERN, Foto: C. Helge Mundt
Play soccer with protons! Two players kick one virtual proton each. The aim of the game is to make the protons collide. The harder you kick the protons, the more energy is created when they collide and the more particles are created.
Another photo of the same exhibit; two men are kicking the protons projected on the floor at each other like soccer balls.
Leihgabe / Loan from: CERN, Foto: C. Helge Mundt

Collision course

You can see a box that shows a Google Maps-like map in the upper area, in which a large circle is illuminated. Below this are buttons labeled with pictures for the individual experiments and a green glowing button with the label
Leihgabe / Loan from: Institut für Hochenergiephysik (HEPHY) der ÖAW Foto: C. Helge Mundt
Start the acceleration process and watch the particles' journey to the collision points at the CMS, ATLAS, ALICE and LHCb experiments.

Try operating the particle accelerator

The photo shows a kind of marble run, which is placed on a beige base against a brown background. At three places along the linear tracks are handles that can be turned.
Leihgabe / Loan from: DESY
Who can turn the knobs at the right moment so that the (particle) ball accelerates and lands in the basket?

Selfie spot

The HERA accelerator lies beneath the houses, gardens and parks in Hamburg Bahrenfeld. Its tunnel is 6.3 kilometres long and up to 25 metres deep. HERA was in operation until 2007 and was used primarily to research the nature of the proton. Today, it is part of many DESY guided tours.

This is a photo from the HERA tunnel at DESY. The accelerator tube runs from the right to the center. In the middle of the picture, a person is climbing a ladder.
Cameras allowed!

Marcel Grosse

Accelerator3 (2022)

Scientific procedures form the basis of Marcel Große's open-ended artistic experiments. In his experimental set-ups, he employs a wide range of materials: from devices derived from laboratory contexts, to plumbing supplies, to compressed air tanks used in vehicle production. The latter are also components of his latest construction, Accelerator3, which is inspired by the apparatus used in particle physics to simulate the cosmic Big Bang and to measure dark matter. In Große's work, however, the associated particle collision at top speed follows its own unpredictable system: three compressed air tanks facing each other are simultaneously discharged in a closed compartment. The resulting pressure wave disperses ink particles, which collide here with lithographic stones. Analogue prints replace digital recording methods: a cooperation with the museum's lithography workshop. In his sculptures and spatial installations, Große seeks to make processes visible. Invariably, he thus incorporates the element of surprise in his works, embracing possible failure. Analogous to methods of research, the artist's guiding principle lies in productive deviation: in the exception that creates new rules.

The photo from the exhibition shows a construction made of metal struts. To the left and right are red containers that look somewhat like fire extinguishers. On the floor around the construction are three litho stones.
Foto: C. Helge Mundt
The photo shows a collage of abstract images in front of a dark blue wall. Some images are colored, others are black and white.
Foto: C. Helge Mundt