Skip to comments.5 Things You Need to Know About the Large Hadron Collider Now
Posted on 09/10/2008 5:13:56 AM PDT by yankeedame
Study up with new mysteries from the celebrity particle collider before it doesn't destroy the world on Wednesday, then talk physics with the interactive chat widget belowand stay tuned for on-the-scene reporting in the morning!
A a large dipole magnet is lowered into the tunnel to complete the basic
installation of the more than 1700 magnets that make up the Large Hadron
Collider (LHC), which measures 27 km in circumference.
The largest particle accelerator in history will take another step on Wednesday toward living up to its own celebrity. In the ongoing autopsy of the subatomic functions of the universe, the Large Hadron Collider could be the best hope yet to transform theoretical reality, such as dark matter and extra dimensions, into observable fact. And we'll be on hand to watch the LHC turn on, so stay tuned.
But why, exactly, are people without advanced degrees in physics counting the minutes until the first proton beam travels the length of the LHC's 27-kilometer (about 17-mile) accelerator ring? Is it because the bad science of the machine's supposed doomsday potential traveled fasterand louderthan responsible dissections of quantum mechanics? Is it because the LHC, which sits underneath Switzerland and France, feels like a turning point in the loss of American scientific primacy? Or is it because, however complex the physics might be, there's simply never been a larger, more powerful proton-smashing mega-gadget like it?
The answer is probably the doomsday thing, but on the eve of the accelerator's first full beam (and despite the glut of existing coverage) there's still a lot to be learned fromand aboutthe LHC.
1. It isn't the world's first doomsday machine.
Anyone who continues to believe that the LHC has the potential to end the world, by belching out a planet-engulfing black hole, or even to collapse or rewrite the fundamental structure of the universe, isn't going to be swayed by science. Forget that the tiny black holes the accelerator could generate will instantly pop in and out of existence like phantom soap bubbles, without the necessary mass to sustain themselves. Black holes are compelling, and like storm chasers hoping for every hurricane to swell to a Category 5, it is fun for the doomsayers to talk about the unprecedented devastation that could break up an otherwise dull Wednesday afternoon.
So without diving into the statistical and scientific illiteracy of anyone seriously worried about an LHC-related doomsday, consider that this is the third time in 15 years that a new accelerator has sparked fears of Armageddon. The last time was in 1999, when Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) was about to go on line, recreating the big bang in miniature. The worries were almost identical to what's been said about the LHCblack holes, and/or a fundamental reorganization of the universe at a quantum level. And in the mid-1990s, the idea that the Tevatron accelerator at Fermi National Particle Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) was about to create a supernova was floated. The champion of that theory was Paul Dixon, a psychologist from the University of Hawaii who showed up at Fermilab with "Home of the Supernova" scrawled on a bedsheet.
A giant magnet weighing 1920 tons was sent underground where it will rest 100 meters
down in a 27km tunnel to provide a magnetic field for a giant particle detector.
The detector will collect data for the Large Hadron Collider (LCH).
2. Even if the world is going to end, it won't be on Wednesday. Although the LHC will make history with a proton beam traveling the full circumference of the accelerator loop, it won't be unraveling any cosmic mysteries. Beam day is essentially another in a series of tests to confirm the performance of the system before initiating the high-energy proton collisions. That will involve firing up both beams, to run in opposite directions, and possibly generating particles that have previously appeared only in textbooks and blackboard diagrams. It could take a month for the proton smashing to begin, and even longer for some of the various experiments to get started. Which means that the LHC will be inspiring wrongheaded dreadand possibly more lawsuits and death threatsfor some time to come. "It's very different now," says Judy Jackson, head of the Office of Communications at Fermilab. "When Dixon talked about how dangerous the Tevatron was, some people got in touch with their representatives and their senators. So we put out a fact sheet, and that was it. He was a guy with a bedsheet. Now, the bedsheet is the whole Internet." The more recent LHC fears are no more real or troubling than the rumors surrounding Tevatron and RHIC. Knowing that previous accelerator doomsayers were wrong might not silence the current crop, but it might prevent the bad science from spreading even further.
An engineer pointing at the magnet core of the world's largest superconducting
solenoid magnet (CMS, Compact Muon Solenoid), part of the Large Hadron
3. It isn't the biggest particle accelerator ever planned.
As impressive as the LHC may be, it isn't quite the most ambitious accelerator attempted in the history of science. That bittersweet honor goes to the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a system that, on paper, had more than triple the size and power of the LHC. First proposed in the early 1980s, the SSC's final design included an 87-km-long accelerator ring, with beams as powerful as 30 or even 40 trillion electron-volts (eV). The LHC, by comparison, is expected to reach 7 trillion eV later this year.
Similar to the Large Hadron Collider, the Superconducting Super Collider was an international project, which many hoped would have sufficient power to generate elusive particles like the Higgs boson. However, the project was killed in 1993, two years after construction began, south of Dallas, Texas. Roughly 2 billion dollars had been spent on the SSC design and siting, including some 14 miles of tunnels, but faced with the prospect of spending as much as $10 billion more on the mammoth accelerator, Congress pulled the plug. For the relatively small community of scientists who are hoping to one day build the Very Large Hadron Collider, a bigger followup to the LHC, the abandoned remains of the SSC cast a particularly long shadow.
A model of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) tunnel is seen in the CERN
(European Organization For Nuclear Research) visitors' center.
4. The Large Hadron Collider needs help. There's no doubt that the LHC is capable of generating a fair share of novel particles and Nobel prizes. The secret is its record-breaking beam power, which is due in large part to a huge, nation-bridging accelerator ring (the 27-km tunnel is bisected by the France-Switzerland border). With enough power, physicists hope, the colliding protons will shed particles that have never been directly observed. And while some of the properties of a Higgs boson can be examined in the LHC, the accelerator's brute-force approach doesn't lend itself to a thorough inspection of the particle. To better dissect the various particles that the LHC is expected to generate, physicists agree that one or more companion systems should be built.
That, unfortunately, is the limit of the consensus. Today, there are a number of LHC-assisting programs either directly or indirectly competing for funding and support. The International Linear Collider (ILC), for example, is envisioned as a slightly longer accelerator, with a 30-km tunnel that would bend slightly to accommodate the curvature of the Earth. It would have exponentially less power (just 500 giga eV of collision energy), but because of the nature of the collisions in a linear accelerator, the ILC would allow for more precise measurements of the particles created by its circular counterpart. When (or if) the LHC generates that crucial Higgs boson, the ILC will be able to quantify its spin, mass and other characteristics. The ILC wouldn't generate the headlines that its trailblazing partner might, but it could prove at least as essential in the lab.
"If you see things at LHC, you might know what they are, but you won't know much else," Fermilab's Jackson says. "In order to verify where you were seeing what you thought, and learn more about those particles, you need to come at them from a different approach. So in principle, yes, the world particle physics community would love to have another way to get at these questions." The problem is time and money. Many physicists believe it's necessary to wait for results to start coming in from LHC, to determine how much energy is needed for a companion accelerator. Even then, projects like the ILC would have to compete with smaller systems, like Fermilab's proposed high-energy neutrino source, Project X, or the possibility of upgrades to the LHC. It could take years for funds to be allocated and designs to be finalized, but the long-term success of the LHC could be in the hands of its more obscure accelerator entourage.
European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) scientists face
computer screens at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) control center.
5. Particle physics isn't a spectator sport. With public interest in particle accelerators at an all-time high, we don't want to ruin the party. But in the interest of defusing the coming hangover, a word of warning: When the LHC comes on line tomorrow, as scientists and journalists look on, and people around the world watch via webcast ... there won't be much to look at. Black holes won't eat anyone alive, particles won't be discovered and, most important, the action will happen off-camera.
"It's not like the old days, with the bubble chambers, so you could watch what's going on," Jackson says. "It's all electronically detected. There are beam position monitors that show you the beam is here. It's a curve on a screen. And we'll be able to see the detector, but there won't be any collisions." Lucky viewers might be able to watch journalists (like us) and scientists at Fermilab in their pajamas, as data streams in from the LHC control room in Geneva. Which isn't to say that this accelerator is over-hyped, or even overexposed. The LHC, in all likelihood, is going to literally change the way we look at the universe, and possibly generate the kind of public support that will fuel decades of new research into particle physics. It might be the most famous device to ever launch particles through a massive tunnel at breakneck speedsbut that doesn't mean it's ready for prime time.
Largest particle collider conducts successful test
Oh well, looks like I better go ahead and pay the mortgage this month
"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when,
But I know we'll meet again, some sunny day.
Keep smiling through, just like you always do,
'Til the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away."
Will they find the Higgs? That is the question. I’m betting they won’t.
A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.
It’s like washing the car and causing it to rain, if you cut the yard the day before the LHC fires, we’re doomed to suffer a black hole,.....now back to Obama,..Doh!
Safe? I'm not so sure.........
...and on a less serious note. What kind of superpowers would you get if you accidentally stepped in front of the beam when your clumsy lab assistant accidentally hit the on button? Hulk Powers? Spidy Powers?
OK, back to serious. I am not against gaining the knowledge they will obtain, but what are the applications? Is it too much to ask for to have some benefit from science that is publicly funded? This general ‘For the benefit of mankind’ crap doesn't fly.
Since this one is also internationally funded, I assume we chipped in for lunch at least. Yet unless that money leads to some tangible benefits to the taxpayer it is no different than money earmarked for the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska. No, wait, that isn't correct. The Bridge to Nowhere would have benefited the fifty people on the island. So this is less moral than that canceled bridge.
If we didn't chip in, well, then, whatever. Hope they have fun.
How about some scientific rap on the subject (ok, I find the female doing the rapping kind of attractive, something about a smart girl in a lab coat).
So, it was a smashing success?
I was listening the radio this AM and on the top of the hour news (from CBS I think) I could swear that the newsreader said “beam of PROTEINs.” LOL
I've heard that the actual collision isn't scheduled until 2112. j/k
The LHC project has already yielded a “discovery” that you use everyday.
The world wide web, or, more specifically, hypertext. When the project first started, all the scientists were on what at the time was the Internet. One of the participants came up with the idea of hyperlinks in text as a means of creating the documentation for the project and as a means of collaborating.
I sent that link to several friends last week. It’s been a big hit within my little circles!