Friday, 5 December 2008


Sadly, CERN looks to be out of action until July 2009 now. I'll never forget how exciting it was, that morning in September when they switched it on. Knowing that I'm an astronomy fanatic, my boss kindly switched the radio on in the office so I could hear. I spent the rest of the day trying to explain the concept of black holes to people and why CERN won't produce one, and made a spectacular hash of it because I'm bewildered by this "mini black holes" idea anyway. (I thought you needed enough mass to reach the Chandrasekhar limit - 1.4 times the mass of the Sun - to make a black hole.) A 19-year-old at the office questioned me in detail about the possibility of life on other planets, but I fear she got scared off talking to me altogether after a while!

It saddens me that when I hear people mention CERN, or read a news article about it, I seem to detect a lot of disappointment and condemnation. "It shows the scientists aren't really in control," a columnist remarked in The Independent, to justify a child's fears. How many of CERN's critics have ever been there? I have, and I recommend a look. The size of the thing is mind-blowing. This area alone, down in the depths of ATLAS, is bigger than most buildings. You have to stretch your neck to look around properly. We were like ants on a mountain, on that flimsy little metal balcony. And it goes round in a 27km circuit! I'll take you on a quick tour.

Here we are on the balcony:

It's not possible to see from that that just how huge the place is. The balcony was about halfway up to the ceiling, a ledge on a mountain cliff. Looking down and across from it, if you narrow your eyes you might see people . . .

It was simply not possible to photograph the whole of that clock-face thing. It was interesting to get some neat shots of the back of it, though . . .

. . . of terrifying climbing operations . . .

. . . and up above the ATLAS detector . . .

. . . above which is a terrifyingly long chimney, the diameter of a swimming pool, with a length it made me dizzy to look down.

There was continuous noise and movement in there, forklift trucks needed to cart the equipment about, people running around all over the place, and the everlasting hum of machinery. I wonder if building the pyramids felt like this? It needed quite a lot of fuel to keep it cold, too - judge for yourself by the tiny figure next to these barrels of helium . . .

And that was just Atlas - one component. They had some neat posters showing the circumference of the tunnel under Swiss and French soil (and yes, I was forcibly dragged to stand under the bit of the drawing labelled "Alice" to pose . . .).

The BBC have a delicious animation of that working here.

In any case, given the size of that great monster, I would have expected at least one wire to be out of place somewhere. Or is that just because I can't operate machines to save my life? Strangely, it seemed to be something very straightforward that went wrong - a pressure build-up of helium which led to the failure of some valves, releasing a lot of helium gas. Apparently an official review proposes a warning system to alert scientists to such system failures early on in the future. That sounds half like health and safety stuff, and half like something back from the days of Chernobyl!

Perhaps I'm being unfair. According to The Book of Heroic Failures, the space shuttle Challenger crashed because somebody failed to type a "minus" sign into the computer. (There doesn't seem to be universal agreement about this, though.)

Main moral: never work for a health and safety consultancy. You will find all coverage of accidents exasperating and depressing.

In any case, it seems to me that an awful lot is being asked of CERN. Not only are they expected to find the God particle, they're also expected to be perfect - either that or to blow up the Earth, but I'll leave that story for another post. Before the leak happened, the experiment seemed to be going very well.

So, sadly, we have to wait a bit longer. I'll be waiting, though. In the meantime, if things just don't seem perfect enough, keep your spirits up by reading "But They Did Not Give Up". According to it,
Thomas Edison's teachers said he was "too stupid to learn anything." He was fired from his first two jobs for being "non-productive." As an inventor, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps."

1 comment:

Pat said...

Amazing how huge it is Alice, Thanks for the tour!! And hopefully next year it will be up and running. :)