Shimon Peres talking with CERN Director general
Shimon Peres talking with CERN Director general Rolf Heuer at the particle accelerator in Geneva. Photo by CERN
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Empty champagne bottles line up against a corner of the control room of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the world's biggest and highest-energy particle accelerator.

Scientists at the LHC were thrilled to have been responsible for the first ever acceleration of sub-atomic particles in underground tunnels. They were also ecstatic over the first ever collision of protons and the significant increase in energy that enabled these experiments to be carried out.

The next occasion for celebration might be the discovery of the famous Higgs particle, the hypothetical particle said to be responsible for giving all other particles their mass. The director of LHC said that the Higgs particle could be discovered or, conversely, could be determined to not exist. The answer could come within two years.

Yesterday, however, the particle acceleration was put on hold due to a visit by President Shimon Peres, who was heading a delegation of Israeli scientists and senior officials. Peres and the delegation were taken to the underground tunnels that extend 27 kilometers beneath France and Switzerland. Only presidents and prime ministers are granted the privilege of visiting the tunnels, which are closed to the public.

At a depth of 100 meters below the ground, the president's delegation got a glimpse of the enormous ATLAS particle detector experiment. The apparatus stretches six stories high and is 45 meters wide. It is one of four devices that measure the fallout from collisions that affect accelerated particles. The goal is to identify new building blocks of matter in the universe that have yet to be discovered.

Peres' delegation, which included Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz, Hebrew University physicist Professor Eliezer Rabinovich and Professor Giora Mikenberg, who works at the facility, took particular interest in the contribution of Israeli scientists to the international research effort. Close to 50 Israeli researchers are present full-time at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research which is operating the LHC.

Peres' visit followed a decision by the 20 member states that comprise CERN to begin the process of admitting Israel as a full-fledged partner. The move is considered politically sensitive due to opposition expressed by Britain and France. Members of Peres' delegation said that the French are concerned that Israel's inclusion and subsequent access to CERN tenders would have a detrimental effect on their high-tech industry. The last country to drop its opposition to Israeli membership was Switzerland, which expressed reservations due to Jerusalem's policy in the territories.

"People here may be smiling," said one member of the Israeli delegation. "But not everybody here is enthralled with Israel."

At a celebratory luncheon following the tour, Hershkowitz said he was surprised to hear that Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz was hesitant to give the go-ahead for Israeli funding of the history-making scientific endeavor.