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LHC is cool

Particles accelerator gets media exposure, but incident stops work until 2009

CRISTINA JIMENEZKatherine McAlpine, who wrote the rap song about the LHC: great hits on the InternetCRISTINA JIMENEZ

September 2008 may become part of history as the month on which particles physics, a fascinating though complex theme, was in the headlines in a manner that had rarely been seen before. Of course the main headlines were the ones screaming about the US’s economic crisis, which has threatened to provoke a global recession of unpredictable proportions. The runner-up was the scheduled start-up of the Large Hadron Collider/LHC, the world’s biggest particles accelerator, assembled by the European Nuclear Research Center/Cern located 100 meters underground in the vicinity of Geneva, on the border between Switzerland and France.

On September 10, when the first beam of protons crossed the LHC’s 27-kilometer round tunnel, a TV audience estimated at 1 billion people, one/sixth of our planet’s population, watched news reports on the start-up of the biggest and most complex scientific structure ever built by man. One more proof that the LHC was the hit of the moment appeared on the Internet: on that day, the opening page of Google, a compulsory stop for people who use computers on a daily basis, had a drawing of the mega accelerator. All this publicity surrounding the LHC also resulted in some news that upset the scientific community. An absurd hypothesis was aired by some means of communication, stating that the operation of the equipment could create a black hole able to swallow the Earth. This absurdity annoyed physicists at first, and then became the butt of many jokes.

But on September 19, a significant downturn put the LHC back in the news:  a helium gas leak had occurred in the tunnel’s 3-4 sector, probably unleashed by an electric power failure which had led to the melting down of two electromagnets, interrupted the work and closed down the mega structure built on the outskirts of Geneva. Repair work is expected to last for months and the equipment is scheduled to go back into operation in the first half of 2009, after the end of the winter season in the Northern Hemisphere. “Because this incident happened immediately after the hugely successful start-up of the LHC, there is no doubt that it was an enormous psychological blow,” said Cdrn’s general director Robert Aymar in a press statement. “However, I have no doubt that we will overcome this obstacle with the same level of exactness and seriousness as when we were building and running the complex that houses the accelerator.”

Answers to the Big Bang
Building the LHC took nearly two decades, including planning, building and delays, at a cost of roughly US$ 10 billion. The equipment, with which researchers hope to provoke and observe the eagerly awaited proton collisions, will be used to investigate the Universe fractions of second after the occurrence of the Big Bang that allegedly created the Universe and the mysterious Higgs bosons, hypothetical elementary particles of material thought to be responsible for providing mass to the other particles; the existence of the Hoggs bosons, however, has never been proved. In other words, the equipment is expected to provide answers to the big and the small in physics. Nearly 10 thousand researchers, roughly 70 of whom are Brazilians, are expected to produce some kind of scientific work at the LHC in the coming years.

ReproductionGoogle page on the acceleratorReproduction

The electromagnets are crucial parts in the LHC’s structure. When cooled at absurdly low temperatures, they take on super conducting properties and act as guides for the protons during their trips through the enormous underground tunnel. With the help of helium gas, they are cooled down to a temperature of -271,3° C to work in Cern’s mega accelerator. To repair the two defective electromagnets that melted last month, scientists will have to heat the site where these electromagnets are installed, make the changes and the repairs and then cool the entire environment all over again. This entire process is expected to last for two months and be concluded close to December, just before the beginning of winter. As the Cern closes down during winter for periodic maintenance, the LHC is scheduled to go back into operation in 2009, when spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere.

This setback is not expected to shake the confidence of the scientific community in the LHC nor the accelerator’s popularity among ordinary people. “The specific cause of the helium gas leak is not typical, but problems are expected to occur during the start-up of such a highly complex machine,” says Brazilian physicist Roberto Salmeron, who has been living in Paris for more than 30 years and who was a member of the first team of researchers hired by Cern in the fifties. In the opinion of this veteran researcher, the delay in the start-up of the LHC owing to the incident is not really a delay in the work schedule of the particles accelerator. “It doesn’t make any sense to talk about delays; everything ran on schedule,” says Salmeron. The greatness and the pioneering aspect of the LHC’s scientific mission, the excellence of European research in the field of matter structure, the prestige of the scientific accomplishments achieved by Cern – all of these reasons placed the mega accelerator in the spotlight and it became the target of exceptional media exposure, which is totally justified in the opinion of the Brazilian physicist. “In the past, when most people had never heard about the CERN, the Cern achieved results that truly revolutionized physics, but nobody heard about these achievements,” says Salmeron. “This was a serious failure of the scientists, who should have maintained contact with the public and failed to do so.”

This time, however, European physicists were able to count on some unusual support to publicize their work. The video of a five-minute rap song about the mega accelerator, produced and sung by 23-year old US journalist Katherine McAlpine, became a hit on the Internet. The Large Hadron rap was accessed nearly 3.5 million times on You Tube, the most popular video host site on the world wide web, and became the main topic of news articles printed in the international press. The success of the amateur yet well-made music video, transformed Alpinekat, the artistic name of the rapper created by the young journalist, into a celebrity of the digital world. “I though that with all the media hoopla on the LHC, the video would be watched by roughly 10 thousand people,” Katherine told Pesquisa FAPESP. Katherine graduated in physics and journalism from Michigan State University last year. “But after a few days, hits on YouTube took off.” Her initial forecast had been based on the popularity of the first rap song she composed on scientific issues. Her video about a neurochip developed by Israeli researchers had been initially viewed by 600 people.

In general, the rap song on the LHC provoked positive reactions among the researchers, according to Katherine. “Most of the scientists at Cern viewed the rap song as a new form – albeit a rather silly one – to draw attention to the accelerator,” the journalist said. “A few scientists who take particles physics too seriously reprehended me.  They feel that I had been silly and hindered their field of work.” It is important to keep in mind that the world wide web – the famous www, the face of the Internet used by most of people, and hosts the Large Hadron Rap – was invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist who was working at Cern at that time. When the LHC finally becomes fully operational next year, it is very likely that the physicists from Cern will produce much more than good science on the origin of the Universe. They might just come up with an invention that will be as revolutionary as the world wide web was.