World's Largest Particle Collider Back In Action The Large Hadron Collider was supposed to start smashing particles last fall and was expected to lead to huge scientific discoveries about the universe. Instead, the collider broke down just days after it first started. Scientists have been repairing it for a year, and now it’s ready to go again.
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World's Largest Particle Collider Back In Action

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World's Largest Particle Collider Back In Action

World's Largest Particle Collider Back In Action

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Tomorrow, the world's largest particle collider will complete its inaugural run. There are lofty hopes for the Large Hadron Collider, that it could reveal mysteries of the universe, but the collider has been marred by serious setbacks.

It rumbled to life in the fall of 2008 and almost immediately broke down. This month, after a year of repairs, the collider finally began smashing together subatomic particles at record energies.

Geoff Brumfiel traveled to CERN, the particle physics lab in Geneva, to check it out.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL: It's the middle of the night, and I'm standing in a room that looks like mission control. There are huge flat-screen monitors lining the walls, and about a dozen people are watching those monitors really carefully. But instead of looking up, this mission control is looking down. About 300 feet below us is a detector the size of a five-story building.

(Soundbite of music)

BRUMFIEL: A phone rings, and Niki Saoulidou picks up.

Ms. NIKI SAOULIDOU (CERN): Okay, you don't want me to wake him up or anything.

BRUMFIEL: Saoulidou is running the night shift here at the detector, which is called the Compact Muon Solenoid. This is one of four experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC.

The LHC is the world's highest energy particle collider. It accelerates protons around a 16-mile underground racetrack and then smashes them together.

The detector's job is to record the subatomic debris from the collision so that researchers can piece together what happens when the protons break apart. At the moment, the LHC is running 24/7, and that means Saoulidou won't be going to bed.

Ms. SAOULIDOU: From four in the morning until eight is my worst four hours. I really drink a lot of coffee, and I start to feel tired, but I don't mind. I enjoy doing this shift because it brings you close to the real thing.

BRUMFIEL: The real thing, in this case, is the chance to find something totally new. For decades, physicists have had the same view of the universe. They call it the Standard Model, and it's just what the name suggests: sturdy, dependable but a little boring.

Scientists want a change, and if their calculations are right, the energy released by the LHC's collision should create something new. That something might be a particle that helps give everything mass or maybe dark matter, which makes up much of the universe but hasn't been directly detected. There's even some who think the LHC will discover extra dimensions of space. The truth is that nobody knows.

John Ellis is a theorist at CERN.

Mr. JOHN ELLIS (Theorist, CERN): It'll be a little bit like watching somebody appear out of the fog. You're walking along through the fog, and then somebody comes out of the fog and you start picking out various aspects, and then eventually, you come face to face with the new physics. It's going to be very exciting.

BRUMFIEL: Last September, scientists were ready to go. But just days after starting, the LHC had a major accident. A single connection, one of tens of thousands inside the collider, burned out during testing. The burnout caused massive damage that has taken over a year to fix.

Again, John Ellis.

Mr. ELLIS: The mood at CERN has been a bit of a roller coaster over the last year, year and a half. There was obviously a tremendous amount of anticipation and excitement ahead of the start-up last September, and then of course, there was a big depression a few days later when there was this electrical fault. Since then, I think probably the appropriate phrase is grim determination to get it right this time.

BRUMFIEL: But getting it right isn't easy. The zipping protons are suspended by thousands of superconducting magnets, which must be kept freezing cold with tons of liquid helium. Everything needs to be timed to within a few trillionths of a second, or the particles won't collide. On top of it all, the LHC was built from scratch, and that makes it quirky.

Mike Lamont helps keep it running.

Mr. MIKE LAMONT (CERN): There are subsystems out there with personalities of their own, usually a product of their creator.

BRUMFIEL: So it's got a lot of personality, in other words.

Mr. LAMONT: Well, personality, I don't know. It's kind of a crankiness, I guess, if you can call that a personality trait.

BRUMFIEL: The machine may be cranky, but since it started working, the researchers here have really cheered up. Today, they've come to CERN's cafeteria to lunch on fresh salad, roast veal and other French delicacies.

Literally, thousands of scientists from all over the world are visiting right now, including Jim Strait. He normally works at Fermilab, America's main high-energy physics laboratory in Illinois.

Mr. JIM STRAIT (Fermilab): CERN really, for this sort of stuff, is by far and away the biggest, most cutting-edge place in the world. Fermilab, where I work, is number two, and at the moment just surveying the cafeteria here, it seems like it's a long way from one to two.

BRUMFIEL: This large-scale research takes people from all over the world to make it happen. Much of their time has been spent in their own laboratories working on a tiny component or a piece of software. Now that the LHC is starting up, they all get to come to CERN together.

Mr. STRAIT: It's this place that is completely mobbed with geeks who are surrounded by other geeks and therefore in geek heaven, doing exactly what they want to do. You know, and the exciting thing is that we're going to learn new things about how the universe works, which is what us geeks like to do.

BRUMFIEL: The mood at CERN is electric, and that's not just because the collider consumes as much electricity as the whole of Geneva.

Mr. ZACH MARSHALL (Graduate Student, Columbia ATLAS): Everybody is so jazzed that the machine's actually working now.

BRUMFIEL: Zach Marshall is a graduate student on a detector called Atlas.

Mr. MARSHALL: But we're just waiting with bated breath because it's been so close so many times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRUMFIEL: If nothing else goes wrong, the LHC will begin colliding in earnest early next year.

For NPR News, I'm Geoff Brumfiel.

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