The Large Hadron Collider

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Here’s a good one. The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest and most powerful accelerator of particles. Simpletons like you usually think the accelerator at Fermilab is larger. Sounds like you need to study up on your particle accelerator trivia, son.

Perhaps more significant to the layman, the Large Hadron Collider is the biggest machine ever built in the history of the world. It makes the Three Gorges Dam look like a model train set, and an N-scale model at that. And get this, this massive machine is buried underneath the ground.

Consisting of a 27-kilometer ring (18 miles), it took thousands of engineers, scientists and technicians decades to design and build it. Planning began in 1984 and while the machine’s price tag was about $3.6 billion, the project cost is more along the lines of $6.4 billion. It’s kind of expensive because everything is custom-made. There’s only one of these things. The money came from most of the rich countries in Europe, plus other contributors like the US and Japan.

Let me stop right here and say that if you really want to understand what this monstrous thing is, you might have to read the rest of this article really slowly and perhaps go over it several times. I was very careful in writing it, and yet, I’m still not really sure I “get it.”

Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is operated by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the same agency responsible for giving us the World Wide Web (see K Composite 9). The acronym CERN comes from the organization’s name in French.

This gigantic circular machine sits in a looping tunnel beneath eastern France, though part of the ring swings underneath Switzerland near Geneva.

In case you want to build your own. (CERN)
In case you want to build your own. (CERN)

The goal of the project is to expand the boundaries of mankind’s scientific knowledge. Seems humble enough, but since I don’t understand any of this stuff, I enlisted the help of a more intelligent accomplice to explain what it does and how it works.

Margaret says, “Inside the accelerator, two high-energy particle beams traveling nearly the speed of light collide with each other. The beams travel in opposite directions in separate pipes kept in an ultra-high vacuum. They’re guided around the accelerator ring by a strong magnetic field. This is controlled by superconducting electromagnets.”

Oh, right on. Capisce?

As I understand it, particles are the smallest things in the world which have physical properties, like mass. But why spend billions of dollars to smash these tiny things into each other as fast as possible? That might be harder to explain.

Overall view of the ALICE detector. But you already knew that. There are at least seven people in this photo.
Overall view of the ALICE detector. But you already knew that. There are at least seven people in this photo. (CERN)

It is widely accepted that the universe began when high-energy particles collided with each other at – you guessed it – nearly the speed of light. So this gang at CERN is essentially trying to recreate those same conditions and hopefully unravel the mysteries of how the universe has started.

My first reaction to that was: Whoa, won’t they run the risk of creating a new universe?

“Well,” Margaret tells me, “who knows?” Not exactly the kind of reassurance I was looking for.

It turns out that I’m not the only one who had this thought as their first reaction. “Any huge project like this can’t really make its way out without slipping into controversies,” she tells me.

“Several groups have protested the very idea of this project, arguing that the universe was created by God and we need not worry about how it came to existence by wasting billions of dollars without any practical purpose.”

I have a feeling those people aren’t scientists.

Regardless, before it was switched on, the LHC faced strong opposition and “well-read critiques” stating that smashing protons at each other at 99.99991% the speed of light “might create small black holes which would grow to the size that they swallow the earth.”

What the…? That is totally not the kind of reassurance I was looking for!

Protons collide at 14 TeV in this simulation from CMS, producing four muons. Lines denote other particles, and energy deposited is shown in blue. Don’t try this at home. (CMS)
Protons collide at 14 TeV in this simulation from CMS, producing four muons. Lines denote other particles, and energy deposited is shown in blue. Don’t try this at home. (CMS)

The good news is that if you’re reading this then it hasn’t happened yet. The world has not yet been gulped up by a black hole. However, at one point, the entire project was shut down for 14 months when one of the superconducting magnets malfunctioned resulting in tons of helium leaking out at explosive velocities. Sweet!

CERN eventually issued a press release stating that the LHC is extremely safe. But still, the project has flooded by emails from people who are concerned that “the scientists might be hiding sensitive information from the public to avoid chaos.”

If it’s half as destructive as the World Wide Web has been, I say shut it down!

Operation of the LHC has already led to some remarkable discoveries including the existence of the Higgs boson in July 2012.

(Higgs boson is something so important that it should have been one the biggest stories of the decade, but it’s so complicated that only a few people understand it and, well, it really can’t be explained here. Full disclosure: my brain is too small.)

Subsequently, the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to François Englert and Peter Higgs “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed [by experiments at the] Large Hadron Collider.”

Sounds like they know what they’re doing. I mean, I really frickin’ hope so.

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