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LHC Start-up

LHC Start-up

Aug 19 2008 | comment(s)

After the Olympics, the next big thing is the international Large Hadron Collider. There's a lot of excitement at CERN. The first injections, and without a hitch, of low energy protons shot through an eighth of the 27 km LHC ring. Back to back for this weekend they're doing it again at 0.45 TeV with the anti-clockwise beam. It's an important preliminary test, kicking the protons from the pre-accelerator loops, into the unknown. At this point CERN is confident there is nothing to worry about. The energy is only half of the currently most powerful collider, Fermilab's Tevatron, in Batavia, Ill. So, CERN's probably right, this time. Higher energies will be the real test.

Now for the news major media aren't covering, from the current Strings 2008, a CERN conference, and not only on String theory. It's another window on CERN that is fascinating.

Large Hadron Collider, first test bunch of protons 3 km into collider, courtesy CERN 2008

On the vast CERN landscape outside Geneva, there’s only one figure in science tilting at the LHC windmill, Dr Otto E Rössler(Roessler). An aged veteran with some 300 research papers under his belt, sometimes called the father of Chaos theory, he looks the part of a sprightly campaigner for human rights, for knowledge and the imagination, poised now to do battle with the fiercest demons of all, the dreaded micro black holes from the Large Hadron Collider, should they appear. He worries they will consume the earth for breakfast.

CERN, the arch enchanter of nuclear physics, isn’t much concerned, with an underground lab to rival any fortress ever built, bolstered by an army of 2,500 physicists and another 6,000 worldwide just in case.

The ALICE Experiment, Time Projection Chamber, LHC, courtesy CERN 2007

In a familiar world of solids, liquids and gases, we find the fourth state of matter, the plasmas of lightning to the aurora borealis and fluorescent tubes at the office. Further out, minor phenomena becomes the big event in space, our shining stars are plasma being fused producing light. Not until 1924 was a fifth state of matter considered possible. Intrigued by quantum statistics, invented by the Bengali physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose from observations of light, Einstein applied Bose’s work to matter. The Bose-Einstein Condensate(BEC) was born. Was there any truth to the theory, Einstein himself wondered, that matter that could condense at ultracold temperatures into something new?

Einstein’s theory was left hanging, as a mathematical artifact, until 1938. Fritz London, a German theoretical chemist and physicist, working on helium at the same time as the Russian Pyotr Kapitsa who discovered its superfluid state at just under 2.2 K, found it behaved like Einstein’s theoretical BEC. Subsequent research confirmed London’s insight. Both stable isotopes, ordinary helium-4, and the rare helium-3 at much lower temperatures, are quantum superfluids, behaving like matter-waves or superatoms, undifferentiated matter with vastly different properties from their gas state or their ordinary bottled fluid state.

With the Large Hadron Collider gearing up for its first test run this summer, physicists hope to discover the last missing particle predicted by the Electroweak theory, the Higgs boson.  Wrapped up in its own big theory, the Higgs Mechanism or Higgs Field, it supposedly confers mass or absolute weight on some paricles or collections of them like atoms and planets.  The Higgs Field is a must, otherwise the Electroweak theory falls flat, insisting that all particles are massless, that matter doesn't exist.

The LHC has been sold to politicians and the public as the experiment that will find the Higgs, though in fact the LHC, no ordinary atom smasher, aims to produce it with colossal energies applied to protons, lead ions later, collided together in a mini Big Bang.  The disaster scenarios also start here.

Einstein and Spacetime, courtesy NASA 2005 


The biggest ever science experiment, the Large Hadron Collider, should be operational this summer.  Three years behind schedule and 30% over budget, the $8.7 billion LHC will collide protons together and lead ions next year, at colossal energies never before attempted.  Don't hold your breath.  Rudiger Schmidt at CERN, near Geneva, says,"The LHC is a frightening complex accelerator."  A lot could still go wrong even before startup. 

On the engineering side, most of the equipment custom designed and built, problems also are complex.  One particular sore spot was a big triplet superconducting magnet from Fermilab, that exploded 13 months ago during a pressure test, releasing helium coolant.  A design flaw had to be fixed in all 8 magnets, and finally, yesterday, one was successfully tested, applauded by a team of 50 physicists, engineers and technicians. There are another 1232 dipoles of  15 meter length, 400 5-7 meter focusing quadrupoles, and 5,000 corrector magnets to keep the hadrons, protons or ions, in the 27 kilometer main ring.

CERN LHC Accelerators, courtesy CERN.  The main ring is 27 km in circumference, the ATLAS, a few km from the Geneva Airport.