The world's biggest machine is getting an upgrade and Bryan Appleyard of The Times gets a rare tour.
He looks a bit 1968 — beard, leather waistcoat, jeans — and his job title is downright hippie-psychedelic. Paul Collier is head of beams.
I meet him in a tunnel 91m below Switzerland, or maybe France. Down here, it's hard to tell. We are inside the biggest machine in the world, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 27km ring beneath the villages and farmland on the Franco-Swiss border.
Luckily for me, this machine is not switched on. When it is, there is radiation and something odd happens to the surrounding air, none of which is good for your health. I'm here now not only because it's safe to explore but also because the LHC is having one of its periodic upgrades. This one is perhaps the most important since the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.
When it is switched on, subatomic particles rush round tubes inside the tunnel 11,245 times a second; these are the beams of which Collier is the head. He tells me the particles reach a speed that is within "walking distance" of the speed of light. I press him on this. He recalculates. It turns out the figure is 6.2mph (9.9km/h) short of the speed of light — "so probably jogging speed" — still not bad considering light travels at 671m miles per hour.
At certain points on their journey these particles are tricked into committing suicide by crashing into particles going the other way round. The resulting splatters and spirals may, one day, tell us what everything is made of and how it came to be that way. Or not. Geneva-based Cern — the European Organisation for Nuclear Research — is the great hope of every physicist. It runs the LHC, which is not only the biggest but also the best instrument of its type in the world. If the truth is to be found, surely it will be here.
Seven years ago, it seemed to be happening. Cern announced that it had discovered an elusive particle called the Higgs boson. Cernies almost pass out with glee at the memory of this.
"I queued for 12 hours to get into the room where the announcement was made," says Sarah Williams, a 30-year old physicist at Cambridge University.
It was a triumph, but a predictable one. The Higgs more or less had to exist because it is what gives mass to almost everything in the universe — cars, people, buildings, planets, whatever. Williams compares the Higgs to the most famous person in a room; all the autograph-hunting particles cluster around it. But what has not yet leapt out from the petabytes of data spewed out of the LHC — and this has made some claim the experiment to be a failure — is the holy grail of contemporary science: a new physics.
Here's the problem with the old physics in a paragraph. We have quantum theory for very small stuff, relativity for very big stuff and the Standard Model, which is the table of all the weird particles we have discovered. All seem to be true, but relativity and quantum theory contradict each other and the model doesn't work. "You can't plug the Standard Model into the universe, as it would vanish," explains physicist Mark Williams, based at Cern. On top of that, physicists can only study 4 per cent of the universe. The rest is made up of dark matter and energy that we can't see or, yet, detect.
In short, 500 years after Copernicus, 300 years after Newton and 100 years after Einstein, physics is back to square one. If there's one thing more astounding than our breathtaking knowledge, it's our stupendous ignorance. Astounding but, for the physicists at Cern, also thrilling.
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"We have the exciting prospect of the next generation of experiments," Williams says, "both at the LHC and elsewhere, which will make us even more sensitive to new physics — discoveries beyond our current understanding."
At first sight, Cern is probably the least impressive temple of truth ever built, a random assembly of nondescript and generally shabby postwar architecture inside which long, beige corridors seem to lead to nowhere in particular. In the canteen it gets more exciting. It is seething with young people — mainly school groups — and intense huddles of physicists and engineers. In the garden, there's a fat blue tube bearing the words Acceleration of Science.
All the real grandeur of the mission is hidden below ground. Here you are confronted with the central paradox of the place: in order to track, observe and manipulate the smallest things in the world, we have to build the biggest machine in the world.
The tunnel is so long it flexes with the phases of the moon. This could be a problem for Paul Collier's beams. "The moon deforms the tunnel," explains Glyn Kirby, the Cern engineer in charge of magnets, "and so the LHC, like the sea, is moving. We correct for this movement with thousands of small magnets that push the beam back into position."
This kind of scale can inspire wonder, but also fear. When the LHC first went into action in September 2008, some feared it would create a black hole that would suck in the entire world or cause a "vacuum metastability disaster", which would eliminate the universe. Mercifully, none of this happened.
Magnets are the muscles of the collider. They bend the particle beams round the tunnel by exploiting a phenomenon known as superconductivity: in certain conditions certain materials conduct electricity without any resistance at all. Kirby remarks that if we all had superconductors running into and around our homes, we could power our planet with a single power station. Electrical resistance soaks up most of the power we produce. Really? "A small exaggeration," he concedes, "but not far from the truth."
The first problem with superconductivity is it happens at very low temperatures, a few degrees above absolute zero: –273C. They have to use superfluid helium to keep 36,000 tons of equipment at this temperature. The second problem is that it can go wrong. Any little nudge of current or magnetic field can cause resistance in the electrical flow, at which point things heat up very quickly. The entire magnetic system can burn up in minutes. To prevent this, the energy from the magnets is diverted into big metal boxes called dump resistors. From there, it is dispersed into the ground. Why not just sell the power back to the electrical grid, I ask Collier. He looks at me as though he has only just realised I am an idiot. Because, of course, it would fry the grid.
As if his physics credentials weren't enough, Collier also worked on "the non-linear mechanical behaviour of cellular plastics". This led to the development of air soles in running shoes. So cool.
They're all like that — somehow saintly in their strange asceticism. Another Cern physicist, Pippa Wells, rapidly and lucidly explains, justifies and celebrates the whole operation. She does not know physics, she lives in it. "You're very enthusiastic," I say, then immediately regret it as she blushes furiously.
Glyn Kirby, with his breezy film star appearance, loves his magnets so much he can't stop stroking them. Dave Barney, who is working on an upgrade to some of the sensors, crouches like a Swiss watchmaker over his new hexagonal design, explaining every detail. This upgrade — which should significantly increase the energy levels and the number of particle collisions — is the reason the machine is turned off.
"We are already running at twice the original design intensity," says Wells. After the next big shutdown — scheduled for completion by 2026 — they will move to "high luminosity" mode, in which the LHC will be produce up to seven times more particle collisions and provide 10 times more data over the following decade.
But will it be enough to yank the new physics out of the swirls and splats? Quite probably not. But the Cernies have a plan for that. They've got a 70-year roadmap for an even bigger machine — the Future Circular Collider (FCC). This will be a 96km ring running under Lake Geneva that will cost somewhere in the region of £20 billion (NZ$38 billion), four times as much as the LHC.
They're a little hazy about how they will raise this huge sum. Cern is funded by its 23 member states — the UK contributes £140m, second only to Germany. Britain accounts for 221 of the 2,600 permanent staff and 897 of the 12,500 scientists who use the LHC. America is not a member, but hundreds of US scientists trawl the data. There are dark mutterings about a cash squeeze at the moment but, somehow, I am assured, they will get funding for the FCC.
In fact, if they eased up on their saintly idealism, they could probably pay for half a dozen FCCs. In the past Cern has avoided patents, preferring to share its innovations to further scientific discovery. Since one of the things it invented was the worldwide web — the usable internet — this might be seen as a missed opportunity. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee conceived the web while working in an office off one of those beige corridors. There's a plaque on the corridor wall, but it doesn't identify the exact office because anybody working in it would be swamped by visitors.
Cern, then, gave away trillions by not having a WWW patent. Nevertheless, an ethos of transparency and collaboration is baked into the place.
"I think it's fundamental that we are open to all," Kirby says. "This way of working accelerates the world's understanding and its ability to solve important problems such as global warming."
To sustain the funding flow, Cern must resort to politics. I am sent a list of British politicians who have visited in the past two years. There are 15 names including Norman Lamb, Alun Cairns, Jo Johnson and — wouldn't you know it? — Boris Johnson. Even if you're trying to answer the ultimate question of existence, you have to mix with a few Westminster droids.
When you ask what the LHC is for, Cernies all default to one of two answers. Either they say that seeking ultimate answers and voyaging into the unknown is just what humans do and should do; or they that say many useful applications will flow from their work.
They're right about the latter — if you like the internet, then you should love Cern. Moreover, they're about to be even more right.
In the canteen I talk to Manjit Dosanjh, the sole medical scientist on the staff at Cern — "I'm as rare as a Higgs boson!" she cries. She shows me a three-dimensional and brilliantly coloured x-ray image of a human wrist. It was made using Medipix technology, which was developed by Cern and various collaborators. It works, it's affordable and it delivers a radiation dose no greater than that of our present monochrome, 2D imagers.
Cernies know more about beams than anybody else on the planet, and beams are what drive much medical research — in imaging and in the treatment of cancer. If you were to suggest that the LHC might one day cure cancer, then the arguments surrounding funding and politics would look quite different.
But, of course, Cernies are really explorers, not fixers. They might be discovering new technologies, but what they're really trying to do is scratch an itch they cannot yet reach, the itch to know how it all came to be. Why, for example, is there something rather than nothing? There should be nothing because in the early universe there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter. They should have cancelled each other out and we should not exist. But now it's all matter, with a few traces of antimatter.
Where is dark matter and dark energy? Why don't our present theories work? What lies beyond them that we cannot see?
These are, in a good way, childish questions; questions we grow out of because we realise we can never answer them. But, again in a good way, Cernies don't grow up like the rest of us. Most gave me stories of a childish wonder that would not go away — Pippa Wells, for example, says she was struck, as a schoolgirl, by the need to see the smallest possible thing.
I descend again into the tunnel to see the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a mighty particle detector that encircles a section of the collider. The bigger Atlas detector is having too much work done to receive visitors. But CMS is big enough: a monstrous 14,000-ton tube, 21 metres long and 15 metres across. Inside its vast cathedral-like vault, this machine has been split apart to reveal an interior of indecipherable complexity. The scale is disorientating, causing a wave of vertigo to flow through me. You just shouldn't be in a room with something that big. As an architectural experience, it is unique.
In the end, the answer to the "What is all this for?" question is poetry. Unlike poetry, it is madly expensive and involves thousands of people; but, like poetry, it is an attempt to say something that has never been said before and to describe a reality previously hidden from us.
Perhaps the Cernies will never get there, perhaps the new physics is a myth. But I don't care; I like poets.
The LHC in numbers
• 27km - The circumference of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)
• –271.3°C - The temperature of the magnets used in the LHC — close to absolute zero, colder than outer space
• 49% - The proportion of matter in the universe that we know about. The LHC searches for the remainder, made up of dark matter and dark energy
• £18.5m (NZ$35.5m) - Yearly electricity costs for the LHC
• 2,600 - The number of permanent staff at Cern, 221 of whom are British
• 30 - The number of petabytes of data Cern stores each year, enough to fill 1.2m Blu-ray discs
• 99.99% - The percentage of the speed of light that protons reach in the LHC
• £140m (NZ$269m) - The yearly contribution made to Cern by the UK, the second largest behind Germany
Written by: Bryan Appleyard
© The Times of London