When launched to great fanfare nearly a year ago, some feared the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) would create a black hole that would suck in the world. It turns out the Hadron may be the black hole.
The world’s largest scientific machine has cost US$10 billion, has worked only nine days and has yet to smash an atom. The unique equipment in a 27km circular tunnel with cathedral-sized detectors deep beneath the Swiss-French border has been assembled by specialists in many countries, with 8,970 physicists eagerly awaiting the startup.
But despite the expense, thousands of physicists around the world, many of whom hope to conduct experiments here, insist that it will work and that it is crucial to mankind’s understanding of the universe.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) said on Friday it would restart the collider in November at half power under pressure from scientists eager to conduct experiments to unlock secrets of the universe.
CERN spokesman James Gillies, however, said they would have to shut down yet again next year to finish repairs so that the Large Hadron Collider can operate at full energy of 7 trillion electron volts — seven times higher than any other machine in the world.
CERN has been working since late last year to repair the damage caused by a faulty electrical joint. The breakdown occurred nine days after the spectacular start up of the US$10 billion machine on Sept. 10 last year when beams of subatomic particles were sent around the accelerator in opposite directions.
Fifty-three massive electrical magnets had to be cleaned and repaired after the failure. Tons of supercold liquid helium spilled out of the system, and a sooty residue had to be cleared from the tubes that are meant to be pristine, holding a vacuum in which subatomic particles can whiz around the tunnel at near the speed of light at temperatures colder than outer space.
Michio Kaku, a physics professor at City University of New York who is an outspoken critic of waste in big science projects, defends the CERN collider as a crucial investment.
“The Europeans and the Americans are not throwing US$10 billion down this gigantic tube for nothing,” Kaku said. “We’re exploring the very forefront of physics and cosmology with the Large Hadron Collider because we want to have a window on creation, we want to recreate a tiny piece of Genesis to unlock some of the greatest secrets of the universe.”
He said the biggest cause of the “bad accident” last year was “probably due to human error caused by rushing the project.”
“But I view it as a temporary black eye. We’ll get it up and running,” Kaku said.
CERN expects repairs and additional safety systems to cost about 40 million Swiss francs (US$37 million) over the course of several years, covered by the 20-nation organization’s budget.
The collider emerged as the world’s largest after the US canceled the Superconducting Super Collider being built in Texas in 1993. The US Congress pulled the plug after costs soared, and questions were raised about the value of the science it could produce.
Gillies says all 20 of CERN’s member nations have remained supportive and that four other countries — Cyprus, Israel, Serbia and Turkey — have asked to join. A fifth country — Slovenia — has expressed interest.
Japan, India, Russia and the US are observer countries that have made sizable contributions to the CERN project.