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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The LHC excitement at CERN.

It's been in the scientific news for months, may be years. Not being a particle physicist, I have not been paying much attention to the case and news. But today is the day that the so-called world's biggest physics experiment, BBC News calls the 'Big Bang' experiment, kicks off.

I think the feature article in Nature published online today by Geoff Brumfiel entitled "Particle physics: The race to break the standard model" give the best, even I can vaguely understand, explanation of what this is all about.

It is powerful; it is galling; it is doomed. The incredibly successful mathematical machine that physicists call the 'standard model' is a set of equations that describes every known form of matter, from individual atoms to the farthest galaxies. It describes three of the four fundamental forces in nature: the strong, weak and electromagnetic interactions. It predicts the outcome of one experiment after another with unprecedented accuracy. And yet, as powerful as it is, the standard model is far from perfect. Its mathematical structure is arbitrary. It is littered with numerical constants that seem equally ad hoc. And perhaps most disturbingly, it has resisted every attempt to incorporate the last fundamental force: gravity.

So physicists have been trying to get beyond the standard model ever since it was put together in the 1970s. In effect, they will have to shatter the model with experimental data that contradict its near-perfect equations. And then, from its fragments, they must build a newer, better theory. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a giant particle accelerator at CERN, Europe's particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, is the latest attempt to break the standard model — and one that many see as all but assured of success. The prodigious energy it generates will force particles into realms where the standard model cannot follow.
Here's a picture of a portion of the LHC under construction:
And here's a wider view:

As one who's working on ocean waves, I am sometimes peeved by the "mainstream" players contented with the standard approach that has not making significant progress for two decades but no one seems to be willing to do anything. I think I can feel some of the excitement at CERN and looking forward for what's new regarding the beginning of the universe beyond what the standard models have to offer!

Update September 21, 2008

A-Oh! Science headline in New York Times: "New Particle Collider to be shut down for repairs" as:

After the initial success of threading protons through the machine on Sept. 10, physicists had hoped they could move ahead quickly to low-energy collisions at 450 billion electron volts and then five-trillion-electron volt collisions as early as mid-October.

Several mishaps, including the failure of a 30-ton electrical transformer, have slowed progress since then. In the worst case, on Friday, one of the giant superconducting magnets that guide the protons failed during a test. A large amount of helium, which is used to cool the magnets to within 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit of absolute zero, leaked into the collider tunnel.

In a terse statement, the laboratory said that an electrical connection between the magnets had melted because of the high current. To fix it, engineers will have to warm that section of the tunnel, and then cool it all the way down again.

Physicists say such setbacks are an inevitable part of starting up such a large and complicated machine, which has cost $8 billion and taken 14 years.

“This is just an unfortunate fact of life when starting up a machine like the L.H.C,” Dr. Gillies said.

Yes, fact of life! Indeed, even after $8 billion and 14 years!

Update September 25, 2008

According to Nature News, September 22, 2008, 455 (436-437), by Geoff Brumfiel: LHC meltdown before first Collision -- Europe's largest particle accelerator might not produce data until 2009.

Update October 24, 2008

Latest from Nature News by Brumfiel again:

Details of last month's accident at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's premier particle accelerator, are emerging — and confirm that the machine will not restart before late May or early June 2009.

Officials at CERN, Europe's particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, say that the time is needed to overhaul a sector of the 27-kilometre-long machine, after an electrical failure on 19 September caused some 6 tonnes of ultra-cold liquid helium to leak into its tunnel.

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