Discoveries of Massive Impact

6 August 2012

The particle-physics laboratory CERN in Geneva has announced the discovery of the Higgs boson. This particle has been very much sought for and its existence was predicted Peter Higgs already in 1964. According to the prevalent theory of the universe, this particle is needed to explain why particles have mass. Without mass, all particles would travel by the speed of light and there would be no past, no present and no future. It is the property of mass that let particle slow down below the speed of light and therefore mass is also a prerequisite for the world as we know it. One can imagine that the physicists are happy to find this particle that has eluded observation for 48 years. It was only by a focused effort and deep pockets that the CERN people could build the machine to make the first observations.

Higgs Event
Traces of the Higgs particle. The Higgs mechanism is responsible for giving mass to elementary particles. (Photo: CERN)

The most famous innovation at CERN could be something that has little to do with particle physics. In the 1980s a computer scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, at CERN’s computer department was playing with a model of how to organize and link documents stored in computers. He created something that techies call hyperlinks and something called Hypertext Transfer Protocol that worked over the Internet. He developed a markup language for documents (HTML) and universal identifiers (URL) for documents store on computers connected to the Internet. These innovations created the technical platform for building the World Wide Web. Tim’s innovation was not something that was part of CERN’s strategy but was more a result of serendipity. What we can learn is that if you gather smart people in large organizations, you can achieve what you plan for (your strategy) but you can also make finding that never looked for. This happened at CERN but there are plenty of examples in companies of innovations that lie outside the strategy. The challenge for companies is to see and capture the value of these innovations.

World Wide Web
Graphical representation of the World Wide Web (This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at // under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.)