CERN
The magnet core of the world's largest superconducting solenoid magnet at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)'s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator. Photo by AP
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AP
An experimental result in the search for the Higgs particle, as provided by CERN. Photo by AP

The Star of David could join the 20 other flags of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, if the organization that runs the world's largest particle physics lab votes Israel in.

CERN's governing council, made up of representatives from each member nation, meets on December 12. Israel will need a unanimous vote to become the first non-European member of the organization based just outside Geneva.

Scientists and diplomats told Haaretz they are optimistic about the vote despite the crisis between the European Union and Israel over Brussels' guidelines that bar funding for Israeli activities that take place beyond the Green Line. The issue has snarled talks on Israel's participation in the Horizon 2020 research program, but it should not affect the CERN candidacy because Israel's membership does not entail funding from EU countries.

"The membership process is very long and complex, but votes in the past have been supportive of Israel," said Eviatar Manor, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations and international organizations in Geneva. "We're on track and hopefully on December 12 we'll become full members."

Israel has cooperated on CERN experiments since the 1980s, becoming an observer in 1991. In 2011 it applied for membership, launching a probationary period.

"Scientists from around the world are aware of this and are very happy and excited," said Erez Etizion, a Tel Aviv University physicist who works at CERN. "The lab is opening up to non-European countries and Israel was a natural candidate."

Founded in 1954 on the Swiss-French border, CERN operates particle accelerators in which subatomic particles are pushed almost to the speed of light and smashed together to study the underlying structures of matter. In this way, questions can be answered about the Big Bang and the makeup of the universe.

It was in the largest of these underground accelerators, the 27-kilometer Large Hadron Collider, that scientists last year found what they believe is the Higgs boson, the elusive particle that gives mass to protons, electrons and other subatomic particles, allowing the universe to exist as we know it. Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, who first theorized about the existence of the "God particle" in 1964, were awarded the Noble Prize in Physics last month following CERN's discovery.

Israeli universities and scientists played an important role in the hunt for the Higgs. Of about 50 Israeli scientists who collaborate with CERN, most work on Atlas, one of two massive detectors built to analyze the particle collisions inside the colliders and sniff out the Higgs and other exotic particles. The seven-story underground detector is one of the most complex scientific instruments ever built, and parts of it were put together by the Weizmann Institute, Tel Aviv University and Haifa's Technion technology institute.

As a full member of CERN, Israel would have to contribute 13 million to 14 million Swiss francs (NIS 50 million to NIS 54 million) to the organization's annual budget of 1 billion francs, but Manor, the Israeli envoy, said the benefits would greatly outweigh the costs.

More Israeli scientists would be able to join CERN's staff, and Israeli companies would be able to compete for contracts to build and maintain the accelerators and other facilities. By gaining a seat on the council, Israel would also have a vote in future experiments and the construction of new accelerators, steering the direction of research in the coming decades.

"In a way, the Higgs is the past and we're now working on the future," said Yaron Oz, a theoretical physicist and dean of Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Exact Sciences.

The collider is offline until 2015 for an upgrade that will allow it to run at full capacity. CERN is already planning the next generation of accelerators, including a 100-kilometer ring that would extend under Lake Geneva. The collider and its successors will explore many more questions about how the universe works, Oz said.

Scientists will be looking for new particles that may signal the existence of other dimensions, or that may be candidates for dark matter. Dark matter is a substance that makes up 70 percent of the universe but so far has only been detected through its gravitational effect on stars and galaxies. CERN research has also helped produce more mundane applications such as advances in nuclear medicine and the 1989 creation of the World Wide Web.