The Collider That Doesn’t

August 4th, 2009

From a report in The New York Times, Giant Particle Collider Fizzles:

The biggest, most expensive physics machine in the world is riddled with thousands of bad electrical connections.

Many of the magnets meant to whiz high-energy subatomic particles around a 17-mile underground racetrack have mysteriously lost their ability to operate at high energies.

Some physicists are deserting the European project, at least temporarily, to work at a smaller, rival machine across the ocean [in the U.S.].

After 15 years and $9 billion, and a showy “switch-on” ceremony last September, the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle accelerator outside Geneva, has to yet collide any particles at all.

About seven months ago, I wrote Does Dark Matter Matter?, which took a puzzled look at the mystifying world of physics and physicists.  Here’s part of it:

I was in a small group that received a detailed briefing and tour at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.  It’s based near Geneva and is famous for having dug a humongous 17-mile tunnel in a perfect circle through parts of Switzerland and France (proving that France really isn’t useless).  This was about 20 years ago, and the tunnel, known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), was years away from being finished.  I went into one part of the LHC under construction, a huge space surrounded by magnets, cables, and lots of gadgets and widgets.

Before the trip underground, CERN gave us a briefing that lasted a couple of hours.  That’s where I learned that there are things smaller than protons, neutrons, and electrons.  These little suckers are called quarks.  The six they talked about come in flavors and have names:  up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.  I’m serious.  For all I know, they’ve found some more quarks since then, maybe Fred and Ethel.  These quarks never exist alone; in various combinations they form hadrons, like protons and neutrons.  As I understood it, they are going to fire hadrons (protons and such) around the LHC at nearly the speed of light, using magnets and in a temperature of about -271 Celcius.  The idea is to make the hadrons collide and break apart, freeing the quarks.  I guess that’s good, at least from a quark’s point of view, and it’s supposed to tell us something about The Big Bang.  Watch the video of how it’s supposed to work.

But there was a physicist named Werner Heisenberg who long ago threw a monkey wrench into the works with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  It says that you can’t measure stuff like this because the more precisely you measure one variable, the less precise the measurement of a related variable.  Something like that.  In other words, you can’t measure what these things are doing because measuring makes them unmeasurable.  Einstein strongly disagreed.  I’ll go with Einstein.

Anyway, CERN finally fired up the Large Hadron Collider a few months ago.  That was a bit controversial, causing folks who wear hats made of tin foil and bent coat hangers to theorize that the LHC was going to start a chain reaction of some kind or create black holes and destroy the world.  Didn’t happen.  In fact, not much of anything happened.  The damn thing broke.  The explanation was that the LHC got a hitch in its getalong, but that’s too technical to explain here.  They’re promising to fire it up again next year.

Well, here we are all these months later, and the collider still doesn’t collide anything.  The connections aren’t soldered right; the magnets won’t quench and become non-conducting; and instead of shooting particles around at 7 trillion electron volts, they may be able to eventually get it up to 6.5 trillion electron volts.  As of now, the best will be 4.5 trillion electron volts.  That means they may never find the Higgs boson or identify dark matter. 

Like I understand any of this — except maybe the shoddy soldering.  How fast is a trillion electron volts in kilometers per hour?  For that matter, what’s a kilometer?

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4 Responses to “The Collider That Doesn’t”

  1. Brian |

    As I understand Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the exact location of subatomic particles (electrons) in 3-dimensional space cannot be known. We can say with absolute certainty where, within a given region around the nucleus of an atom, electrons are, but simply that we cannot pinpoint their exact location.

    The old atomic model we learned in grade school has been thrown out. Today (well, it was actually theorized a little over 100 years ago by a Danish physicist named Neils Bohr), our understanding of the atom is that there is a nucleus, composed of protons and neutrons. Outside of the nucleus, there are subsequent layers of electron clouds (called orbitals) where certain groups of electrons are likely to be located.

    Believe it or not, even atomic particles like protons, electrons, and neutrons have mass, though of the 3, electrons have the least. Electrons have so little mass, in fact, that any experiment meant to measure them will alter something about them. Part of experimentation theory is that the experimentor not be a part of the experiment because he cannot measure himself (or more accurately, his effects on the experiment) in a meaningful way. Heisenberg states in part that there isn’t a good way to measure the properties of electrons (except through inference) because any experiment we perform on them is going to alter them in some way, thus defeating the purpose of the experiment to begin with.

  2. Tom |

    I bet this guy Heisenberg had a hard time getting a date….

    But seriously, folks, I’ve read some Hawking and Sagan and some other stuff, and these are some weird people. Their minds are off in some realm where normal folks can’t follow — and probably shouldn’t want to. The more you learn about what they’re thinking, the scarier it is to look up at the sky at night.

    I had the opportunity to talk to Sagan once for a while, along with four or five other people, and he was friendly and even mostly understandable, but I got the impression that his brain was creeping along in first gear to keep from leaving us in the dust.

  3. Brian |

    I meant to add something relative to the mass of electrons in relation to protons and neutrons. We all understand that an atom has very little mass, but that mass is still measurable.

    Hydrogen atoms are composed of 1 proton and 1 electron, with no neutrons. A proton has a mass that is about 1800 times greater than an electron. An analogous comparison might be a newborn human baby next to a mature African elephant. Neutrons have a mass similar to protons.

    Even light waves have an effect on electrons. Light waves can actually deflect electrons. So how do we directly measure electrons? We cannot. As I indicated earlier, what we know if them is known by indirect inference. If you have an answer, please contact the physics department of the nearest university. They’d love to know. ;^)

  4. doris |

    Hey, but I bet neither of you knew that a collider was proposed for Dayton a few years back. We lost it and all were sad, due to loss of possible jobs. Don’t understand it, don’t have to, for my busy schedule of cook, clean, live, care for horses, cats, dogs or even garden, who knew. Wasn’t listening in science anyway, so it’s ok if they changed the rules. Teeny stuff.

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