Jon de Vos: Where she stops, nobody knows
April 16, 2009
Every B movie ever filmed in a jungle has the same scene: A beautiful, wasp-waisted blonde and a lantern-jawed hero are up against a wall, held there by a frenzied tribe of garishly-painted natives. These natives are enraged, shaking knives and spears, waving torches and clubs, brandishing snakes and … wait a minute, how many hands do these guys have?
Anyway, the Hero calmly pulls out a cigarette lighter and, with a practiced flick of his Zippo, produces a flame. Apparently, the natives have never seen a flame before except under tied-up white people, and terrified, they all shriek and dive into the underbrush.
Well, that’s me! No, no, not the guy with the lighter. I’m one of the guys who dove into the bushes.
That’s what looking at pictures of the Large Hadron Partical Collider makes me feel like. I stare at it like a Stanley Kubrick character, vaguely uncomfortable with an urge to vigorously scratch my armpits while hopping on one foot. The LHPC is the world’s largest machine, a 17-mile circle of 9,300 magnets buried a football field’s depth below ground outside of Geneva, Switzerland. It blew a fuse on its initial run, but when it starts up again in September 2009, it will begin looking for extra dimensions currently hidden from us.
The collider drives a stream of sub-atomic particles called, “hadrons” to 99.99 percent of the speed of light, then directs them into a collision course with other particles, resulting in explosions that briefly produce temperatures a 100,000 times hotter than the sun. Scientists are trying to find, not only big grants, but also the “God Particle”, that tiny bit of matter that will unify the concept of magnetism, gravity and lost car keys. Ironic that it takes the largest machine in the world to study the smallest particle in the universe. The particle flow takes place in temperatures approaching absolute zero. One-eighth of the LHPC would still qualify as the largest refrigerated place on the planet.
Obviously, we have to take scientist’s word for all this because there’s not a doggone thing we’re able to see. We must assume they don’t just push a big red button, cover their ears and flinch in unison before swapping high-fives and calling it a day. Next morning, they fire up the ol’ supercomputer to see if any more funding has come in. As many times as they conducted this experiment, incredibly, they kept coming to the same conclusion, they needed a bigger collider.
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The first collider was built in 1929 in Berkeley, by the University of California. It was called a “cyclotron” and generically referred to as an “atom-smasher.” Lest you think it was time wasted, the invention of the television came directly from this technology.
Fermilab is a 3.9-mile circumference particle accelerator built by the University of Chicago in 1967 and the 17-mile circumference LHPC, we’ve discussed, but the granddaddy of them all would have been the The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), planned for Waxahachie, Texas, designed at a whopping 54 miles around. The SSC was cancelled in 1993 for cost overruns and dubious management. The economic collapse of the Soviet Union ended a lot of scientific competition with them. Congress pulled the plug after excavating 2.2 billion dollars of good Texas soil.
The ultimate prize they’re digging for is cheap power in a post-petroleum world as they grow closer to understanding the relationship between mass and energy, closer to the day when, “fill ‘er up” means adding a teaspoon of water.