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The Large Hadron Collider in pictures: using big technology to investigate tiny things

Proton beams, cryogenics, superconductors, and massive underground labs — welcome to CERN!

"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.


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