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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Large Hadron Collider

The Fast Way Around

To get those protons up to speed, LHC engineers had to build 17 miles’ worth of the coldest, emptiest place in the universe

Large Hadron Collider: Photo by Kevin Hand

The purpose of the LHC is to get lots of protons moving very, very fast. The magnet system is the core piece of technology that makes this happen. More than 1,200 magnet sections, each weighing 10 tons, bend proton beams through vacuum pipes around the 17-mile-long underground tunnel near Geneva. Since these protons are going so fast—99.9999991 percent of the speed of light—superconducting coils of niobium and titanium must produce a magnetic field that’s about 200,000 times as strong as Earth’s to bend them. A power supply feeds these magnets with 12,000 amps of current, and a constant flow of liquid helium keeps the entire machine just 1.9 degrees above absolute zero. The conditions are both colder and emptier than deep space.


In Defense of the LHC

As the Large Hadron Collider readies to be fired up in Geneva, Physicist Brian Cox explains what it might reveal about the workings of the Universe—and why the grandest scientific instrument ever built is well worth the $6 billion investment

The Collider: Photo by Peter McCready

Today’s most ambitious scientific instruments are modern-day cathedrals in their size and complexity, if not in their purpose—these are, after all, structures built to shatter worldviews, not to reinforce them. And the grandest of all, pictured on these pages and fired into action today, will take us on a journey to one of the least-accessible places imaginable: the realm of quantum particles, less than a billionth the size of a single atom.

This is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the most magnificent scientific instrument ever constructed. Nearly 17 miles in circumference, buried 300 feet below the city of Geneva and a succession of picturesque French villages, and costing in excess of $6 billion, the LHC will be a window onto a profound and unexplored world that we hope will hold the answers to some of the biggest possible questions: What are we made of? Why are we here? And how could objects as marvelously complex as human beings evolve to ask these questions in such a violent and inhospitable universe?

The LHC is designed to recreate the conditions that were present in the universe less than a billionth of a second after the big bang—and to do so again and again, up to 600 million times a second. It accomplishes this by accelerating protons, the atomic nuclei of hydrogen atoms, so close to the speed of light that they zip around the 17-mile ring 11,000 times a second, before colliding head-on with another beam of protons traveling in the opposite direction. Four giant experiments, ATLAS, CMS, LHCb and ALICE, “photograph” the resulting miniature “big bangs.” I work with more than 2,000 other physicists from 37 countries on ATLAS, a detector that’s been built from more component parts than a space shuttle and that fills a subterranean cavern bigger than the nave of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The scale, ambition and unique international cooperation at CERN make it one of the greatest human endeavours of this or any century.

But I’ve found that for many people the focus is not on the sheer audacity and majestic possibility of the LHC, but on the cost. I recently gave a talk about CERN that appeared on the Web and attracted plenty of comment in this regard: “Have we gone out of our freaking minds? How much did this thing cost to build? . . . Billions of dollars, no doubt, and for what? To collide two atoms in the hope of discovering a new particle . . .” In other words, can’t we do something more useful with that kind of money?

Let me answer with an emphatic NO. Finding out how our Universe works has never been a bad idea. In fact, it is the quest for a deeper understanding of nature that has given us everything we now take for granted in modern life. In an eloquent speech to the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1966, the theoretical physicist and then Philips research director, H.G.B. Casimir, pointed out that virtually all of the great discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries came from curiosity-driven research. The transistor emerged from the quantum theory of solids, not from a desire to build computers and televisions. Radio waves were not discovered by men in government-directed laboratories in order to connect the world together with better communication systems, but by Heinrich Hertz, a man whose overriding concern was for the beauty of physics. In his speech, Casimir went on to list many of the great innovations of the mid-20th century—from nuclear power to automobile starter motors—and point out that none of them came about as a result of some kind of pragmatic process of innovation. The lightbulb, as the saying goes, was not invented through research and development on the candle.

In Defense of the LHC

As the Large Hadron Collider readies to be fired up in Geneva, Physicist Brian Cox explains what it might reveal about the workings of the Universe—and why the grandest scientific instrument ever built is well worth the $6 billion investment

It should not be surprising that a deeper understanding of nature leads to great benefits for humankind. History speaks for itself. So why, then, could anyone question the “benefit”
of projects like the LHC? I believe society undervalues exploration because searching for incremental solutions to pressing problems feels like a more pragmatic response to our problems than the quest for for a revolution. It feels like we know enough—and we should focus our energies on better exploiting what we know. But what is “enough”? If we had applied this logic to particle physics over the past few decades, then we would have no World Wide Web (invented at CERN in 1990), no medical imaging scanners (the P in PET scan stands for positron, an antimatter electron discovered in 1932 by observing cosmic rays) and no x-ray or chemotherapy treatments, all of which rely on miniature particle accelerators to create the short-lived radioisotopes required for medical use. The world would be a far less comfortable place because of the loss to medicine alone, and a poorer place for the loss to commerce.

Most importantly, though, the world would be truly impoverished without all the fundamental knowledge we’ve gained. And the LHC has been built to answer some very profound questions about the nature of matter. We know it will discover something because we have deliberately built it to journey into uncharted waters, reaching energies in its particle collisions never before achieved in Earthly laboratories (although routinely achieved by nature elsewhere in the universe—prophets of doom take note, we are not powerful enough to endanger the world with this thing by a very long shot!).

Computer Center at CERN: Photo by CERN

What might the LHC discover? Top of the list is the origin of mass in the universe. We strongly suspect that the particles that make up our bodies don’t just have mass—that is to say substance—but acquire it by some very subtle mechanism. The most well-established theory is the Higgs mechanism, which predicts the existence of one or more particles known as Higgs bosons that should be well within the reach of the LHC. We also hope to discover the nature of dark matter, which many theorists suspect consists of a new kind of subatomic particle that outnumbers the stuff that makes up the Earth, sun and all the stars in the sky by a ratio of 5:1. More speculatively, we could discover extra imensions in the universe, revealing, in a Copernican revolution of unprecedented proportion, that we’re crawling around on a four-dimensional sheet in a perhaps infinitely larger multi-dimensional cosmos like ants on a piece of paper. And last, but hardly least, we could discover something so strange and, possibly, so useful that nobody has yet thought of it.

I accept that we scientists will always be called upon to justify our voyages of discovery in economic language simple enough (dare I say it?) for politicians to understand. Sometimes, however, we should also be brash and bold and defend the search for knowledge simply because it is a noble cause in itself. The great physicist Robert Wilson, founder of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batava, Illinois, which houses the world’s most powerful particle accelerator (until the LHC switches on), was once asked by Rhode Island senator John Pastore about the value of Fermilab in support of national defense. “It has nothing to do directly with defending our country,” replied Wilson, “except to make it worth defending.”

Exploration always delivers, because striving to gaze over the horizon is the only route to progress. If our ambition fades, then our position in this dangerous and beautiful universe becomes more precarious. Let us, therefore, celebrate the endeavors of big science, marvel at its machines, and await its discoveries with wonder in our eyes—and not with our hands tightly clasped around our wallets.


Breaking Open the Unknown Universe

The most powerful and complex science experiment in the history of the universe is finally—after 14 years and $10 billion—about to begin. There’s no telling what it may find, and that’s entirely the point

Big Smash: Atlas's eight giant superconducting magnets, together powerful enough to crush a bus: Photo by CERN

The proton is a persistent thing. The first one crystallized out of the universe's chaotic froth just 0.00001 of a second after the big bang, when existence was squeezed into a space about the size of the solar system. The rest quickly followed. Protons for the most part have survived unchanged through the intervening 13.8 billion years—joining with electrons to make hydrogen gas, fusing in stars to form the heavier elements, but all the while remaining protons. And they will continue to remain protons for billions of years to come. All, that is, except the unlucky few that wait in a tank of hydrogen gas 300 feet beneath the small Swiss town of Meyrin, a few miles north of the Geneva airport. Those—those are in trouble.

By the time you read this, a strong electric field will have begun to strip the electrons away from the protons in that hydrogen gas. Radio waves will push the protons, naked and charged, forward, accelerating them through the first of what can reasonably be called the most impressive series of tubes in the known universe (Internet be damned, Senator Stevens). The tubes in this Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have one purpose: Pump ever more energy into these protons, push them hard against Einstein's insurmountable cosmic speed limit c.

And then, the sudden stop. Head-on, a single proton will meet a single proton in the center of a cage of 27 million pounds of silicon and superconducting coils of niobium and titanium. And it will cease to be. These protons will collide with such tremendous energy, so much focused power, that they will transmute. They will metamorphose into muons and neutrinos and photons. All of that, for our purposes, is junk. But about once in a trillion collisions—no one knows for sure—they should turn into something we have never before observed. These protons, these nanoscopic specks of matter that together bear the energy of a high-speed train, will reach out into the hypothetical and bring a little bit of it back.

We have some good guesses about what they will become. They could turn into a missing particle called the Higgs boson—thus completing, through actual observation, the Standard Model of the universe, which describes everything yet known. Or they might vanish into dark matter, and so satisfy the demands of the astronomers who have for decades observed that the universe is suffused with mass of unknown origin and composition. Or—and this is what everyone is really hoping for—these transmuting protons will defy our imagination. They will show us the unexpected, the unanticipated, the (temporarily) unintelligible. The humble proton, just maybe, will surprise us.

The most powerful and complex science experiment in the history of the universe is finally—after 14 years and $10 billion—about to begin. There’s no telling what it may find, and that’s entirely the point

Blank Fate: Think of the 15-million-pound Atlas detector as a giant camera that can take pictures of dark matter: Photo by Maximilien Brice/CERN

Down the Rabbit Hole

"They turned on the retinal scanners yesterday," warns Steve Goldfarb, a particle physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN, by its French acronym), the home of the LHC. "I hope this will work." He steps into the security lock, and the green phone-booth doors slide shut behind him. A wall-mounted scanner matches the pattern of blood vessels in the back of his eyeball against the database of those allowed entry. The system ensures that every person is tracked, that mission control knows exactly who goes down into the tunnels. In a month, trips down will be rare. In a month, the beam will be on.

Access granted. We wait at the elevator with stocky contractors in T-shirts and dirty work pants—murmurs in Polish and French, wary looks at the reporter's notepad, the red hard hat reserved for visitors—then climb in, and hit the button for floor –1. We are going to Atlas. The detector. The center. The collective work of tens of thousands of physicist-years, which is still, it quickly becomes apparent as we emerge through the concrete corridor and hear the first sharp pings of hammers on steel that echo throughout the chamber, not quite finished.

Though it's often compared to the interior of Notre Dame cathedral, the chamber looks less like a gothic sanctuary than it does the phaser room on the Starship Enterprise. There's an 80-foot high, 15-million-pound rolling pin of silicon and steel parked in the center, and it looks ready to fire. Except down here, the firing happens in reverse. In a month, once liquid helium cools the magnets down to 1.9 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero (that's –456°F), beams of near-light-speed protons will race not out, but in, meeting in the detector's center. (There is another equally sensitive detector, CMS, five miles away across the French countryside. The two groups will double-check each other's work and provide a bit of friendly rivalry as to who can discover what first.) The collision will concentrate all that speeding energy in an infinitesimally small space. And then that ball of pure energy will become something else entirely. "By Einstein's E = m2, you can make particles whose mass is less than the amount of energy you have available," says Martinus Veltman, a physics professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and a Nobel laureate. Energy becomes mass. This, in a nutshell, is why the protons need to go so fast—with more energy, the LHC can summon ever-heavier particles out of the ether. And the heavier particles are the interesting ones. The heavy ones are new.

The most powerful and complex science experiment in the history of the universe is finally—after 14 years and $10 billion—about to begin. There’s no telling what it may find, and that’s entirely the point

Light Reading: Astronomers can make dark matter by tracking how it distorts the light from distant galaxies: Photo by NASA

Darkness Doubles Down

Here's what we know about what the universe is made of: We have the ordinary, common matter, like protons and electrons. In addition, there's all the stuff that transmits a force, like photons of light, or gravitons, which pull heavy objects together. That's the universe—matter and force—and physicists have spent the past 60 years or so uncovering the details of how all the matter particles and the force particles interact. The totality of that work is called the Standard Model of particle physics, and any particle physicist will tell you that it is the most successful theory in the history of human existence, powerful enough to predict the results of experiments down to one part in a trillion.

And yet the Standard Model is almost certainly not the whole picture. While particle physicists have been busy constructing the Standard Model, astronomers and cosmologists have been working on another task, a giant cosmic accounting project. What they see—or, more precisely, don't—is a clear sign that there are far more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by the Ph.D.s.

If you go out and count up all the stars and galaxies and supernovae and the like, you should get an estimate of how much total mass there is in the universe. But if you estimate the mass another way—say, by looking at how quickly galaxies rotate (the more mass in a galaxy, the faster it spins) or by noting how galaxies clump together in large groups—you will conclude that the universe has much more mass than we can see. About five times as much, by the latest reckoning. Since it can't be seen, we call it dark matter.

Here's the problem: These unknown dark-matter particles—there's no column in the Standard Model for them. Another problem is that not even the people who came up with it think the Standard Model is the whole story. "The theory raises so many new questions," says David Gross, who won a Nobel Prize in 2004 for his work on the Standard Model, "that we are convinced it must be incomplete in some way." Sure, the model correctly predicts the outcome of experiments. But it is not, in the deep way that physicists want it to be, pretty.

To make the Standard Model work, there needs to be much fine-tuning, a dirty word to physicists because it implies arbitrarily tweaking lots of little variables in order to make everything come out right. Much better, physicists would argue, to have everything balance out naturally. As Dan Hooper, a physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, concludes in his new book Nature's Blueprint, "The Standard Model as we understand it is ultimately unstable and is in desperate need of a new mechanism to prevent it from falling apart."

Enter supersymmetry, one helluva "mechanism." Supersymmetry posits that every particle is only half the story—that every particle has a hidden twin. Remember how the universe is split into matter and force? The core idea of supersymmetry is that every matter particle has a twin force-carrying particle. Same goes the other way: Every force particle has a twin made of matter. Matter and force, in one sense, are just two manifestations of the same thing.

How does this work in practice? Electrons give rise to selectrons (as in, supersymmetric electrons), and photons beget photinos (don't ask). The extra particles, each heavier than its twin, automatically balance out the Standard Model, no fine-tuning needed. But perhaps more important, these particles, were they to exist, could very well be the hitherto invisible dark matter. The universe swarms with squarks, winos and neutralinos, and these supersymmetric particles are just heavy enough and just common enough to outweigh the "normal" stuff by a factor of five to one. Cosmology, meet particle physics.

Of course, for this to make any sense, the LHC first needs to find a supersymmetric particle. And here's the catch: Even if the LHC makes a supersymmetric particle—two protons come together with enough energy to make, say, a neutralino—that particle will still be invisible. It will pass through the walls of the detector and down into Earth's crust and back out into space. Invisible means it doesn't interact with ordinary matter, and ordinary matter is the only thing we can build detectors out of.

So what happens? How can we tell? Well, we look very closely. When two protons come together, they will generate a shower of particles. Most of them will be ordinary particles, and the detectors will catch these. Then the scientists will look for what's missing. "It's a bit like the Sherlock Holmes story where the most important clue is the dog that doesn't bark," says John Ellis, a theorist at CERN. If lots of stuff comes out going one way, there has to be an equal amount of stuff going the other way—it's just the law of conservation of momentum. Count up what you have, subtract that from what you started with, and voilà, you could find yourself with a fleeting glimpse of dark matter. Or at least, its absence.

The most powerful and complex science experiment in the history of the universe is finally—after 14 years and $10 billion—about to begin. There’s no telling what it may find, and that’s entirely the point

Vintage Store: The quickest, cheapest, most reliable way to store all that data? Tape drives, same as in the 1970s: Photo by Maximilien Brice/CERN

The Data Junkies

Back in the cavern that holds Atlas, physicist/tour guide Steve Goldfarb stands on a gantry 50 feet above the floor and traces in the air an imaginary track of an imaginary particle that has just spawned from a collision. "The whole idea of building such a huge detector," he says, "is to be able to draw a very precise line." Tellingly, the line he draws curves across the room.

Both Atlas and CMS generate magnetic fields so intense that "if you drove a bus in here and if you turned on the magnetic field, you would crush the bus," says Phil Harris, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who shows me around CMS the following day. (Graduate students are considered the do-it-all grunt workers of any enormous project like this. Harris's buddy Pieter Everaerts, another MIT grad student, told me that one of their main jobs was to "go down [into the detector] to look for the blinking lights" that may indicate a faulty connection. Harris, for his part, has spent months building a database to keep track of the thousands of cables that carry data up and out of the machine. The LHC: where America's best and brightest go to label cables.)

Bus-crushing, despite its indisputable awesomeness, is not on the agenda here. Rather, the point of all these superconducting magnets is to make everything curve. When the two protons collide, the shower of debris they create will not, unlike the cables in the detector, come with labels. Harris and Everaerts and the 2,000 other scientists who work on CMS have to figure out what each particle is. Since a magnetic field bends the path of a charged particle, you can measure how much each particle curves and how fast it's going and deduce its charge and mass. "We need to understand everything," Harris explains. "Where it was, how much momentum, how much energy." And do it over and over, for the hundreds of particles that burst from every collision, 600 million times a second.

This, in turn, presents a slight problem with data overload. "We'll produce about a World Wide Web's worth of data every day," says Harris, an excitable 25-year-old who wears his hard hat backward and his pants a good six to eight inches below his waist. Everaerts turns his eyes up, clearly checking the math behind Harris's boast in his head. "Yes," he solemnly intones, "though the Web is growing very fast."

It's one thing to undertake a massive (but finite) civil-engineering project like the LHC in the space of a decade. It's quite another to build a new Google every day. "There's no way that CERN can provide all the computing components," says Ian Bird, the leader of the LHC Computing Grid. Instead, scientists figured out two ways to get rid of all the excess data.

Fortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), most of the data the machines collect will be junk. Old news, particles long discovered, phenomena well-explored. Electronics in the detector throw out any collisions that don't look interesting, which totals about 99.99997 percent of the raw data.

The remaining 200 collisions per second move upstairs to the main computing center, a warehouse with row after row of rack-mounted computers. This is "Tier 0," in LHC parlance. From here, dedicated fiber-optic cables send a copy of the data to 11 computing centers worldwide, the so-called Tier 1. (The cables comprise the famous "Internet2" you may have heard about a few years ago—all it means is that the scientists get to use these lines, not you.) The Tier 1 computers then calibrate the data and distribute it to hundreds of Tier 2 computing centers. These are individual server farms, the 100,000 PCs spread among universities like Cambridge and Berkeley and Osaka. This is where the eureka moments will happen. By using a distributed system, the collisions underneath a French village can branch out all over the planet to be pored over by 10,000 brains. It is through this structure, just as much as through the magnets or the silicon, that the impossible will be made real.

The most powerful and complex science experiment in the history of the universe is finally—after 14 years and $10 billion—about to begin. There’s no telling what it may find, and that’s entirely the point

Model Student: Inside the office of John Ellis, theoretical physicist at CERN. "SUSY" is short for supersymmetry: Photo by Michael Moyer

Know It All

The history of science is one of hubris. We think we have the natural world pretty much figured out, we think that our theories are pretty darn solid—and then someone does an innocent little experiment, and much to everyone's surprise, reveals the unfathomable. Never have scientists so self-consciously courted the unknown as they are doing with the LHC. No one thinks the Standard Model will end up being the whole story of the universe, despite its innumerable successes in explaining the world. Physicists know there is more out there, just beyond our reach. "I think of things for the experiments to look for," says John Ellis, "and hope they find something different."

"I think we all want to know where we came from and how we fit into the world," says George Smoot, a cosmologist at the University of California at Berkeley and winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics, "but some of us need to know how it all works in great detail." The 14 years, $10 billion and 10,000 people it took to build the LHC may be taken as simple measures of human curiosity, of how much we're willing to give to explore where we came from and how we fit into the world. You might wonder why it matters whether supersymmetry is true or not, why it's important that we find the dark matter. But understanding the universe is power. "Knowing the laws of physics, you know what can be done and what can't be done," says Nobel laureate Gerardus 't Hooft. "Knowing the laws of physics lets you see the future."


It’s Christmas for Physicists!

After years of construction and months of hype, the world’s largest particle accelerator goes online today

Measuring the God Particle: The electromagnetic and hadron calorimeters [left] make up the center of the 49-foot-high, 69-foot-long Compact Muon Solenoid, an instrument designed to probe the nature of mass itself by finding the elusive Higgs boson particle. Scientists believe the Higgs boson causes mass to exist, and have nicknamed it “the God particle.” These calorimeters measure the energy of particles that fly off after a collision. Photo by Enrico Sachetti
If you somehow managed to avoid seeing the comic, listening to the rap or reading anything in the all out media blitz, then let me be the first to tell you that earlier today the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s most power particle accelerator, began operation. Scientists hope that the experiments conducted in the $9 billion dollar accelerator will help them discover the mysterious Higgs boson. The Higgs boson, colloquially referred to as the “God particle,” is the hypothetical particle that imbues matter with mass, and finding it (or not finding it) will have profound implications on the world of physics.

Luckily, for those just becoming aware of this momentous event and those wanting to brush up on their LHC knowledge before tackling a cocktail party tonight, Popular Science has you covered. First, start by taking a virtual tour of the accelerator, courtesy of Peter McCready. Then let Paul Adams explain why despite the fears, the LHC will not destroy the world (as if your reading this doesn’t already confirm that. Afterwards, let Danny Freedman describe what might happen if you were inside the LHC, getting hit with 320 trillion photons moving at almost the speed of light. Get a sense of the energies involved with the collisions with yours truly. Track your investment in the discovery of the Higgs boson over at PPX. And finally, a Greg Mone classic gets the skinny on the International Linear Collider, the planned U.S. answer to the European LHC.

No doubt it will take physicists months if not years to analyze the data produced by the LHC. Regardless, continue to check back at PopSci.com for all breaking LHC news. Happy accelerator day!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Galing mo naman, Anak! Awesome research!