Last year, I was moved to write this post by my amazement at the length of the author list of a paper in Science. Soon after that, I came across a different article with over 100 authors, and suddenly that list of 56 didn’t seem quite so impressive. But as I recently learned, the distinction between 50 and 100 authors turns out to be completely meaningless—the folks at CERN have destroyed the competition.
Maybe destroyed isn’t a strong enough word. Let’s say they murdered the competition, and then blew up the playing field. This paper (currently in press and open-source from Nuclear Physics B) has over 3000 authors. I didn’t get an exact count; I opened the list as a comma-delimited spreadsheet and started to calculate the number of names, but then I remembered that I have a job.
To understand this situation, you have to know a little bit about CERN and the LHC. CERN is a massive laboratory in Geneva, with thousands of employees devoted to various high-energy physics experiments that take place inside particle accelerators. The most noteworthy of these particle accelerators is the Large Hadron Collider, which began successfully smashing two 3.5 TeV proton beams together in March 2010. Each proton travels at nearly light speed, and when two of them encounter each other in a head-on collision (which happens a few hundred million times per second) they release a debris trail of elementary particles that can be detected and analyzed.
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