World's Biggest Particle Collider Set For Restart CERN plans to restart its Large Hadron Collider in November. The 17-mile-long LHC is designed to smash together particles traveling near the speed of light. But a massive electrical short shut down the giant machine last fall, putting the field of high energy physics on hold.
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World's Biggest Particle Collider Set For Restart

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World's Biggest Particle Collider Set For Restart

World's Biggest Particle Collider Set For Restart

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeline Brand in California.


I'm Melissa Block in Washington. And, Madeline?

BRAND: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: How many physicists do you think it takes to fix the world's biggest particle collider?

BRAND: Melissa, is this one of your physicist jokes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I think it might be. And I actually have no idea what the punch line would be. But I can tell you this: the giant machine broke down last fall and high-energy physics went on hold. Now, Europe's high energy physics lab CERN has announced plans to restart the collider. And NPR's Geff Brumfiel is going to tell us all about it.

GEOFFREY BRUMFIEL: If you want to see something really new in high-energy physics, you've got to go big and that's where the Large Hadron Collider comes in. The LHC is nearly 17 miles around. It accelerates ordinary particles to near the speed of light and smashes them together. Researchers hope that studying the subatomic shrapnel from those collisions will bring them closer to a theory of everything, and might also reveal other things like dark matter. That's the strange stuff that glues galaxies together. The LHC is vastly complicated, which is why it's so amazing that last September, scientists got particles whizzing around the ring on the very first try.

Unidentified Man: Okay (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: Three, Two, One, go.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BRUMFIEL: It all went so smoothly that researchers were expecting the particles to start colliding right away. Joe Lykken is a theoretical physicist at Fermilab near Chicago.

Dr. JOE LYKKEN (Theoretical Physicist, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory): We were actually betting on when the first collisions would happen. We had a pool going on whether it would be tomorrow or next week or two weeks from now.

BRUMFIEL: Nine days later, all bets were off. A faulty connection caused a massive electrical short. Repairing the mess has taken most of the year. Now to understand what this means for high-energy physics, you have to understand that the LHC is pretty much the only game in town. Fermilab also has a working collider, but it's only a fraction as powerful. That makes it a lot harder to find the really cool stuff everyone wants to study, like dark matter.

Dr. LYKKEN: It's very disconcerting for all of us in terms of planning our lives. We want to be there when the exciting things are happening. But we can't afford to just hang around in Geneva forever and wait for years and years for these things to come up and run.

BRUMFIEL: Top researchers can go work on something else for a while, but junior scientists need the LHC.

Dr. LYKKEN: The people that are really hurts are the young people, especially the graduate students who were hoping to have LHC data to analyze in order to finish their Ph.D. theses and become famous and get jobs.

Ms. SARAH LOCKWITZ (Graduate Student, Yale University): Don't let me see anything that destroys my career.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRUMFIEL: That's Sarah Lockwitz. She and her husband are both graduate students at Yale. They moved near Geneva to be closer to the collider. They needed its data to finish their Ph.Ds. But the delays have made that impossible. So, this summer, they made a big decision. They left Switzerland for Illinois, to get data from the smaller collider at Fermilab.

Ms. LOCKWITZ: On the Geneva side, we had to sell everything for, you know, pennies on the dollar, a pennies on the euro or whatever you want to say, to try and get out of there in a couple of weeks and we just came over with two suitcases and landed and realized like the car we left behind didn't work. So we used Cash-for-Clunkers and got a new car and drove over to Chicago.

BRUMFIEL: They're not alone. An increasing number of American graduate students are moving back to Fermilab. Others are just having to wait. It's not ideal, says Joe Lykken.

Dr. LYKKEN: We shrug our shoulders, what else can we do? You don't just switch on a machine like the LHC and have it run smoothly on day one. It's just not the way these things work.

BRUMFIEL: When the LHC switches on again in November, it'll be at energies too low to see very much. But for the waiting physicists, low energies are better than no energies.

Geff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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