Off and Running at CERN's Large Hadron Collider

By William Dowell
[This story appeared in Geneva's Essential Edge,
September 10,2008]

Large Hadron Project Manager, Lyn Evans appears on a video screen for reporters at the CERN Globe conference hall
[Click on photo to see CERN slide show]

If you happened to be one of the 300 reporters watching the launch of the proton beam at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, Wednesday, it didn’t take long to realize that you didn’t really need to be there to get the picture. The BBC broadcast updates throughout the day, and beyond that there was not much to see. As one CERN control room after another flashed on a giant video screen, most of the action consisted of technicians intently watching dynamic graphs on flat video screens, and then smiling as each stage was accomplished. The real star of the show, a stream of protons, barely the diameter of a human hair, and running along a 27-kilometer, roughly oval shaped circuit 100 meters underground, was safely out of sight. The real drama had more to do with what the LHC means to science than it did with the actual launch.

As a precaution, the proton beam was limited to making the trip in short leaps, with strategically placed blocking mechanisms holding up the progress until the position of the beam could be verified. This was intended to keep a possibly wayward stream of particles from frying the $9 billion project before it gets going for real.

Since protons normally travel in a straight line, it took 9,000 magnets, 2,000 of them super conducting, to keep the beam on its course around the oval-shaped track. The task gets more demanding as the beam accelerates to nearly the speed of light. At that point, the protons become roughly 7,000 times heavier than they are at rest.

Eventually a second stream of protons will travel around the circuit in the opposite direction. The two streams will collide at specific points where gigantic sensors will detect any new particles created by the collision. The energy involved is roughly 14 tera electron volts, and the heat generated by the planned collision will nearly equal that of the sun, although in a microscopic space. Until now, some of these particles, such as the Higgs Bosun, are mostly conjecture. They are taken for granted because their existence is needed to complete certain mathematical equations. By providing concrete proof that these particles really do exist in the real world, it is hoped that a number of critical questions about current theories will finally be answered.

These issues are fascinating—at least to scientists. Trying to make them exciting in order to get the public sufficiently interested to keep funding the project is a different matter. As one scientist at CERN put it, “When I am working on this, I feel like a deep sea diver. I have to force myself to come back to the surface to explain it to people who aren’t working on it on a daily basis.”

In an age weaned on television, the process had top seem like a bit of an anti climax to the average viewer. When the proton beam actually arrived at the first leg of its journey, all that reporters clustered at CERN’s wooden globe in Meyrin got to see was a white dot on a blackened monitor that flashed for less than a second. Project manager, Lyn Evans, tried to increase the suspense by delivering an informal count down, but he had to wait a second or so after reaching zero for the beam to actually appear. At one point, he announced that the beam had failed, only to see it appear as another white blip a few seconds later. As each white blip signaled that the beam arrived at a new stage, there was muted applause.

“This is really not very exciting,” a reporter whispered desperately into a cell phone connected to his rewrite desk. But journalists assigned to the story felt an obligation to at least try to make it interesting, so an atmosphere of forced excitement permeated the room.

The lack of drama was not helped by the fact that CERN’s public relations staff seemed to know even less than the reporters. The PR chatter eventually became a barrier of sorts, separating the reporters the true science. CERN was making too much of an effort to dumb-down the process in order to make it accessible. This included an animated video which showed what looked like a double AA battery urging the protons to speed their way around a series of coils before entering the larger circuit. The effect was to make the average observer feel that CERN must think he's an idiot. At times, the commentary provided for reporters was so luridly overstated that it bordered on the absurd. “I feel like I am listening to a cricket match,” remarked a writer from India.

On a more serious level, however, the LHC launch raised some intriguing issues that most of the media managed to skip over. Out of politeness or a desire not to sound ridiculous, none of the newsmen mentioned black holes (See Essential Edge's story on this, ), or the possibility that the experiment might create as yet unknown planet-destroying particles. To be fair, the risk seems minimal. The CERN argument that these collisions occur all the time in nature seems reasonable enough—except that CERN is also saying that the collision will be the closest we’ve come yet to recreating the original Big Bang that marked the creation of the universe. That hardly seems like an every-day event. What was obvious at the globe presentation on Wednesday was that even if there were a real and imminent danger, it is doubtful that any of the reporters would have enough knowledge of physics to know. We were the blind talking to the blind. Even the venerable BBC, which broadcast stories about the event for most of the day, managed to place the LHC under the “Swiss Alps.” In fact, it is next to the Jura mountains.

The complicated nature of the physics effectively reduced the average journalist to repeating information that was spoon-fed by CERN's PR staff. In short, for most journalists, this was an act of faith. It is pretty obvious, however, that once $10 billion has been spent on a project like this, it is unlikely that anyone will try to shut it down, even if pressing forward really does mean the destruction of the planet. Too much that is immediately apparent is at stake. That said, it is not just a question of the money spent, but also one of the future of science. If the LHC were to be stopped at this stage, or even if it fails to produce what it has promised, it could prove nearly impossible to get similar financing for other projects, and that might conceivably stop this branch of human knowledge in its tracks. In a video now running on YouTube, physicist Michio Kaku suggested that the LHC should have been called the “Genesis Machine,” for its ability to create new worlds. True enough, but in Genesis, the forbidden fruit that banished Adam and Eve from Eden, was the fruit of knowledge. The real drama Wednesday, was not in CERN’s control rooms, but in the larger struggle to advance human knowledge. It is a tricky issue, but at least for the moment, Wednesday’s launch looks like an important success.

--CERN, Meyrin, France, September 2008