February 27, 2012

On Saturday I went to CERN. It was amazing.

The first thing you need to know about CERN is that it’s a misnomer. The N stands for Nuclear which sounded cool in 1954 but they’ve actually worked on sub-nuclear stuff ever since then.

And the second thing that is connected to the first thing is that all the numbers are really, really big or really, really small. Really, really, really. CERN is one of those things I thought I understood but hadn’t actually thought about too hard and when I did think about it I got high on Science. The principle of the whole thing is actually quite simple but achieving it is the most massive extraordinary physics and engineering and computing project we as a species have ever attempted. It is the best thing.

CERN—and specifically the Large Hadron Collider—is an attempt to simultaneously create the hottest place in the Universe and the near-coldest place in the Universe, on Earth, just outside Geneva, and millimetres away from each other. (The former, the conditions of the Big Bang; the latter, the 1.5° Kelvin of deep vacuum space and superconducting magnets cooled with liquid helium. The core beam tubes of the LHC are colder and emptier than most of space.)

You know, maybe aliens know all this, and we’re come-latelies to the whole comprehending-everything thing, but there isn’t really any more you can do in our current Universe than this. It’s the top thing. It is everything. This makes us amazing.

Before going, I was all blasé and geeky, and all “the LHC is great but I really want to see Room 404 and the first web server.” By the end of the tour I had completely forgotten about this, and only checked at the last minute to find that NeXT box in a little cabinet half-hidden in a massive gallery of particle stuff. Because, you know the web is cool and all, but when you’re trying to understand the fundamental building blocks of the universe and constructing the single greatest scientific instrument of ours and perhaps any civilisation, the whole modern internet is a happy side effect, it is a nice to have.

Here’s a thing. They study all sorts of particles at CERN in ways I won’t go into, but one that bears mentioning is neutrinos. Well, they produce the neutrinos as a byproduct of various very small, very fast things at CERN but they study them at Gran Sasso in Italy, in a specially-constructed chamber 1400m below a mountain, because that is how you hide from cosmic rays. And Gran Sasso is 730 km from CERN, but because neutrinos are very, very small and will pass straight through anything, they don’t need to build a pipe or a tunnel they just fire them through the crust of the earth itself.

Here’s another thing. Magnets are a big deal at CERN, because you need them to steer the beams of very, very fast particles around in a big circle. And the French word for magnets is “aimants”, which means “loving”. The LHC is a massive loving machine, and I love the Académie française.

They’ve been building particle accelerators at CERN for 50 years and they’re still using all the existing ones, and what’s more they use them all together. So it starts with a tank of hydrogen and it goes into a little old linear accelerator and then it goes into a slightly larger, slightly newer cyclical accelerator and then a larger, newer one and so on until it is injected into the LHC as very fast clumps of protons and sped up even more until BOOM and you hope just maybe you might see a Higg’s Boson, which even if it exists you might only see a couple a day and even then you might not see it because there are a millions of possible boring interactions at the same time. And maybe it doesn’t exist and that means we’re all wrong and that is brilliant too because then we know we have to figure something else out.

When they designed the LHC they thought they’d have about 15 petabytes of data per year to analyse. In the second year of operation, they generated 50 petabytes. Experiments are good when they are bounded by things like the speed of light and the age of the observable universe.

You can’t go down into the tunnels since the LHC started operating, so we only went to a couple of test facilities and one of the control rooms but it didn’t matter at all. We had an amazing guide who was a physicist who used to work on software and stuff (formerly Fortran, now C++) and who wore a beret and had a brilliant Eastern European accent and must have spent so many depressing hours with gangs of bored schoolkids but when he realised we were genuinely interested just opened up and answered all of the questions, even the stupid ones. (It didn’t hurt that one of us was a guy who built a working fusion reactor in his basement in Brooklyn. Knowing the right questions helps.)

I am slightly ashamed that I didn’t get it before but I get it now and I am humbled and amazed and still sort of dazed.

Thanks to Lift and particularly to Nicholas Nova for organising trip. If you ever get the chance to go, go go go.

Photos at Flickr.

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