"You're pushing the Higgs too much."
Such has been Peter Higgs' admonishment to the CERN communications department in recent times. The British theoretical physicist, who has contributed both his work and name to the prediction of an elementary particle called the Higgs boson, is unhappy to have the Large Hadron Collider so closely associated with the search for it. Having now established that particle's existence to a high degree of certainty — there's only a one in 10 million chance that CERN’s observations are not the result of the Higgs boson — the LHC is running the risk of being perceived as an expensive one-trick pony that's already completed its objective.
To allow that misconception to fester would be doing a massive disservice to the breadth and variety of research going on in and around the labs straddling the Franco-Swiss border. Among its many achievements, the European Organization for Nuclear Research can count the development of the World Wide Web — which Tim Berners-Lee and a group of students cobbled together in a corridor due to the lack of available room for their project.
As James Gillies, head of CERN’s Communications Group explains, “we do basic, curiosity-driven research” into the fundamentals of science and the universe. The 27-kilometer Large Hadron Collider — a subterranean circuit of vacuum-sealed steel pipes, surrounded by a network of eight superconducting magnetic arrays, four giant detector stations, and a plethora of cooling and data-collection machinery — is affectionately known as “the fastest racetrack on the planet.” To back that claim, Gillies notes that the cryogenically-cooled magnets can accelerate beams of hydrogen protons to the ludicrous speed of 11,000 laps per second (or 99.999 percent the speed of light). Smashing together two of these beams travelling in opposite directions generates an enormous release of energy, which is in turn measured by CERN's researchers as they probe the boundaries of our knowledge about the universe. The Higgs boson, as professor Higgs underlines, is just one small part of that quest for insight.
Since February of this year, the LHC has laid dormant, undergoing upgrades and tweaks in preparation for coming back online in the spring of 2015 for a (hopefully uninterrupted) three-year run of gathering more data. There remain plenty of unknowns for the researchers to investigate, such as the theorized existence of dark energy and dark matter, so the Collider’s future looks to be at least as busy and productive as its past. In order to spread this message and to give the public a better understanding of what the LHC does, CERN is using the present period of downtime to tour journalists around the particle accelerator’s cavernous detector stations and underground pipe network. It’s a fascinating look at how big industrial machinery is helping to answer questions about infinitesimally small things.
- CERN's administrative and operational facilities can be found nestled right next to the Jura mountain range on the Franco-Swiss border. Most CERN employees cross that border multiple times a day, underlining the internationalism of the research labs. Getting there is as easy as catching the number 18 tram from Geneva, which terminates right in front of the reception area.
- Once you're off the tram, the first thing to greet you is this oversized dome, dubbed the Globe of Science and Innovation. It plays host to a variety of exhibitions designed to inform and educate visitors about the research being conducted at CERN. Though its brownish appearance may suggest it's taken on a sheen of rust, the Globe's exterior is actually made out of timber.
- Stepping inside Building 33, which houses CERN's reception and visitor center, you'll find yourself striding across the kaleidoscopic "Cosmic Song" floor installation. Designed by French sculptor Serge Moro in 1986, it varies its colors and intensity in response to cosmic ray particles hitting the Earth.
- The endearingly-titled detector graveyard is an open area in among CERN's office buildings, where the remnants of former particle detectors have been recycled into pieces of retro-modern art.
- CERN was established in 1954, giving it plenty of time to collect such classic pieces of mid-20th century design.
- "In the offices of this corridor, all the fundamental technologies of the World Wide Web were developed." CERN communications chief James Gillies also adds that due to a shortage of space, some of the work had to be literally done in the hallway itself.
- Upon reaching the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), one of the two general-purpose particle detectors (out of a total of four), you're confronted with a wide range of heavy lifting equipment, which now sits idle. There are no plans to ever lift the CMS out of its present position — any fixes or replacements will have to be done in situ.
- Coolant, compressed air, and various other requisites are pumped down to the CMS via this tangled array of pipes.
- The famous CMS control room, now depopulated due to the Collider's dormancy, isn't too different from a stock trader's office — it's basically a vast information and monitoring facility. The empty champagne bottles in the far corner serve as a reminder of past milestone celebrations and, presumably, an encouragement to achieve new ones.
- The skeletal staff who do remain in the control room are there to monitor the electric, cooling, and gas systems underground. Switzerland's power grid can't produce enough electricity to satiate all of CERN's needs, so the facility switches between French and Swiss sources of energy, while also having its own diesel supply to keep it autonomous in cases of emergency.
- Though most of the equipment is off-the-shelf computing gear, there are a few custom-made detectors and shutdown switches scattered around the facility.
- "You can have any color so long as it's orange," jokes Greg Landsberg of Brown University. CERN's official colors are orange and blue, he notes, and there are indeed blue helmets awaiting any visitors to the ALICE station.
- You're never more than a few steps away from something that can electrocute, irradiate, poison, or simply evaporate you. And every piece of equipment, lethal or otherwise, is present in massive numbers.
- When the Large Hadron Collider is up and running, it's the task of CERN's computing team "to sample and record the debris from up to 600 million proton collisions per second," explains James Gillies. That's why every detector station has its own server farm, replete with a panoply of cables, connectors, switches, and regulators.
- One final teaser before entering to view the CMS itself: a scaled-down model of the multistory detector, breaking down its various functions and mechanisms.
- Safety instructions or a five-step guide to becoming a masked superhero? You decide.
- Security never feels burdensome, but eye scanners and other measures are in place to make sure only authorised personnel can access the detector caverns and LHC tunnel.
- And here it is, the CMS, in all its fragile, naked glory. The pipes through which the proton beams pass are presently disconnected and only about a meter in diameter — everything you see here is designed to capture and understand the fallout of the beams' high-energy collisions.
- Located 100m / 330ft underground, the Compact Muon Solenoid weighs 12,500 tons and stretches to 15m / 50ft in diameter and 25m / 82ft in height.
- The enormous scale of the CMS installation can make you feel rather insignificant.
- The tunnels between detector stations are somewhat less thrilling, though maintaining them in working order is no less critical. Although it remains the world's most expensive project of its kind, the LHC saved a bit of money by reusing the tunnel ring that had already been dug up for the now-defunct Large Electron-Positron Collider.
- For most of the LHC circuit, the beams travel in opposite directions inside two adjacent, but separate pipes. It's only when they approach detector stations that they're brought together and their paths are incrementally steered into a collision. Unused protons are simply smashed against a concrete wall.
- Moving around inside the tunnels is done very much the same way as outside. Only the vehicles in use here are somehow much more adorable.
- Though linear for vast stretches of its 27-kilometer circumference, the LHC's tunnel actually fluctuates in height above sea level. The variance in its depth is dictated by the surrounding soil composition.
- Radioactive canisters, masking tape, and an abundance of tinfoil were a few of the unexplained and disquieting aspects of this tour.
- Whatever you do in life, make sure to leave your mark.
- The ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) detector uses less powerful, room-temperature magnets which can be adequately cooled using only water cooling. Still, its overwhelming scale tends to produce some beautiful arrangements of pipes and gauges.
- ALICE's vital statistics: 26m / 85ft long, 16m / 52ft for both height and width, and a comparatively svelte 10,000 tons in weight.
- It's impossible to look upon the Large Hadron Collider's cable-strewn detectors without being reminded of some sci-fi movie or another.
- The enormous red doors on either side of ALICE close shut when the LHC is up and running. Their size has a practical reason: engineers need to have access to the full detector system when performing repairs or upgrades.
- If you can tear your gaze away from ALICE for a momentary look up, you'll find the familiar supply pipes coming down from ground level.
- The upgrade work being conducted today should keep ALICE and the other three detectors busy for a full three years once they get back into action in 2015.