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.
Cooling down the system to 1.9 K, colder than outer space, and powering up the magnets is going on now. They need to sit up, bark and rollover, as they say at Fermilab's Tevatron, the LHC's little sister collider, near Chicago. All this takes a lot of K-9 juice. The LHC will consume about as much electricity as the Canton of Geneva, about $30 million a year. And over 2,000 particle physicists on site, another 6,000 participating on-line, about half the world's theorists and experimentalists.
Why go to such extraordinary lengths for an experiment? To understand the fundamental nature of matter and energy, or practically speaking, to confirm our deny some theories. Even here they might fail, as some physicists think, with energies or luminosity, not high enough, and no worthwhile data produced, though they should get some quark-gluon plasma at least.
A good bet is it's a hedge on the Standard Model, many physicists would be loath to abandon. They hope that LHC data will confirm the Higgs boson, a patch theory for part of the Standard Model, the Electroweak theory, that needs the Higgs to confirm that without the Higgs there would be no mass to any particles. That Higgs bosons confer mass. What happens at the LHC could determine the fate of the Standard Model that physicists have been developing and trying to unify for 40 years into an elusive Grand Unified Theory.
Waiting in the wings are the String theorists, the Supersymmetry theorists, so far with no experimental leg to stand on, hoping to see the Standard Model stymied, waiting for new dimensions to pop open or new particles discovered. Three teams fighting over the LHC. Even some infighting with teams within teams, theorists and experimentalists, the mighty ATLAS vs the CMS, two of the colossal detectors for the experiments. An international affair too, with physicists from everywhere, the biggest group at 700 plus from the U.S., about outnumbering the Italians and the French combined.
Other events could overtake the LHC, the disaster scenarios, also in the realm of theories. If all goes well with startup, the planned collisions could produce, not the expected particles or nothing much, but far more dangerous phenomena. The production of micro black holes, strangelets, or magnetic monopoles could alter the fabric of space-time, If the effects build, trapped here by our planet's gravity in these stationary collision events, earth could be consumed by a black hole or transform into a lump of strange matter. In the worst case scenario, the LHC could produce a transition to a lower vacuum state. Eventually it would obliterate the Universe at light speed.
On the other side of the coin, is the risk of accidents and equipment malfunctions. The record at Fermilab's Tevatron is one of a host of day-to-day failures, a few catastrophic like massive quenches and beam loss. The LHC is far bigger and more powerful, the luminosity, according to N. Mokhov of CERN, head of LHC protection systems, is 150 times greater. Steve Meyers, the head of accelerators and beams at CERN: "The LHC is the first accelerator ever built that has the ability to self-destruct."
To get an idea of just how complex the LHC is, try sifting through thousands of CERN documents, photographs, and videos on their official websites. For the look and feel of the LHC, without the hassles, plus in-depth summaries, see more at my blog. Be sure to click on Peter McCready's links to his stunning Virtual Reality animations with sound, the best place to start.