Saturday, March 08, 2008

CERN -- A Last Chance to Go Underground

(See complete slideshow on the right)

This past week I took advantage of one of the last opportunities to go underground at CERN (formerly the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, then the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and now the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, but still called "CERN.") The impending start up of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is about to close off the tunnel to visitors.

The updated story of CERN and the LHC conveniently appeared just this month in National Geographic. The article is accompanied by a sensational set of photographs. The images in my slide show (look to the right on this page) and in the NGM article give you an idea of the immensity, complexity and beauty of this 10 billion euro colossus set deep underneath the Swiss-French border.

The romance of the LHC story lies in its improbable and quixotic purposes:

First, they (we) hope to cause two streams of protons to collide in such a way as to simulate the conditions which prevailed at beginning of the universe, i.e., at the moment of the Big Bang. The plan is to shoot one stream of protons down one 27 kilometer circular tube and another stream of protons down another, parallel, 27 kilometer circular tube, with the two streams traveling in opposite directions. Then the fun begins. When both streams are traveling almost at the speed of light some lucky physicist gets to throw a switch and cause the two streams to collide. This sounds like a lot of dangerous fun for someone -- an ultimate bumper car event. And the beauty of it is no one knows for sure what is going to happen, except that it is fairly certain that all hell is going to break loose. If any of you live in Geneva, this may be a good time to think about acquiring a rancho in Patagonia. Just think for a moment what happened after the last Big Bang.

Secondly, we hope to find a sub-atomic particle called the "Higgs boson," which may or may not exist and which even if found will not be seen. There is to date not the slightest bit of experimental evidence for the existence of Professor Higgs' hypothetical particle. And, even more fantastic, we know before we start that we will never actually "see" the Higgs boson. Even if we "find" it we may never be sure that we "found" it. The HB unfortunately has a rather short life -- less than a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second! Can that be called a life at all? Needless to say our camera's shutter speed does not do that kind of speed so we have no chance of "seeing" the thing. Therefore we have to infer its existence from the chaotic debris it leaves behind. This is like inferring the existence of a cat from a pile of mouse bones. Do you wonder how this business plan ever got out of the investment committee?

Bizarre and irresponsible though this may sound, in truth it represents one of the greatest intellectual adventures in the history of mankind.

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