Big things are happening in Geneva

-A A +A

Large Hadron Collider sets energy record

By Roger Snodgrass

The man who helped build the world’s largest atom smasher said some big things were expected Thursday, and he was right.

Lyndon Evans of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) concluded his talk during a Director’s Colloquium at Los Alamos National Laboratory with the hint that some important developments were expected in Geneva.

“The Large Hadron Collider is being prepared for the start of a data-taking run at half the nominal energy (3.5 trillion electron volts),” he said, in a concluding comment.

“I was hoping to announce that it had been done, but not yet,” he said.

A little later in the day, CERN announced that the LHC had in fact achieved the anticipated 3.5 TeV level, “the highest energy yet achieved in a particle accelerator and an important step on the way to the start of the LHC research program.”

In the world of big science, there is nothing bigger or more expensive than the Large Hadron Collider. A huge circular accelerator beam 17 miles, or

27 kilometers in circumference, buried more than a 100 yards beneath the border between France and

Switzerland, the LHC is dedicated to addressing some of the most fundamental scientific questions in nature.

“We do things the opposite way that you do,” Evans said during his visit to the LANL campus.

With the variety of scientific disciplines in the audience, Evans said he didn’t quite know how to pitch his talk, but he started with a reference to Einstein’s equation of mass and energy and a description of the LHC’s ability to convert energy to mass, as opposed to an atomic weapon’s reputation for doing things the other way around.

A distinguished Welsh engineer, Evans led the $9 billion international project to build the LHC, arguably the most complex scientific instrument in human history.

The LHC accelerates two opposing streams of subatomic particles known as protons in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light and then examines the debris that is produced when the beams collide.

The instrument uses 1,232 huge electromagnets and an enormous system of liquid helium, cooled to 1.9 Kelvin, or barely above the lowest temperature theoretically possible, to produce powerful magnetic fields and electrical currents to shoot the protons at each other.

Starting with the relationship between mass and energy in his talk, Evans called up deeper questions about the elementary particles that make up what is now understood to be the standard model

Evans’ talk on “The Large Hadron Collider Adventure,” was about the fundamental scientific questions that the LFC was designed to investigate, along with some harrowing tales of the kinds of problems that arise in a project at the outer edge of what big science and advanced engineering can attempt.

He expects the work of the LFC will shed light on the origins of the universe, 13.9 billion years ago and its evolution into the stars and galaxies that we can see, as well as overwhelming preponderance of dark matter and dark energy that so far we can only infer.

The collisions of two streams of particles traveling nearly as fast as light recreates conditions that existed in the first fraction of a second of the universe.

One of the hopes for the LFC is that it will help scientists find a fundamental particle thought to exist, but not yet found, the Higgs Boson, also known as the “god particle.”

 “The LFC is built to discover the whole energy and range when the Higgs Bosons exists,” Evans said.

The LFC story is one of ambition and scientific potential that has taken more than 15 years and has been marked by many setbacks along the way.

Among anecdotes of the construction history, Evans recalled a stunning reversal early in the process.

“We discovered the worst thing you can ever want — archeological remains,” he said.

It was a Roman farm and its excavation set the schedule back before construction could begin.

After a design fault in a $2 piece of plastic, “that the manufacturer had changed without telling us,” he said, the project halted for another eleven months.

“At one point I had

$1 billion worth of magnets sitting out there in the rain and snow,” he said.

Just after getting the LHC ready to go in September 2008, the project suffered one of its most publicized catastrophes when the failure of one of the 10,000 electrical control splices caused an explosion and the loss of tons of helium. That shutdown lasted until late last year.

Thinking hopefully of Thursday’s plans to beam up to a record energy level at half power, Evans concluded, “The adventure of LHC construction is finished. Now let the adventure of discovery begin.”