Big Bang

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to visit CERN for a tour around the Large Hadron Collider and its associated experiments. And I do mean lucky. I doubt I’ll see anything more mind-blowing.

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to visit CERN for a tour around the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and its associated experiments. And I do mean lucky. I doubt I’ll see anything more mind-blowing. Nobody with the slightest interest in science or technology could possibly fail to be impressed by the vast scale, complexity and ingenuity on display. Regular readers may remember that on my return, I wrote a feature attempting to describe the engineering involved in the LHC, and to give a flavour of the atmosphere at CERN.

You’d have to have your head in the sand to have missed the fact that the LHC’s big switch-on was today. If our newsletter schedule goes to plan, you should be reading this just as the first bunches of protons make their orbit around the LHC’s 27km circumference. As the main role of the experiment is to ask questions, it’s only fitting that questions be asked about the LHC. We can safely ignore the ones about whether it will end the world. It won’t.

There were certainly questions asked following my feature. We received several letters asking what possible use clashing particles together could serve, and whether the vast sums of money and the stores of scientific expertise could be better used elsewhere. Certainly, the former chief scientific advisor to the UK government, Sir David King, thinks so: he said this week that there should be less blue skies research, but rather more concentration on ameliorating climate change and improving food production.

Which is a remarkably unimaginative attitude, to my way of thinking. What possible use could quantum mechanics and particle physics be? What have they given us so far? Nothing much. Quantum mechanics gave us electronics and microprocessors and lasers, not to mention nuclear power, for better or worse. High-energy physics has given us every single medical imaging technique. Think it’s useless? Try telling someone whose life has been saved by magnetic resonance imaging or positron emission tomography.

And that’s completely leaving aside what might be CERN’s greatest contribution to society, the World Wide Web, developed there and given away free, and without which none of you would be reading this.

The LHC is looking into the unknown, and it’s impossible to predict what might come out of it in terms of its physics. But we do know that the experience gained from developing and, from today, operating its huge superconducting magnets will be carried directly into the experimental fusion reactor ITER, soon to take shape not far away from CERN, and which might give the world a new source of low-carbon energy. And the huge network of computing power, the Grid, which will handle LHC’s results, will open up new methods for analysing and manipulating hugely complex amounts of data.

But to be honest, speaking as a CERN visitor, it isn’t the technology that’s the most impressive thing. It isn’t the superlatives. It isn’t the potential. It’s the fact that this project has brought together thousands of scientists from more than a hundred countries, all collaborating towards a single goal. Some of them don’t share a common language and they’ve still found ways to communicate. It’s exhilarating and humbling to be among those people. It makes you think that anything is possible.

Some would say that the urge to explore is one of the defining characteristics of humanity. Others, perhaps more realistic, would say that there always has to be a pay-off in sight for the kind of investment that the LHC represents. But I’d take the idealistic, optimistic view any day. The spirit of that slice of France and Switzerland represents our ability to apply ourselves to any problem, and engineer, scientist and layman alike should watch with wonder, interest and hope.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor