Large Hadron Collider: more whimper than bang so far

10 Sep 2008

Well, we’re still here going about our business. No big black hole swallowing up our world, just millions of people glued to web cams and thousands of scientists clicking mice and pens.

Despite the prophets of doom and their ‘end is nigh’ warblings, scientists at CERN so far have proven themselves correct in their view that particles clash against one another all the time in the Earth’s upper atmosphere without creating world-sucking black holes.

This morning at around 8.30am scientists at the prestigious CERN labs near Geneva began the tests after overnight electrical hitches threatened the project.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a giant machine that traverses a 27-kilometre tunnel between France and Switzerland around which particles will zoom at almost the speed of light before colliding, recreating the events after the Big Bang that produced our universe and life as we know it.

From 300 feet underground, the massive LHC will slam together particles to find the elusive Higgs Boson, or ‘God Particle’

The US$8.3bn project attracted condemnations from quacks around the world who predicted a black hole would be created that could eventually suck in the Earth and end the planet.

This morning scientists are starting small, with low-energy particles and as they get to know the LHC better they will ramp up the amounts of energy.

The LHC – regarded as the largest scientific device ever created – uses more than 9,000 magnets to accelerate the two beams of protons to the speed of light before allowing them to shatter and reveal the mysteries of the universe.

Enormous interest around the world in how the experiment is progressing has meant that access to eight specially positioned webcams at have been fairly inaccessible this morning.

It is believed that the collision will stoke up energies up to 100,000 times hotter than the sun.

The light beams will set off in opposite directions at light speed and super cooling magnets – replicating the cold of deep space – will direct the beams onto a collision course.

These experiments are envisaged to continue for years to come and will be constantly accessed by scientists all over the world – including scientists using the super computer based at Trinity College Dublin.

CERN has the backing of 20 European member states and is currently the workplace of approximately 2,600 full-time employees, as well as some 7,931 scientists and engineers representing 500 universities and 80 nationalities.

The main site at Mevrin also has a large computer centre containing very powerful data processing facilities primarily for experimental data analysis, and because of the need to make them available to researchers elsewhere, has historically been – and continues to be – a major wide area networking hub.

Around 300 data centres in 50 countries have been networked together into a kind of grid to begin processing the data as soon as the LHC gets to work.

It is believed the biggest concentration is the 80,000 PCs in a server farm at CERN.

It is understood that the LHC already generated 15 billion gigabytes of data each year.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years