February 10, 2015
The biggest device in the world – part two.
Bonjour mes amis!
All righty. You’ve had the soup for starters; now let’s move on to the main course…, rather, into the main course – i.e., inside the proverbial pie served up as main course, and check out the filling – the proverbial steak and kidney, as it were… (but I digest).
Put simpler – let’s find out what goes on within the walls of these plain buildings on the Swiss-French border where nuclear-physicists study the very nature of… nature – at it’s very deepest level.
Only… don’t get your hopes up that I’ll be conveying here in layman’s language every little detail about what goes on inside the accelerators. All I’ll be telling you is what I remember from our four-hour excursion; and taking the inevitable sclerosis into account – that’s not gonna be a great deal of hard facts. I did get my two travel companions A.B. and S.B. to help me out though, so the tales won’t be too thin on the ground…
First, once again, a caveat:
Dearest nuclear physicists! Another favor! Please understand that I’ll be attempting to very briefly explain some complex science here – technologies, processes, experiments… – but I do so as a simple man in the street, who happened to accidentally peep through the crack in the door of the room containing some of the world’s biggest secrets. As such, there may be inaccuracies contained herein. So go easy please! All the same, if you pros do have something to say, please… > the comments section, below.
Everyone, or almost everyone, will have heard of the Large Hadron Collider and CERN.
But if you only hear about them, and don’t get to look at them in the flesh, both can seem quite… abstract, and also rather dumbfounding and perplexing – as in ‘EH?!!’. But when you get it all explained, slowly and methodically – actually inside the CERN buildings – it all, slowly but surely, starts to become a little clearer.
First some history… CERN started life very modestly and humbly in the 1950s. Since then, it has grown and expanded organically, with new bits added as and when they were deemed necessary, forming a veritable quilt patch of accelerators of different sizes and different purposes, i.e., for dispersion and investigation of microelements of all sorts of different types of matter.
At first there were just relatively small accelerators (the first one was built in 1957). Gradually, as new technologies were invented, more effective accelerators were added, while at the same time some of the older ones started to get retired as their technologies became less and less relevant.
The patchwork has today become a very complex and branchy system for the dispersion of atomic particles. At first the particles go into one accelerator, then into another, then into a third, and on and on, until those particles become dispersed at mega-speeds, and then mega-strong magnetic fields are used to send the particles to the necessary target. And voila! You take a proton here or a neutron there, rotate it to violent velocities in accelerators, and off it’s shot to the target! And then they go back and have a look at what happened as a result.
It’s modern-day alchemy!
In the grim Middle Ages alchemists mixed together the oddest of ingredients, boiled them up, and then examined the result. Today’s alchemists do the same – only with other ingredients. They have protons collide with neutrons at almost the speed of light, then also have a look at the result. That parallel got me thinking: man always was curious – and an ignoramus! And remains so to this day – still a curious ignoramus! Of course we’ve learned a heck of a lot since the Middle Ages, but with time we also realize how the outer borders of our knowledge keep expanding – almost infinitesimally! Now that’s curious! And exciting – it means there’s still plenty left for us to discover :).
For now, though, let’s return to the tangible…
Earlier, I thought that the Large Hadron Collider embodied engineering perfection. However, it turns out the Large Hadron Collider is a collection of different technologies from different decades – the latest tagged on to the earlier ones. First there was the synchro-cyclotron. Then they stuck on something more modern for the flow of particles, to enable controlling the direction of magnetic fields. Then they added a balcony and attic, and so on and so on…
Now it all resembles a railroad network: first they build one line and depot, then they add more modern rails with sleepers. Now the map of CERN looks like railway. Branches, spheres (accelerators), and blind alleys (traps).
So what happens inside the Large Hadron Collider?
Here’s what. They take an atom of hydrogen, tear an electron off, while the remaining single proton is dispersed and then walloped at an absurdly high speed (almost the speed of light, if we are to believe Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) against another proton, which at the same speed flies in the opposite direction along a parallel pipe (more about that later). In short, disperse two substances at crazy speeds and bang them against one another.
Just don’t go trying this at home! The process of splitting off protons is far from simple; it demands serious efficiency and considerable electrical energy (you’d blow the fuses not for the whole house, but the whole street or neighborhood if you do try it at home:).
Back to the physics…
In the other railroad depots of CERN they disperse and bang together not only poor protons, but also other materials. Ions of lead and neutrons are also used.
Now for some mathematical processing of the phenomena at CERN. And this is pretty astonishing!
- Going along the collider a proton goes through several accelerators (linear, booster, one more, then a seven-kilometer one). At the big end a bundle of protons moves with a speed of 10,000+ cycles a second.
- The mass of protons in the bundle is tiny, but the speed is such that the energy of the bundle is like the speed of a train. “At these speeds how near we are to the speed of light isn’t important,” we were told. Still, it’s fast. As a result scientists search for the scientific basis for building a new theory of atomic particles, going outside the bounds of understanding of the standard model. What this might mean for humankind is like what the computer could have done for prehistoric man – back then it wouldn’t have been clear (at all), but eventually…
- The concentration of ‘science’ per cubic meter of air here can be felt physically. When we went into first building, my first comment was: “It smells like science here”. To which a local answered: “Yes, science everywhere smells the same.”
Overall, CERN – it’s a real ‘proper’ place for work. Straight away here you feel a certain aura – the working smell of great new ideas and boiling minds. I’d choose it in a parallel life. Super science, top technique, and incredible innovation. A bit like what we have in our anti-virus lab. Well, or in the next life… yes – I’d do nuclear physics instead of computer programming any day :).